The Rise and Fall of English Pitch




In trying to work out the mysteries of flute pitch and intonation in the 19th century, it's useful to have an idea how other instruments in the era were tuned.  In this page, we'll look at those historical references that are available and add more as they come to notice.  If you are aware of useful references we haven't included, don't hesitate to let us know.

We'll also try to draw inferences from this raw data.  Now, you'll understand that this is a risky business, so again, if you can see an alternative interpretation, don't keep it to yourself.

The raw data

The historical information comes from these sources so far:

  • "On the History of Musical Pitch", Alexander John Ellis 1880
  • "Tuning", Owen H. Jorgensen, Michigan State UP, 1991
  • "History of Standard Pitch", Grove's Dictionary of Music, etc.
  • "A History of Performing Pitch : The Story of A", Bruce Haynes

Information tends to be about the tuning of keyboard instruments (mostly piano) and pitch of orchestras.  The pitch of tuning forks is a common source.  Only data relating to England has been included.

Even with these few sources there are overlaps and confusions.  Hopefully these will be clarified and the gaps filled with the addition of further sources.

Presentation Approach

Just providing the lists of reference points gives a rather skewed picture, as a lot of data about some points in time unfairly outweighs the small amount of data available from others.  So a graphical approach was chosen to provide a linear timeframe.  But even graphing the pitches against their period produced a rather meaningless jumble of data points, so an attempt to relegate them into series has been made.  This is perhaps the riskiest part of the endeavour, and revision may be required by more data becoming available.  

In any case, the raw data is also provided, enabling you to draw (and hopefully communicate!) your own conclusions. 

Note that where a pitch was noted as being in use for a period of time, I've indicated that by two entries - one at the start and one at the end of the period.

The Series

Inspecting the data suggested these series:

  • Low Pitch References (432Hz and below)
  • Diapason Normal Pitches (circa 435Hz)
  • Medium Pitch References (436-446 Hz)
  • High Pitch References (447Hz and above)
  • Modern Pitch References (circa 440Hz, post 1895)

Graphed against a linear timeframe, this picture emerges:


Low Pitch References

It seems likely that the century started with low pitch only, set around 420-425 Hz.  This rose slowly to around 430Hz mid century and persevered into the 20th century as Philosophical pitch - the notion that it had a particular significance in relation to nature.  

The perceived connection to nature is an amusing one.  A=430Hz is the equivalent of C=256Hz.  256 is 2 raised to the power of 8 - i.e. C 256 is 8 octaves above C1 - an inaudible note whose frequency would be 1 cycle per second.  So?  Because the second is a whole number subdivision of the day (60 x 60 x 24 = 86400), music at that pitch is seen as being in tune with the rotation of the earth.  Handy.

It is important to note that, from the evidence gathered, low pitch wasn't actually replaced by High Pitch, contrary to popular opinion.  It appears to have remained as the domestic standard until presumably taken over by modern pitch.  Interestingly a movement continues to the present to reinstate 430Hz, or more accurately C 256.

High Pitch References

High pitch seems to have been the preserve of the Philharmonic Orchestra movement and subsequently military bands.  Our earliest clear reference seems to be a London Philharmonic concert in 1846.  Despite a number of attempts to rein it in, it continued until 1895, when, according to conductor Sir Henry Wood, a throat specialist Dr George Cathcart financed the series of Promenade concerts on the condition they be conducted at Diapason Normal (435).  It seems a compromise of 439Hz (the predecessor to modern pitch) was actually adopted.

The data point at 433Hz, 1820 has been included in the High Pitch series as a possible departure point for this pitch.  Hopefully, further data might fill in the gaps between 1820 - 1846.  Military bands battled on at 452 until 1927 when an amendment to the Kings Regulations adopted 439Hz.

Medium Pitch References

It seems from the wording of the references that as soon as High Pitch was in place, there was a perceived need for an intermediate pitch.  The existence of this medium pitch is not well known, but is firmly attested by the references.  The most useful information so far is the report of a meeting held by the Society of Arts to see what could be done about reducing high pitch to something more sensible.

Diapason Normal References

This is a perhaps contentious grouping.  Diapason Normal was the reigning pitch in France at the time and thus had no legitimacy in Britain.  Some of the references are specific however, and some simply fit in well with the pitch and have no other apparent allegiances.

Some evidence to suggest that 435 was in use in England is given by a boxed set of three tuning forks by J. & J. GODDARD that recently came up on Ebay.  The pitches of the three forks translate to A435, 439 and 454Hz.  As the High Pitch (454Hz) fork is marked Old Philharmonic, we can assume they are from around the end of the century.  

Modern Pitch

We see the start of where pitch was to end up, at 440Hz. The original intention seems to have been Diapason Normal, but confusion surrounding the temperature at which the measurements were to be made converted 435 into 439.  Spurious-sounding arguments about technical difficulties in creating 439Hz accurately in the laboratory (based on 439 being a prime number) later notched it up to 440 Hz.

Implications for the flute

It would seem that we should expect turn-of-the-century flutes to respond well at around 420-425 Hz.  Flutes around Nicholson's time might aim a little sharper, say 425 to 430.  430, perhaps starting to rise towards 445 should be a good pitch for the flutes of Rudall & Rose.

By the time we come to Pratten (1852), the so called medium pitch 445 should be well entrenched.  This compromise tuning would seem to be attractive to an instrument such as the flute that is not capable of covering both ends of the pitch spectrum successfully.  We might expect to see signs of this pitch in flutes in the immediate post Boehm period.

We might expect to see real High Pitch flutes in the period 1846 - 1895, or subsequently if intended for military use.  By 1895, modern pitch should be the general aim.

To see if these expectations are born out, see the associated article: 19th century flute tuning

The References

The references, taken from the sources mentioned above, appear below, sorted into the series presented in the graph above.

Low Pitch References (432Hz and below)

1715 420 c. 1715 A= 419.9, England. Crude tenor fork, possibly made by John Shore, the inventor of the tuning fork.
1750 424 c. 1750 A= 424.3, London. "Common music shop fork."
1751 423 1751 A=422.5, London. Handel's tuning fork. The box which contains the fork bears the inscription: "This pitchfork was the property of the Immortal Handel and left by him at the Foundling Hospital, when the Messiah was performed in 1751."
1800 423 c. 1800 A= 422.7, London. From an old tuning fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.
1813 424 Original Philharmonic pitch (Ellis)
1826 427 c.1826 A=427.2, London. Old fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.
1826 428 c.1826 A=427.6, London. An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.
1826 428 1826. A=428.4, London. An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.
1835 427 1835 Woolhouse 427
1858 430 1858 De Morgan 402 organs, 430 other
1880 430 1880 Ballington 430 to >442
1893 430 1893 Becket & Co 430  (Philosophical pitch)
1893 430 1893 Peltier  ditto
1893 431 1893 Smith  430.539
1907 431 1907 Spain  430.5  (Philosophical pitch)

Diapason Normal Pitches (circa 435Hz)

1878 436 1878 A= 436, London. Standard pitch of church organs taken from Metzler's tuning fork.
1887 435 1887 Norton  435
1892 435 1892 Fisher  435  (Diapason Normal)
1893 435 1893 Spillane 435
1905 435 1905 Audsley 435
1906 435 1906 Pyle  435  (French Diapason Normal)
1915 435 1915 White  435  (International pitch)

Medium Pitch References (436-446 Hz)

1849 446 1849-54 A=445.9, London. Broadwood piano company's original
1854 446 medium pitch tuning fork belonging to tuner Alexander Finlayson, who died in 1854.
1860 446 1860 A=445.5, London. Copy of Broadwood's medium pitch fork made for the society of the arts.
1860 445 1860 A=448.4, London. Society of the Arts tuning fork.
1876 444 1876 Bosanquet 444
1878 445 1878 A=445.1, London. Society of Arts pitch.
1879 446 1879 A=445.5, London. Her Majesty's opera orchestra during performance from a fork made by Hipkins.
1880 445 1880 A=444.9, London. Her majesty's opera. From a tuning fork of the theatre as measured by Hipkins.
1880 446 1880 A=446.2, London. Tuning fork used by John Broadwood and Co for in house tunings but not for public concerts.
1880 442 1880 Ballington 430 to >442

High Pitch References (447Hz and above)

1813 424 Original Philharmonic pitch (Ellis)
1820 433 c.1820 A=433, London. "Pitch approved by Sir George Smart, conductor of the Philharmonic. "
1846 453 London Philharmonic Performance of Elijah, 453
1852 453 1852-1874 A= 452.5, London. Average pitch of the Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Michael Costa (1846-54). Broadwood's tuner Mr. J. Black tuned to this pitch. Broadwood retained this pitch for concerts until 1874 when it was raised to A=454.7.
1857 456 Covent Garden, according to Ellis
1860 455 Mentioned as current Philharmonic pitch in report of meeting by Society of Arts aimed at reducing pitch to 444 Hz.
1874 453 As for 1852
1874 455 1874 A=454.7, London. Fork representing the highest pitch used in Philharmonic concerts. Used as the highest pitch used by the Broadwood Piano Co.
1876 447 1876 A= 446.7, London. Concert pitch.
1877 450 1877 A=449.9, London. Standard fork used by Collard piano Co.
1877 454 1877 A=454.1, London. From a tuning fork used by Hipkins to tune for the Crystal Palace concerts.
1878 448 1878 A=448.1, London. Tuning fork made by Walker.
1878 450 1878 A=449.9, London. Covent Garden opera orchestra during performance as measured by Hipkins.
1878 452 1878 A=451.9, London. British army regulations. Pitch for wind instruments.
1879 450 1879 A=449.7, London. Pitch of the opera orchestra at Covent Garden during performance.
1879 455 1879 A=454.7, London. Tuning fork used by Steinway & Sons to tune pianos in London.
1879 455 1879 A= 455.3, London. From a tuning fork representing the concert pitch used by the Erard Piano Company.
1909 452 452.4 confirmed for military bands
1927 439 Change to Kings Regs adopts 439Hz

Modern Pitch References (circa 440Hz)

1895 439 Philharmonic Soc adopts DN, but at 439@68F rather than 435@59F
1899 440 Covent Garden Opera (Hipkis)
1899 439 Queens' Hall Orchestra (Hipkis)
1927 439 King's Regulation adopts 439 for military bands
1939 440 Adopted at International conference


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Created: 25 March 2002