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Are Pianos on Different Continents Tuned to Different Pitches?

In modern times, it is standard to tune pianos to A440.
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  • Written By: J. S. Petersen
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2014
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In modern times, it has become the standard to tune pianos to A440. The note A above middle C is tuned so that it vibrates at 440 Hz (440 vibrations per second), and all other notes on the piano are tuned in relation to that note. Because A440 is a measurable standard, all pianos in the world can be tuned to the same pitch.

This was not always the case. In the 1950s, the International Organization for Standardization adopted A440 as the standard frequency for the note A above middle C, on pianos and other musical instruments. With this internationally recognized standard pitch, pianos around the world can be tuned so that the same note played on any pair of correctly tuned pianos will sound the same.

Prior to this accepted standard, pianos and other musical instruments had no single common pitch for tuning. Pitch pipes or tuning forks could often vary in pitch by a considerable amount, so that even an untrained musician could hear the difference between two different pianos playing the same note. Instruments played in the same venue would all tune to the same pitch, often to the piano or organ, but the A note on one piano might vibrate at 445 Hz, while the A on a piano in a different town might vibrate at 425 Hz.

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With the quality of audio recordings, it is a great benefit to audiophiles that pianos are all tuned to the same note. Attempting to play along with a recorded performance would be painful if the piano on the CD were tuned to a different pitch than the piano in your den. Two pianists who play a duet on different pianos can feel certain that their instruments will sound good together, because all their notes will have the correct pitch.

Tuning a piano is a delicate operation, and requires an experienced piano tuner. Whether using an electric tuner or a simple tuning fork, all the pianos she tunes will have the same pitch, with the standard A440 tuning. From that note, a qualified piano tuner will be able to tune all the rest of the keys by ear, and relying on the standard pitch of the first string, all the pianos will sound the same.

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matthewc23
Post 9

@jmc88 - I think as far as the ISO goes as setting the tone, they basically said that the middle A on the keyboard should be 440 Hz. As far as notes go, though, I think they have always been the same. In other words, the note that Mozart called a C was theoretically the same tone that Louis Armstrong heard as a C, it just might have been off by a little bit.

The pianos were still tuned pretty close to the same notes, they just might be off by 5 or 10 Hz like the article mentions. B flat, the note right above A, for example, has a frequency of 466, so even if the A was at 450, it would be closer to an A than B flat. Hopefully that makes sense.

I think one great invention has been the electric pianos and keyboards, since you never have to worry about tuning those!

jmc88
Post 8

@cardsfan27 - Along the lines of your comment, does anyone know how exactly the International Organization for Standardization came up with the piano tuning? Was A440 just the tuning used by most people at the time, or did they just decide that that tone should be the standard?

What I really think is that piano tuning wasn't standardized until the 1950s. There was a ton of music written before that time, that didn't have the convenience of having their pianos tuned exactly the same way.

That being said, how did piano tuners go about picking the tones before that? Did they just try to get close to the middle A being 440 Hz, or did they have some other way to tuning that got the job done?

cardsfan27
Post 7

@kentuckycat - The other thing that would happen in that situation is that you would pretty much be cutting down the number of notes you could play by half. Not to mention, once you got to the extreme ends of the piano, you would have to use different gauges of piano wire, otherwise the normal wires would break.

I guess it is okay, though, since I don't think I've ever heard a piano playing along with a sitar. That would be a pretty interesting combination.

Just like the guitar, I think part of the convenience in playing the piano is its tuning. You have the convenience of knowing that no matter what piano you sit down at (assuming it is in tune), you can hit a key and expect the exact same sound every time.

kentuckycat
Post 6

@anon9004 - Good point about the Middle Eastern piano tunings. I know in a lot of Arab-based music, they will tune their instruments to quarter tones. I am pretty sure sitars and tablas are actually tuned to quarter tones, which are half way between the notes we usually thing of being on a piano.

I have always thought Indian music was fascinating for that reason. I think a lot of people in the West just assume that all music should be in half tones, even though it is possible for us to pick up smaller increments of sound.

I am sure tuning a piano to those tones would be difficult, though, since there probably aren't tuning instruments set to those pitches.

myharley
Post 5

@bagley79 - In my area of the country a piano tuner usually makes around $100 for each tune up.

This might sound like quite a bit of money at first, but there are not very many people who do this.

By the time you take into account the gas money and drive to and from your house, they could have several hours invested.

If a piano is kept tuned on a regular basis it will usually take between 60 - 90 minutes for a good tune up. If it has been sitting for a long time it may take longer or sometimes they have a hard time getting it perfectly tuned.

I have a piano in my home and try to make sure it is tuned at least once a year. I know some people recommend having it done twice a year, but I feel good if I get it done every January.

bagley79
Post 4

How much does it cost to have a piano tuned? When my aunt passed away, I inherited her piano and don't know if it has ever been tuned.

In our school district, they require you to have a year of piano before you can start playing a band instrument.

I need to get the piano tuned before they start learning how to play the piano and wondered how much something like this would cost.

andee
Post 3

I have two sisters, and we all played the piano while growing up. My mom also played the piano, but she had us take piano lessons from someone else.

This is one thing I wish I would have spent more time at. I never looked forward to practicing and would skip over it as much as I could.

One of my sisters, on the other hand, loved playing the piano and became very proficient at it. It just so happens that she married a man who knows how to tune pianos.

I do have an old Baldwin piano in my house and every once in awhile, I like to sit down and play a few familiar tunes. I am pretty rusty, so only do this when nobody is around to hear me.

One big advantage to having a piano tuner in the family is I get a free tune up whenever they stay at my house. My brother-in-law says the more often you play the piano, the longer it will stay in tune.

If it sits around and never gets played, it will fall out of tune very quickly. It is also best to have them in a room that does not get a lot of direct sunlight.

I must not have a very good ear, because I don't think my piano ever sounds that out of tune. My brother-in-law can tell from the very first note if a piano needs to be tuned up.

golf07
Post 2

I had never given a thought to pianos on different continents being tuned to different pitches.

Both my grandpa and uncle were piano tuners. This is something you don't hear of very often. Most of their business came from tuning pianos in churches.

Sometimes they drove many miles to tune a piano because they could not find anybody else around who knew how to do it.

This was many years ago and many of the pianos they tuned were the old, heavy upright pianos. Some of them had been in the churches for many years and the heat and humidity can be really hard on those old pianos.

I don't know if they ever had the chance to tune something like a baby grand piano, but imagine they would have enjoyed testing it out when they were done!

anon9004
Post 1

you hedged the question and kept the response full of useful info. but the answer is YES. most pianos are standard but their use in middle-eastern countries has lead to variations in tuning and new digital pianos that make use of 'microtones'.

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