What is a Tuning Fork?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A tuning fork is a tool used to provide a pure tone. It is used as a reference for accurate pitch, and to mark time in quartz digital watches. Hearing tests may employ a thi tool, as may physics classes focusing on the study of sound.

Tuning forks may be used to tune pianos.
Tuning forks may be used to tune pianos.

In appearance, a tuning fork is a two-pronged metal fork that is shaped like a U and extends from a handle. Most people are familiar with the fundamental mode of this device, which is the long-lasting mode used as a standard for pitch. The so-called “clang” mode is a higher frequency and dies away very quickly.

Tuning forks may be used for testing someone's hearing loss.
Tuning forks may be used for testing someone's hearing loss.

Invented in 1711 by musician John Shore, and originally called the “pitch-fork,” the tuning fork was further developed by several inventors with an eye to providing a new type of musical instrument. This idea never caught on, however. Today, it does have a musical use, however: it can be used to set the pitch for performers or instruments.

For example, a tuning fork may be used by a conductor or performer to set an accurate pitch for a musical performance of an a cappella group. Often, one pitch is struck and the conductor or the various vocal parts figure out their pitch based on the struck pitch. If the piece has several movements, pitches may be given before the start of each new section.

There are other musical uses as well. A set of tuning forks, or one for middle C and a good ear, can be used to tune a piano, although electronic tuners have become popular. Timpanists use a pitch pipe or a set of forks to tune the timpani. For musical purposes, these tools are readily available at pitch A-440, as well as middle C, and sets are available for the notes of the C major scale as well as the chromatic scale.

For medical purposes, such as testing for hearing loss, there are specialized tuning forks with the pitches needed for various, specific testing protocols. The scientific version of this tool is a specialized device for research in acoustics and sound wave analysis and for calibrating various devices. These different types of tuning forks are not interchangeable. For example, scientific tuning forks are usually mounted, whereas musical ones are handheld.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


A tuning fork itself is made with one pitch. And when clanged against anything will always play the same pitch. These can come in handy when trying to tune an instrument.


@kangaBurg – Now that you mention it, I do feel vibrations coming from my piano tuning forks when I hold them. I guess I never noticed because I’m always concentrating on my piano when I have one of the forks in my hand. I prefer using forks instead of electronic tuners because it makes me feel more involved in the piano tuning process.

And here’s a trick for amplifying a tuning fork’s sound: press the end of the vibrating fork’s handle to any flat surface.


@smartypantz – You’re on a roll with that post! I'd just like to add a little bit more, since I work as an alternative medicine practitioner myself.

When it comes to alternative medicine, there are two different types of medical tuning forks: Standard and Weighted. Each one is better suited for certain applications. Standard tuning forks are much better suited for clearing and balancing the energies of the body (such as Chakras).

Weighted tuning forks create stronger vibrations, making them great for muscle relaxation techniques. Weighted tuning forks transfer vibrations to the body very easily, so an experienced practitioner can actually relieve pain by placing a vibrating weighted tuning fork on the correct spot of your body!


Tuning forks are also used in alternative medicine -- my sister has a set of chakra tuning forks, and according to her, each tuning fork corresponds to a Chakra -- apparently they are used for balancing your body’s energy frequencies.

Striking these special forks causes them to vibrate, and each fork is set to do so at the exact same frequency as one of the eight Chakras. If you place a vibrating Chakra tuning fork on your body, at the center of its corresponding Chakra, it can eventually help that energy center adjust back to its proper frequency. At first, I thought it was kind of hoax-y, but my sister swears by them.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Chakras are the eight major energy centers of your body. As I stated, they each vibrate at a specific frequency. It is believed that those vibrations affect your body’s electromagnetic field, and can also affect everything from physical health to your connection with the spiritual realm.

Our bodies flow with energy, and as long as that flow is unhindered, everything is fine. But, if any blockages form, your vital organs - and even your soul – may not get the energy they need in order to function properly. In some parts of India and Tibet, this is believed to be the cause of many physical ailments. This idea is also taking hold in Western countries, as well.

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