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When you look back at standard tunings used over time, the picture seems a little less black and white. A=440Hz and A=432 weren’t the only tunings ever used. It wasn’t like one took over and suppressed the other as conspiracists sometimes like to make out. In fact, just a few hundred years ago there were many tunings used and standards often varied from country to country.
In Western traditions, ‘A’ was originally tuned simply to the lowest note monks could sing in their Gregorian chants, not a particularly precise measurement, but I guess it was something. Tuning varied from choir to choir, church to church, town to town, country to country. It wasn’t really something people kept track of a whole lot, more of a matter of “Giveth us an ‘A’ broth’r Edmund.”
After the Renaissance, music started to become a little more complex, and people did start to take more notice of their tuning. It also became a lot easier to keep track of pitch after the invention of the tuning fork in 1711 by John Shore. Some of the earliest surviving forks represented A between 400Hz and 420Hz.
In the years following, however, musicians started to experiment with different tunings, often finding that higher tunings sounded more exciting. This led to a period of ‘pitch inflation’ where musicians, performers and instrument manufacturers tried to outdo each other with the most bright or brilliant sound. A kind of arms race of tuning if you like.
Pitch inflation became particularly prominent with the rise of orchestras. A tuning fork from Dresden Opera House dated to 1815 placed A at 423.2Hz, while another fork from the same place from 1826 has A at 435Hz. Tuning forks rose even higher, with some from around this time pushing as high as 451Hz, such as an example found at La Scala in Milan.
As exciting as higher tunings may have sounded, there were a few problems with all this pitch pushing. For one, it made it difficult for orchestras to play in different countries with different standards, but perhaps the biggest opponents of pitch inflation were singers, who complained that higher pitches strained their vocal cords.
In 1859, the first standard was set by the French government to 435Hz, after widespread protest for a lower standard pitch. Predictably, the British weren’t quite happy with the French’s standards and wanted a higher measure of 439Hz to account for their colder temperatures. This was then bumped up to 440Hz after it was found that 439 would prove difficult to measure and manufacture due to the fact that it was a prime number.
Meanwhile, an Italian composer named Guisseppe Verdi preferred to tune to 432Hz, simply because it was easier for singers and orchestras. Perhaps arguably more practical grounds than aligning one’s chakras.
Regardless, the real standardisation took place in 1926, when American instrument manufacturers chose 440Hz as a standard and began selling them to Europeans. In 1955 the International Organisation for Standardisation rested upon a 440Hz as an international standard, where it has remained ever since (except for YouTube channels).