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MMD > Archives > April 1998 > 1998.04.05 > 05Prev  Next

History of U.S. Standard Pitch, A = 440 Hz
By Ed Gaida

I was hesitant about posting this to the MMD, but after careful
consideration decided to write about the adoption of A-440 as the
official pitch of the United States.  The greatest proponent of A-440
was J. C.  Deagan, founder of the company that bore his name.  As early
as 1900 he was advocating adoption of a standard pitch, and that
standard he reasoned should be A-440.

Deagan wrote numerous articles for trade publications of the day.  I
have many of those articles courtesy of June Albright Howard who worked
as the recording artist for player rolls at Deagan.

There has always been discussion of the pros and cons of raising a
piano from A-435 to A-440 and the resulting increase in strain on the
stings, plate and back.  Deagan addresses this question.  "If piano
tuners are afraid of a fifth of a semi-tone higher on pianos from A-435
(C-517.3) to A-440 (C523.3), let them consider those old days when
pianos were tuned about a semi-tone higher than A-435.  The actual
stress of the strings did not give them much trouble." (He notes that
in 1880 in America, the pitch was as high as A-454 to A-460!)

The origins of the "higher German pitch", i.e., A-440, are explained
by Deagan:

  "A-435 was for years, the official pitch of the American Federation
  of Musicians, the largest body of organized musicians in the world,
  and was also the pitch generally used by pipe organ and piano

  "But the fact remains that the majority of the best professional
  musicians using wind instruments were actually using the old higher
  German pitch brought from Russia to Vienna after the Napoleonic wars
  (about 1816 to 1820) by the Czar of Russia, Alexander I, who during
  the Congress of Vienna, presented to crack Austrian regiment bands
  beautiful Russian-made full sets of band instruments in a higher
  pitch than heretofore, which made such bands sound more brilliant
  than bands using the older pitch known as "Sauveur's Philosophical
  Pitch, C-512" (arrived at by computing the ninth power of 2-29) or

  "This new higher pitch and other still higher pitches became very
  popular afterwards all over Europe, but the French would have none
  of it (too high for opera singers), so the French got up a compro-
  mise pitch, A-435.  This new French pitch, called "Diapason Normal",
  was between A-440 and A-430.5  This latter pitch (the official pitch
  of Europe for over one hundred years) was the old pitch of Bach,
  Mozart and Beethoven (before 1816)."

Deagan's contention was that when the French set the standard pitch
at A-435, they did so at a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius (59
degrees Fahrenheit) and that was too low for steam heated concert
halls.  Theodore Thomas as far back as 1883, ordered his concert halls
to be kept at a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, or as near to
that as possible.  Deagan continues:  "Wind instruments tuned to A-435
at 59 degrees Fahrenheit will raise in pitch to A-440 at 72 degrees

The United States officially adopted A-440 as standard pitch in 1920,
but Deagan was still fighting the battle in 1930 and later, as
evidenced from the articles he wrote for the "The Bandmaster".

In the case of automatic instruments, if the fixed pitch instruments
(xylophone, orchestra bells) are A-435, then there is no choice.  Maybe
the question should be, "Is the instrument in tune with _itself_?"

Ed Gaida

(Message sent Sun 5 Apr 1998, 20:00:54 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  440, History, Hz, Pitch, Standard, U.S

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