Tuning A=440, 441 or 442? ~ harpyness

Monday, 1 November 2010

Tuning A=440, 441 or 442?

What pitch to tune my harp to has been a particularly nerdy issue I have struggled with most of my orchestral life. I tune to A=442 as tuning to anything less than that makes the harp sound flat in an orchestra.

I use to worry about what long term effect on the harp tuning so sharp would have, so I would tune to A=441. Until I had a chat some years ago to Billy (the main Salvi/L&H technician in the UK) and he told me he regulates all the harps to A=442 as that is what they are built to be regulated at. He also regulates harps across Europe and South Africa. So any worry I had about the harps being regularly tuned sharper than they are built for was ungrounded as they are already built to be tuned higher then 440. German Horngachers, I believe, are built for A=444.

I wondered whether harps were being regulated to the same A=442 in the US and I found an interesting discussion on a US harp forum about it some years ago, so I'm glad it's not just me that has deep (quite sad) thoughts about the subject! Quite a few of US harpists on that thread seem to find issue with tuning so sharp.

I also found an even more interesting discussion on a US violin forum which gave lots of detailed insight into it from a string players point of view, and it makes a fascinating read.

So, when I was at Kneller Hall recently (which is the home of the Royal Military School of Music which trains musicians for the all of the bands in the British Army) I couldn't believe what I saw in their museum cabinet!!!

And there I was thinking tuning A=442 was potentially a tad sharp. Check out the pitch that the British Army bands used to be at! Information about it in picture below.

It makes tuning my harp at A=442 seem quite insignificant.

And yes, that is A=452!

click on the photo to see a larger view.


  1. Sharone Stevenson10 October 2012 at 21:19

    HI Lauren. I just can't believe this. I just posted a questioin on the Harp Column Forum for Professional Harpists (I am not one!), as I recently got my beautiful Salvi Arion 47 SG. I was asking about tuning it to A440 instead of the A442, and you have answered my question. This is my second Salvi harp and I just really like them, but I have 2 other musicians who want to share music with me, and suddenly went into a panic! So, according to the info. I should be OK just leaving it where it is at A442 and hope that it will be OK with the other instruments. Please drlp me a line when you have time. I am originally from England, but now live on the west coast of Canada, and it's nice to talk with another English lady.

  2. Greetings from rainy North West UK! To further cloud the issue, I never tell other players in an orchestra that I tune to 442 as some players can get funny about it. It's alright for oboists in orchestras to say that it has to be 440 to start with but at least they can adjust their pitch during a concert. Depending on who I'm playing with though, if it's a solo or small chamber music I would generally tune to 441. But I wouldn't tune to 440 anymore as I don't think the harp is in tune with itself as it is at 441 or 442. Sorry, that's all really nerdy! I would stick to 441 if you are playing with other musicians - pretty much in the middle ;-)

  3. Just an update as this seems to be a popular post........ I tune A=441 these days as I'm more often working with chamber orchestras and doing chamber music with my ensembles. I only tune up to A=442 now if I'm working with a symphony orchestra that is particularly sharp.

    The reason being is that I have one particular note (2 octaves above middle C) which has a tendency to sound sharp no matter how many times I get it regulated or change the strings, and it's happiest at 441.

  4. I was really interested to read this post, and your subsequent updates. I did my first musical in an orchestra pit last month, and really struggled with tuning over the 5 shows. Tuning to 442 was the only sensible way to feel vaguely in tune, and even then by the interval I was always off again! I'd expected some variation (normal for a harpist) but was surprised just how much there was.

    I have a couple of strings that are never in tune either, one in particular is a real pest. I thought it was just me so am reassured to read that it's not.