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Why Musicians Tune Before They Play

The lights dim. The audience quiets. The excitement and tension grow…and yet, the first sound you hear in a concert is not the music that everyone is there to enjoy. Quite commonly, the first thing you hear is the tuning A.

Why is tuning important?

Tuning serves many practical purposes. One of the most crucial aspects of a successful performance is the accuracy of the pitch. A well-tuned instrument not only ensures that the music is in tune, but it also helps to create a cohesive sound between different instruments in an ensemble or orchestra.

Why is the tuning note an “A”?

The answer is surprisingly simple. In orchestra, all the string instruments (violin, viola, cello, and bass) have an A string. With the string section as the foundation of the orchestral sound, the entire orchestra gravitates towards this shared note. In ensembles without string players, such as wind band, the tuning note is usually a B-flat because that’s the fundamental pitch for most band instruments.

How do musicians tune their instruments?

The most common method of tuning is to use other instruments or reference pitches upon which to base the collective pitch. For example, a pianist may use the middle C on a piano as a reference point, or an orchestra may tune to an oboist, who often has an electric tuner on their music stand that can interpret pitch down to a fraction of a Hertz. Before the advent of electric tuners, musicians often used a tuning fork, a small metal instrument that produces a specific pitch when struck against a hard surface.

For string players, tuning involves adjusting the tension of the strings to produce the desired pitch. This is typically done by turning pegs on the instrument or adjusting fine tuners on the tailpiece. Wind and brass players change the length of the tubing of their instruments. A clarinetist, for example, can push or pull the joints of their instruments as needed. Flutists can adjust the position of their headjoint. Many brass instruments have adjustable tuning slides that elongate or shorten the length of tubing.

The Ritual

Tuning is about more than just ensuring that the instrument is in tune. It's a moment of preparation, concentration, and connection between the musicians on stage. It's a reminder that music is not just about hitting the right notes, but about coming together as a community to create something beautiful. It’s also a moment of quiet concentration for the musicians to get into the right mindset for the performance. It allows them to block out distractions and focus entirely on the sound of their instrument.


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