Why tune to the oboe?

Photo, nobleviola

Why do orchestras tune to the oboe?

Well, because it’s tradition, I suppose. But, realistically, in a professional group the pitch standard is likely determined in advance, and the oboist will use an electronic tuner to be sure they are giving precisely the correct pitch, so it could just as well be anyone.

But the principal oboist is almost always the keeper of the A. It seems like there are a lot of theories floating around as to why, none of which make the slightest bit of sense. I found all of these professed as gospel truth in less than five minutes of Googling:

  • Because the oboe can’t be tuned. Firstly: hogwash. (True, the oboe doesn’t have a built-in tuning slide. But an oboist can “tune” by switching reeds, and can humor individual notes sharper or flatter on the fly, just like any wind player.) Secondly: if we tune to the principal oboe because it can’t be tuned, then what is the second oboist expected to do? Or the harpist? Or the pianist?
  • Because the oboe’s pitch is the most reliable. More reliable than, say, the glockenspiel? Given a high-quality instrument, an excellent reed, a fine oboist, and a 72.0°F room, then yes, the oboe’s pitch ought to be pretty solid. But on a stage full of trained musicians, I can’t see any reason to expect it to be more reliable than anyone else’s.
  • Because the oboe can be heard better through the group, because of its volume or tone or something. If that’s the criteria for selecting a tuning instrument, then I suggest that we consider the trumpet, or perhaps the piccolo. The Wikipedia article on the oboe, incidentally, mentions both stability and “penetrating” tone as reasons for oboe tuning, but cites an online article that no longer exists.
  • Because the oboe warms up to pitch faster than the other winds. This could be true, but how much longer does it really take to warm a flute or clarinet or trombone up to pitch? Hopefully the other musicians aren’t tuning before their instruments are thoroughly warmed.

An additional theory, reported in New Grove and citing Vogt and Fétis’s 1837 Manuel des compositeurs:

  • Because the oboe has a narrow bore, temperature variations have a lesser effect on its pitch. I welcome comments from the scientifically-inclined on this one, or from those who have read Vogt and Fétis in the original, but, if I’m not mistaken, smaller masses are actually more susceptible to temperature change.

There’s a historical explanation of the oboe-tuning phenomenon on the Rockford (IL) Symphony website that is, at face value, about the most reasonable one I’ve seen. However, the supposedly historical background is unsourced, and certain assertions (like concert B-flat being the “natural” tuning note of B-flat instruments?) lead me to believe that the article has not been rigorously researched.

What’s your theory?

21 comments on “Why tune to the oboe?”

  1. Jerry Pritchard

    What I really hate is oboists who bring an electronic tuner to rehearsal. Lip the instrument to make the needle centered—and the proceed to play wherever the natural tendency and length of the reed is and responds most comfortably….and they never compensate for pitch fluctuations with changes in dynamics.

    Yes, before the introduction of the clarinet in the orchestra, the oboe was probably the least flexible instrument given the fixed nature of the length of the reed and the inability to push it in or out very far without destroying the basic scale of the instrument and throwing off the tunings of the registers.

  2. Devin Morton

    Just a few thoughts about this, being an oboist:

    1) Its brighter timbre does seem to me to cut through some of the other sounds. No one can deny that a single oboist can easily overpower most of an orchestra without putting in much effort simply due to the timbrel aspects.

    2) The oboe is located in the center (roughly) of the orchestra. I am not an acoustical engineer, but we all know that pitch changes, very slightly, depending on distance traveled due to the slowing of sound waves. By the oboe being in the center of the ensemble, this keeps the phenomenon to a minimum.

    3) The oboe is a consistent member of the orchestra. Since its acceptance into the orchestra, probably 85-90% of the pieces written have an oboe part. This, along with the reasons in #1 make the oboist a prime candidate for tuning. Sure, the violinist could do it, but because one screeching string sounds like another, it could actually make it harder to tune.

    Having made these points, I would like to note that there is no longer a reason in the modern symphony orchestra to tune to the oboe. The only real reason to do so now is tradition. Every musician now has ready access to some sort of digital tuner, not to mention that most musicians that play in an orchestra tune mostly by ear. For me, the “tuning” at the beginning of a rehearsal or concert isn’t tuning per se, but more of a way to finalize the pitch center. Most musicians will arrive early enough to have their instruments and themselves warmed up and tuned up. The “tuning” just finalizes the pitch center to make sure everyone is on the right page.

    Personally, I could live without being known as the center of pitch. Often I am rushed getting into rehearsals due to events that run up until the start. I usually can’t hear myself warm up and tune myself over the brasses seeing who can play louder, the woodwinds seeing who can play higher, and the strings seeing who can play faster. There have even been times where the first note I play for a warm-up is the tuning note (It is a scary feeling to have everyone listen to your first sounds of the rehearsal). With the way things are in modern symphonies, anyone can really be used as the “tuning note.”

    • Bret Pimentel

      Thanks for your comment, Devin, and I hope you won’t mind if I disagree with you on a couple of points:

      1) A good oboist can make him or herself heard, as you say, through most of an orchestra. But in a tutti section, I have trouble picking out the oboes over the brass. Again I ask, why not use the principal trumpet? Perhaps the picture changes a little in some other parts of the world, where woodwind timbres tend to be different from American orchestras?

      2) The speed of sound through a gas is constant, barring a change in temperature, so I’m not sure what you mean by slowing sound waves, and none of my acoustics textbooks acknowledge the idea of pitch changing over distance. Are you perhaps thinking of the Doppler effect? It shouldn’t be a problem as long as the orchestra members remain in their seats. I welcome a clarification if I have misunderstood or missed something.

      3) I think your best point is here, about the oboe being a more distinctive voice within the group than, say, one of fifty violins. But there are just as few clarinets (flutes, etc.) as oboes…

      I agree that tradition is the only explanation that holds water. Make sure you get to rehearsal early and warm up!

    • Chas Stockdale

      In answer to Devin re pitch changing over distance.
      As with ripples in water when they hit a pier and the ripples are bent, so too with sound when the sound waves “move” around objects – the wave length is altered, thus changing the pitch. Yes, over distance humidity can alter the pitch.

    • Kevin Willoughby

      I absolutely agree with the fellow oboist chap! … I might add too that as the “keeper of the ‘A’ ” it does happen that (for example) busy brass players who may have done an afternoon recording session in a studio at 440hz would welcome the reminder (from the oboist) that for the evening concert the particular orchestra and music use the 442/3/4hz pitch …. can and does happen! ….. I played the oboe from the age of 11 myself … and dear old George Morgan was my prof at Knellar Hall in the mid 70s

  3. Paula

    I’m very glad that our church orchestra does NOT tune to me. I’m the only oboist and not as consistent in tone yet as I have only been playing oboe for a year (former clarinetist and bassoonist here). I played clarinet for 40 years before switching to oboe last year and I have played bassoon (4 years in high school and 1 year in the church orchestra until the instrument got stolen from the church a few years ago).

  4. John Malmstrom

    Recent blog post: Happy Birthday Benny (May 30, 2011)

    I always thought that the oboe’s role was because it had the purest pitch, with very few or the fewest overtones. Where I heard this, I can’t say, but a quick Google check seemed to indicate that this idea is out there. Sounds convincing, but Bret, perhaps you can put this old saw to rest.

    • Bret Pimentel

      Hi John — the idea of the oboe having a “pure” or relatively overtone-free sound is indeed “out there,” but I think if you search for exactly the opposite opinion, you’ll find it has lot of support, too.

      The idea that the oboe’s sound is actually quite rich in overtones matches my aural perception. However, “more overtones” is a bit complicated: are we talking only about number of audible overtones present? Are we taking into account their relative strengths? Whether the strong ones are evenly spread, or concentrated in a higher or lower frequency range?

      The wildly divergent and unsupported ideas I found about this topic on the web were part of the reason I wanted to write this article—to bring to light that you can’t necessarily believe what you read on the web. (This site included!)

  5. Zoltan

    Concert B-flat may not be the “natural” tuning note of transposing instruments that are pitched in Bb, such as the Bb clarinet, but it is the natural tuning note of most brass instruments, transposing or not, because their fundamental pitch (open, no valves depressed) is usually Bb (e.g. trombone and tuba). That’s why it makes sense for concert bands to tune to a Bb.

  6. TFox

    All right: I just wasted 20 minutes trying to understand the connection between temperature and pitch. All I’ve learned so far is that it’s complicated. The 19th century standard of A=435 was set at 15 C (awfully cold!), which means that practically, it was about the same as the modern A=440 standard (argues this 1918 paper http://www.jstor.org/stable/737883). The reason for the shift isn’t totally obvious: naively, higher temperature = expansion in bore = lower pitch, when we all know the opposite is true. The difference must come from the sound velocity, which is raised at higher temperature and higher humidity in the bore of a warmed-up instrument. But also note that, as you hold a long note or play a phrase, the CO2 content of the air in the instrument increases, apparently by an amount sufficient to change the pitch as much as temperature (http://en.scientificcommons.org/43524439). As to which instrument would be “least” affected by this stuff, I have no idea. As for why tune to the oboe, I vote a combination of tone color, tradition, and (just as important) ritual.

    • Bret Pimentel

      TFox, the expansion or contraction of the instrument itself, while real, is too small to have a significant effect on pitch. The real issue is the temperature of the air column inside the instrument (which of course is closely tied to the temperature of the instrument). A higher air temperature means the air column is less dense, which means sound waves move faster. When the sound waves move faster through the column of air, the frequency (pitch) rises.

      The math behind this isn’t too complicated (some basic algebra) and demonstrates these relationships pretty clearly:

      Relationship of frequency to speed of sound in wind instruments
      Relationship of temperature to speed of sound moving through a gas (Note: humidity has a small enough effect that it can be ignored for our purposes here.)

  7. Steve

    “A higher air temperature means the air column is less dense, which means sound waves move faster. When the sound waves move faster through the column of air, the frequency (pitch) rises.”

    I disagree. If my reed is vibrating at a fixed frequency (let’s say 440 Hz) then the sound waves come off the reed 440 times each second. As the sound waves come off the reed, they are spaced 1/440th of a second apart. It doesn’t matter if the air from my lungs (and in the instrument) is hot and has a faster speed of sound than the surrounding air. The sound waves are still spaced at 1/440th of a second apart, and they are all propogating at the same speed, so the frequency is still 440 Hz, and the sound is still a A=440.

    Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say I’m standing by the road. A group of 10 cars passes by me driving 20 miles an hour, and each car is exactly 5 seconds after the next. The frequency is 1/5th of 1 Hz, or 0.2 Hz. Now let’s say 10 more cars pass by me, each one travelling at 90 miles an hour, but each car is still exactly 5 seconds after the other. The two groups of cars are travelling at different speeds, but they’re arriving at the same “frequency” — 0.2 Hz, or once every 5 seconds. The cars are analogous to sound waves. I don’t care how fast they’re moving. I only care how often they arrive. If they arrive at the same rate, then I’m going to hear the same pitch, regardless of how fast or slow they’re moving.

    Now to be clear, I’m leaving out a ton of other variables that occur between my reed and the listener’s ear, but I’m not addressing those. I’m just taking issue with the part in quotes.

    • Bret Pimentel

      Thanks Steve – Be aware that the issue at hand here is not the travel of the sound waves through the air to your ear—it’s the travel of the waves within the instrument’s air column.

      The reed’s vibrating frequency for any note can be calculated based on a simple set of variables. For a “closed cone” model such as the oboe or saxophone, these are the resonance node (or, to simplify, which register you are playing in), the effective length of the tube (determined by which toneholes are open/closed), and the speed of sound (which, as I pointed out already, does vary with air temperature). For higher precision, a couple of other aspects of bore geometry can also be brought into play.

      So the air temperature within the instrument affects the pitch produced. After that point, your car analogy comes into play, and you are correct that the speed of sound between the instrument and your ear won’t, to my knowledge, have an effect on pitch (which was, in fact, my argument against one of Devin’s points above).

      I suggest checking out the Wikipedia articles I mentioned in response to TFox’s comment above, as well as some of the cross-referenced articles as needed; they seem, at least at the time of this writing, to jive reliably with what I see in published books on woodwind acoustics.

      • Steve

        Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Maybe a more complete way of stating it then would be …

        “A higher air temperature means the air column is less dense, which means sound waves move faster. When the sound waves move faster through the column of air, this causes the reed to vibrate faster, thus raising the frequency (pitch).”

  8. Dwight Manning

    Bret, this is a great opportunity to acknowledge the stellar accomplishments of the late, great Bruce Haynes (April 14, 1942-May 17, 2011) American and Canadian oboist, recorder player, musicologist and specialist in historical performance practice. Dr. Haynes wrote a full book on this very complex issue.

    A story of ‘A’
    Bruce Haynes, A history of performing pitch: the story of ‘A’ (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2002)
    http://em.oxfordjournals.org/content/33/3/508.full

    Though oboists’ embouchure can affect their intonation by up to half a semitone, they have jealously guarded the privilege of establishing the orchestra’s a′ despite the introduction of the more surely pitched clarinet in the late 18th century and, more recently, of electronic tuning devices. It is fitting, then, that this, the first book-length study of the history of musical pitch, has been written by a player of the hautboy (or three-keyed oboe).

    Bruce Haynes has tackled the subject with the insightful zeal of a dedicated early music specialist. The result of more than two decades’ research, his book gathers together colossally more information than is to be found even in its most important forerunners, those classic articles by Alexander Ellis and Arthur Mendel. And Haynes steers a methodological middle course between the doctrinaire empiricism of Ellis, who gives all pitch frequencies to an accuracy of 0.1 Hz, and the dialectical scepticism of Mendel, who appends his finely argued conclusions with caveats like ‘give or take a semitone’.

    Best wishes sorting out this sticky wicket!

    • Bret Pimentel

      Fantastic! This title seems vaguely familiar now that you bring it up, though I had forgotten about it. I’ll look into it.

      I understand principal oboists are often among the most highly-paid members of the orchestra. Even if it’s only for show, I can see why oboists would want to hang onto the privilege of giving the A—got to justify that paycheck somehow.

      I hadn’t heard about Dr. Haynes’s passing.

  9. Les

    My understanding is that a reed produces many different frequencies. The oboist can change these frequencies somewhat through changes in air pressure and embouchure, but the main part of what determines the resulting frequencies (harmonics and such) is the length of the tube.

  10. Eric Caines

    I know I’m a little late in this thread, but I thought I might interject a theory of mine…

    In ancient times, the shawm (precursor of the oboe) was sounded in the village to let everyone know something was about to happen – a village meeting, etc. Additionally, the shawm was used to alert enemy forces to an impending invasion or battle. The shawm, at the time, was the loudest, most raucous instrument available – and playing 20 or 30 of them at the same time let EVERYONE know what was about to happen…

    As the shawm evolved into the hautboy, and the hautboy into the oboe, I think it’s sort of just trickled down from those ancient times.. An oboe sounding an ‘a’ is just letting everyone know something is about to happen – the concert is about to start.

    It may seem silly to some, but when I think of some other ancient traditions we still hold on to, it doesn’t seem so “far out.”

    In regards to electronic tuners, I think it’s silly to expect everyone to tune electronically. The point of playing in an ensemble is to listen to eachother and play together, but a starting pitch has to be found in order to begin.

    Just my thoughts, glean from them what you may!

  11. Dan Takagi

    Because the oboe’s sound is closest to a sine wave, which is the most purest form of sound.

    • Kevin Willoughby

      the oboes sound is actually a ‘sawtooth’ wave ….. incidently, the clarinet is almost a pure square wave, and the it’s the flute that has the sinewave. KW

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