Blog » Instruments & Tuning

Reading Time: 6 minutesJanuary 19, 2014


I have noticed that within tuning communities practical implementation of tuning concepts and theories is sometimes forgotten. Naturally many experienced composers and musicians do know about it, but there seem to be a large group of composers and musicians that might have not payed enough attention to when it comes to the technical (hardware) characteristics of instruments. So, there for this short blog about instruments and tuning. 


The first thing we should make note of, is that the design and building of instruments and the tuning system used are related. If you do not know what a “Tuning System” (Concert Pitch + Musical Interval System + Temperament) is, then please, read this first!

Even though most modern instruments build nowadays are designed for concert pitch A4=440Hz + 12-tone closed system + Equal Temperament, we have to keep in mind that this was (and still is) not always the case. The first proper reference to instruments build for 439 / 440 / 441 / 442 Hz goes back to the 19th century when orchestras in England, Germany and France used these pitches and there for instruments that could play or were designed for it. When we go further back in history to the 1700′s we find references about Church Organs ranging in concert pitch from A4=380Hz (England) to A4=480Hz (Germany). A4=440Hz was not an official international standard until the ISO affirmed it in 1975 with ISO 16:1975. Nonetheless, practically all instruments made in the West were designed and build for A4=440Hz even before the 20th century (1900‘s) started. [ Read more about the standardization of A4=440Hz. ]

At present time 12-Tone (closed system) Equal Temperament is the common “standard” temperament, this temperament though has been in use ever since the 16th century. In Europe another temperament had been used untill the introduction of the Equal Temperament, called Pythagorean. Some sources and references even suggest Equal Temperament was used already in China in the 27th century BC. Even though Equal Temperament has been an “unofficial standard” for centuries, many other temperaments have been made and used by some.


Now, why is Concert Pitch and Temperament important to mention?

Well, in instrument design a builder has to design and build the instrument to be in tune with the “standards” that are required by the musicians using the instrument. With some instruments the pitch and temperament features are “set” within it’s design, with other instruments less. You could say that some instrument designs are more “flexible” then others when it comes Concert Pitch and Temperament.

You could divide instruments in 4 “tuning groups”. The most flexible group is the group of “Micro-Tunable” instruments. These instruments have the capability to change both Pitch and Temperament. The second group of instruments can change Pitch, but are not capable to change Temperament. The third group of instruments has limited pitch correction, and no capabilities to change Temperament. The fourth group of instruments is “set” to a particular Pitch and Temperament by design.

It is very important for composers to know this difference, because the choice of Pitch and Temperament may exclude particular instruments, or the choice for particular instruments might force a composer to use a particular Pitch and Temperament.

Below a list instruments and their possibilities and limitations concerning pitch and temperament:



  • Fixed Fret-ted chordophone Instruments (Guitar, Lute, Mandolin, Elec. Bass, et cetera.)
  • Synthesizers with overall pitch correction, but without tone-by-tone Micro-Tuning capabilities. 


  • Woodwind instruments with a cylindrical bore (Clarinet, Flute – Boehm System, et cetera.)

The pitch of an instrument with a cylindrical bore can be adjusted by extending the instrument. There is a limit to extending the instrument though.

With Clarinet the pitch is the easiest changed, by replacing the “Barrel” in between the mouthpiece and the body with another Barrel (shorter for a higher pitch, longer for a lower pitch). If the desired concert pitch is not too big, it is possible to correct minor intonation difference between the registers with the embouchure

For flutes (western concert flute) there is a solution too:

Flutes can be manufactured to adjusted up or down a small amount by pulling out the head-joint, and a larger amount by using a replacement for the 2nd joint which has been re-sized.  Since there are at most 3 simple, independent, lever keys on that joint, the manufacturing adjustment is pretty simple to make. Also, because the “shortest” note (C#) is an octave above the “longest” (D), the worst-case headjoint adjustment flattens the C# about twice as much as the D, and compensations can be pretty easily made with the embouchure.  Thus, for the flute it is practical to pitch an instrument as desired. The extra joint cost just a couple of hundred dollars.” 

~ Mr. Fletcher James (Schiller Institute) 

Some Clarinet and Flute players who implement these modifications have stated that a difference in concert pitch of 10Hz was doable.

  • Brass instruments with a conical bore (Flugelhorn, Tuba, et cetera.)

Brass instruments like the Flugelhorn and Trumpet have “tuning slides” that can be controlled with the thumb (first slide) and pinky (third slide) to correct the pitch of particular tones while playing. The usage of these tuning slides will become more extreme when using a concert pitch much lower or higher then the instrument was designed for.

  • Woodwind instruments with a conical bore (Saxophone, Tubax. Conn-O-Sax, Saxello, Aulochrome)

The pitch of a woodwind instrument with a conical bore can be adjusted very little manually by pulling out or pushing in the mouthpiece. 

Woodwind instruments with a conical bore can not be pitched by adding extensions (unlike instruments with a cylindrical bore like Flute or Clarinet). The tone-holes have been placed exact in relationship with the length of the instrument and the change in diameter of the bore. If one would extend the instrument, the position of the tone-holes would no longer be correct and there for result in some tones being out of tune in relationship to others.

Most saxophones stay reasonably in tune when the pitch difference is small, +/- 2Hz higher or lower then the concert pitch instrument was designed for. So, a saxophone designed for the standard 440Hz concert pitch, would still sound reasonable when using by example concert pitch 442Hz or 438Hz.

Larger changes in concert pitch though, would cause an intonation difference between the registers that would be hard to correct with the embouchure alone, specially with uptempo music.

Mr. Fletcher James (Schiller Institute) mentioned about saxophones and pitch change (440Hz – 435/432Hz): 

There are 20-23 keys and keyholes to be adjusted, and there are all sorts of inter-linked mechanisms which would need to be re-sized. Existing jigs for manufacturing (which are essential for inexpensive mass production of metal parts) could not be used at all.

Because of the length of the scale, just pulling out the headjoint will affect the highest note 4 times as much as the lowest.

Because of the length of the scale, any attempt to just insert a little space at a couple of points in the instrument would probably end up causing a lot of tuning issues. 

wind & brass instruments do not have mechanical micro-tuning capabilities, but do have limited micro-tuning capabilities by using the embouchure and – for wood winds – some alternate fingering. Wind and brass instrumentalists could – depending on their skills – handle quite some different Temperaments.

With woodwind instruments like the saxophone it is possible to generate tones outside the normal 12-tone range of the instrument by using “alternate fingerings”. Examples of this are the 24-tone scale by Tony Hicks and the 128-tone scale by Philipp Gerschlauer. The exact fingerings used might differ with the instrument brand and model used.

There are two different concert pitch standards used for Brass and Wood-Wind instruments. These are the so called “Low Pitch” (LP = 440/442Hz) and “High Pitch” (HP = 457Hz). The High Pitch instruments are/were designed and build for American Brass bands and some Military Orchestras. Their sound is sharper / louder then the sound of the Low Pitch instruments in order to not be “overtaken” (sound/volume wise) by larges numbers of noisy people, street noise and battle noise. Most Brass and Wood-Winds (like Saxophones) are engraved with “LP” or “HP” to clarify the concert pitch the instrument was build for.


  • Wurlitzer Organ.
  • Pitchpipe (Church) Organ.
  • Hammond Organ (a change in the power frequency of the incoming VAC could effect the pitch, the synchronous motor is speed locked to it, but that would require (permanent) modifications to the hardware).
  • Fender Rhodes.
  • (Directly) struck idiophone instruments (Vibraphone, Xylophone, Marimba, Glockenspiel).
  • Instruments made out of one piece (Didgeridoo, Panflute, Ocarina, et cetera).

Read an article about 432Hz designed instruments

Creative Commons License