Did You Know? Musical Notes from the Penn State Laureate

January 05, 2009

Q: How (and why) does an orchestra tune?

A: At the beginning of each orchestra concert you will see the concertmaster (first chair violinist) enter to tune the orchestra. He faces the orchestra and asks the oboist to play an "A." Is this just for show, or is it really necessary? Why does the orchestra need to tune? The instruments go out of tune because of changes in temperature and humidity. All instruments have a different reaction to the weather conditions. For example, when the conditions are hot and dry, the pitch of the string instruments tend to go flat. Likewise, with more humidity, the strings sound sharper. These tendencies are related to the shrinking and expanding of the wood of our instruments. The concertmaster will ask for three or four "A's" from the oboist. An oboe has a concentrated tone that projects clearly, therefore it is easy to hear and for the other instruments to match. The oboist sustains the "A," and soon the orchestra is bathing in what might sound like a cacophony of sound. First he gives an "A" for the winds (flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes). After they are finished tuning, the concertmaster asks the oboist to give another "A" for the brass section (trumpets, horns, trombones, tuba). The final "A" is for the string section. Some orchestras give two "A's" for the string section, one for the lower strings (cellos and basses) and one for the upper strings (violas and violins). Since I am a cellist, I like to have the extra "A." It helps to ensure that my tuning is more accurate.

Please send any other musical questions that you always wanted to know but were too shy to ask to Penn State Laureate Kim Cook at kdc3@psu.edu.

  • IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated September 04, 2020