Pitch Standards

The contents of this article is for the most part from sources on the internet.

Over time many different standards have been adopted for pitch in music, defined as the note "A" being equal to as specific frequency in Herz. Actually, as near as I can tell before the 1800's there weren't any real standards, and pitch varied from one orchestra to the next, sometimes considerably. In the 1800's you start seeing attempts at standardizing pitch, which ended up with A=440 that we have today. In this article I will relay some of the information I have found with relation to pitch over approximately the past 200 years and will end with a table summerizing things.

Different Pitch Standards
In the following paragraphs I will expand on a few relevant or interesting pitch standards see the table below for a slightly longer list.

Classical Pitch
This is probably not an official designation, but the name is appropriate. In this "standard" (not really a standard) A=422, approximately. It is said that both Mozart and Handel wrote at this pitch. Mozart is quoted as being at A=421 and Handel at A=422.5.

Diapason Normal
Also known as "French Pitch" or "International Pitch", the French in 1859 set a standard for A=435 at 15 degrees Celsius, or 59 F.

Philharmonic Pitch
A difficult standard, because there are several, named after the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Between 1813 and 1842 the pitch was at A=433. Then it apparently went up to A=452.5. This later, higher pitch is called "Old Philharmonic Pitch". Because pitch was creeping up and up, straining voices of singers, a lower pitch standard was agreed upon in 1896, called "New Philharmonic Pitch" at A=439. This A=439 was arrived at by mathematical means: it was calculated that the French standard of A=435 (Diapason Normal) at 59 F. was A=439 at 68 F. (20 C.). Since most music was played at room temperature (68F/20C), A=439 was adopted as the standard.

British Army Pitch
In 1890 a standard pitch was set for British Army bands by "Kneller Hall", or the "Royal Military School of Music." The pitch standard that was adopted was the Philharmonic pitch in use at that time, now called "Old Philharmonic Pitch", namely A=452.5. When the New Philharmonic Pitch came about in 1896, the British Army did not change; the British Army Pitch of A=452.5 lasted until 1928, when it was changed to A=440.

American Standard Pitch
Perhaps the name "American Standard Pitch" is inappropriate because it is known under many names: Concert Pitch, ISO 16, etc. This is the one we all are familiar with: A=440. It was adopted by the American Federation of Musicians in 1917 and by the American Music Industries Chamber of Commerce on June 11, 1925. The American Standards Association adopted it in 1936. In 1939 it was adopted International Federation of Standards Associations (ISA). In 1953 the International Standards Organization (ISO) endorsed it and in 1955 accepted it as ISO 16. Interestingly, it was arrived by owing to the fact that 439 being a prime number it is difficult to reproduce in the laboratory. Hence A=440. This is what is/was commonly known among instrument makers as "low pitch". I haven't been able to find any information on what temperature this would be at.

U.S. Military High Pitch
I am not sure this exists. I have one source for this (Tom Meacham) but haven't been able to verify it anywhere else. It states that A=457, which is in fact the "high pitch". As the name implies, this would have been what a standard for U.S. Military bands. If anyone can verify or disprove this, please contact me. It would have been abandoned at least by 1921 when the U.S. Military was ordering large numbers of low pitch instruments.

Pitches used by Conn
At least by the 1880's Conn was producing both high and low pitch cornets. Whether these were tuned to the same pitch standards as later instruments, I don't know. The 1934 Conn catalog states that low pitch is defined as A=440 at 72 degree F., and high pitch is A=457 at 72 F. Conn continued to produced high pitch instruments in small numbers at least until 1939 and probably until 1941.

Summary table

Summary table of pitches
F | C
Year Name
415 - - Baroque Pitch
422 - 1750 Classical Pitch
433 - 1813-1842 Philharmonic Pitch
435 59 | 15 1859 Diapason Normal
"French Pitch", "International Pitch"
439 68 | 20 1896 New Philharmonic Pitch
440 - Adopted between
1917 and 1939
American Standard Pitch
440 72 | 22 - Low Pitch used by Conn
(see text)
452.5 - ~1850 Old Philharmonic Pitch
452.5 - 1890-1928 British Army Pitch
457 - - U.S. Military Pitch
(see text)
457 72 | 22 1880-1941 High Pitch used by Conn
(see text)
466 - - Renaissance Pitch

Further reading
For further reading, see David Senior's article The music goes round and... (an article about pitch rectification).