Robert Estrin - piano expert

What does A440 mean?

Learn about the so-called A440

In this video, Robert tells you about an A440 and what it means in music and for your piano tuning.

Released on January 27, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

This is and I am Robert Estrin. And the question of the day is, what is meant by A440? You've heard this term before perhaps and you've wondered what is it really referring to? What is that number? Is it an arbitrary number? Hardly! I'm going to tell you all about that and describe what sound really is.

Well, sound is just simply a series of vibrations that go through the air. In fact, the vibration of a string of a piano vibrates at a certain number of cycles per second. If you were to look at a microscope slowed way down, you would see the string moving back and forth a certain number of times. Interestingly, that air also vibrates at the same frequency, hits your eardrum which will also be moving back and forth, if you could take a picture of that. And you'd see that moving at exactly the same frequency as the piano. This is how we hear things!

Well the A, which is above the middle C, produces 440 cycles per second. That means the string is moving back and forth 440 times every second. And so is your eardrum, producing this sound. And you can see I have a digital tuner on here, a nice app, that shows me that yes indeed, my piano is in tune. Now, what does it mean if your piano isn't at 440, is this a problem? Well, it could be for a number of reasons. First of all, a piano is meant to sound its best at 440. Now it could be slightly off from that, some people even prefer to tune slightly higher with the belief that it produces a brighter, more pleasing sound to some ears, 442, maybe even as high as 444. Some European orchestras as a matter of fact tune to these higher pitches. But 440 cycles per second is kind of the standard that has come about over the centuries.

Now, the other factor is if you tried to play with other musicians and let's say your piano had dropped substantially, so A was somewhere between A and A flat, imagine trying to play with another instrumentalist. Well, some instruments can tune up or down a certain degree. Other instruments don't have that ability at all. If you were playing, for example, with someone who played vibes or another mallet instrument, there is no tuning possible and it would sound pretty hideous if your piano was off-pitch. So it's good to keep your piano in tune. And realize that these cycles per second, when you hear a pitch, you're actually doing very, very rapid math. You're counting how many vibrations there are in each second.

One other little tidbit for you is that as you double the frequencies, 880, produces an A an octave higher. Likewise, half the frequencies would be an octave lower. It's all simple math. And 440 is the standard and you should try to keep your piano tuned to that. I recommend downloading an app for your phone so you can check your piano periodically. Because it may sound good, but the whole pitch could drop, or even go up and you wouldn't know it. And the stability of the tuning is paramount because if the piano ever gets off-pitch by too much, it takes several tunings for it to get stable again. Thanks so much for joining me. And the excellent questions, keep them coming in. Again, Robert Estrin. and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Michael Prozonic * VSM MEMBER * on July 10, 2019 @8:32 am PST
I often wondered why, at the beginning of a concert, you might see the first chair violinist play a ‘tune check’. This is strange since all other instruments can adjust tuning, even ‘lipping it in” while the piano has now ability to do this. Shouldn’tt they be using the piano as a tuning basis? But maybe it is just for show
Robert - host, on July 11, 2019 @5:11 pm PST
When an orchestra is playing a piano concerto, the first thing that should be done is for the oboe to tune to the piano. Then the orchestra tunes to the oboe.
00slevin * VSM MEMBER * on January 27, 2016 @7:24 am PST
Perfect timing Robert, my piano is having its annual tune up today. Thanks for the info esp re the app.
question .. If the pitch dropped from A to A flat, surely one would detect it? Do all the strings drop in concert?
Robert - host, on January 27, 2016 @11:17 am PST
If pianos aren't tuned for a long time they can drop in pitch or even go up in pitch. Sometimes they can even sound O.K.! So, if it has been a while since you have had your piano tuned, it would be good to check the pitch.
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