Why Does the Oboe Tune the Orchestra?

This oboe thing is pretty important, but why? (viscosita/Flickr)

This oboe thing is pretty important, but why?

A while back we explored why the orchestra generally tunes to an A at 440 Hz, sometimes 442 Hz, and, for the conspiracy theorists among us, 432 Hz. More often than not the oboe sounds that A. But there are several competing ideas as to why that is.

Searching for an answer yields some frustrating results, in part because, as Delta State University Professor and author Bret Pimentel wrote on his blog, you get a lot of inconclusive information about what makes the oboe so special. This short piece from Yamaha acknowledges that some believe the oboe’s pitch is so stable that it makes all the sense in the world to tune to it. But at the same time, some authors disagree and contend that it is so unstable that other musicians need to adjust for its shortcomings. They believe the oboe is subject to changes in atmospheric conditions (like temperature or humidity), meaning that as the room gets warmer, the instrument’s pitch will get sharper. Still others argue that its penetrating tone is what makes it the perfect candidate for head tuner. But Pimentel points out several flaws in these reasons: For example, if we’re trying to look for the most stable pitch in the orchestra, why not turn to a tuned percussion instrument like the glockenspiel? And if the oboe is the tuner-in-chief because its sound is so penetrating, why not choose the trumpet or piccolo? Full story.

James Bennett, II (WQXR) / February 22, 2018

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