In Tune


—by Anne Sullivan

“How long does a harp stay in tune? About 20 minutes or until someone opens a door.”

“What’s the definition of a quarter tone? Two harpists playing unison strings.”

“Harpists spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune.”

All jokes aside, though, tuning can be a tricky matter for harpists. It’s a skill that takes a lot of patience and practice and is about as much fun as brushing your teeth. But understanding the history and science behind tuning can help you turn those pegs with better precision and more confidence.

What does it mean to be in tune? When two identical pitches are in tune, their sound waves align. You can picture the long smooth waves of a calm ocean as they break on the shore. Those two pitches create a sonority that is more than the sum of its parts. The tones blend, sounding rich and full. If the pitches are not exactly in tune, the sound waves clash. Imagine a choppy sea where the waves are short and collide against each other from every direction.

Even two pitches that are not the same, for instance, an A and an E, can have sound waves that align or clash. You can hear the clash as a pulsing commonly called “beats,” which disappears as the notes are brought in tune with each other.

In theory, tuning is an exact science. Sound travels in waves. (Remember those sine waves from trigonometry?) These waves may be shorter or longer, meaning they repeat more or less frequently. The number of times the wave repeats per second (its frequency) is measured in Hertz (Hz) units. One repeat, or one cycle, per second is one Hz. The more cycles per second, the higher the pitch. 440 Hz is the pitch we hear when the frequency of the wave is 440 cycles per second. It is an A. But it hasn’t always been so.

Pitch has never been a true constant. It has been a matter of taste and common practice, and from what we know of pitch standards in the 18th and 19th centuries, a very changeable one. In 1711, the inventor of the tuning fork, Englishman John Shore tuned his fork to A423.5. Handel’s own tuning fork (1751) was A422.5. The Paris Opera of 1811 was using A427, but the Paris Conservatory one year later was using A440. In 1878, the Vienna Opera was using the rather sharp A447, but one year later the Erard company’s official pitch was an even higher A455—more than halfway to B-flat. Given the lack of a universal standard, it is no wonder harps developed a reputation for being out of tune.

In 1859, the French government passed a law establishing A435 as the French pitch standard.  English and American pitches at the time were generally higher. One theory for this suggests that French concert halls were heated to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, while the English and Americans preferred temperatures around 70 degrees. With the higher temperatures, wind instrument pitches were sharper, and the oboe was more comfortable tuning at A440. While this is only one possibility for the discrepancy, it is interesting to note that in 1885, Vienna linked pitch and temperature, adopting A435.4 as the standard at 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 1939, an international conference held in London adopted 440 as the international standard for the A pitched in the second space of the treble clef. The Swiss International Organization for Standardization reaffirmed the A440 standard in 1955 and again in 1975. The establishment of this standard revolutionized tuning. Having established the benchmark A440, it was now possible to accurately place the other 11 tones in the octave.

There have been debates through the centuries about precisely how the notes in a scale should relate to each other. You may be familiar with Bach’s “Well-Tempered Klavier,” for instance. Tempering is an adjusting of the interval between pitches. Different tuning temperaments place the pitches at slightly different frequencies.

Tuning systems have been debated for centuries because of the way they alter the “color” of the keys. Key color was something prized by many musicians and composers. It was an expressive device, much like tone color, and it was something Bach strove to keep alive in the system of “well temperament.” Well temperament allowed a keyboard player to play in all keys without the infamous “wolf” tone—a hideously out-of-tune interval created in other systems of tuning. Bach felt well temperament still allowed the color of the keys to come through, and his “Well-Tempered Klavier” was written to demonstrate this.

The most commonly used system today is the “equal temperament” system. It is certainly the most practical system for us harpists who need to tune every note separately. This system divides the octave into 12 equal semitones, allowing us to play in tune in every key and keeping our enharmonics in tune. It is the way electronic tuners are calibrated. It is, however, a compromise. By making all the intervals between notes equal, there is no color to any key and, technically, the notes are out of tune.

You may have noticed that a violinist tunes her strings in fifths. If you tuned the same strings on your harp with your tuner, you could get one of the notes in tune with the violin, but not both. This is the price of equal temperament.


Englishman John Shore invented the tuning fork in 1711. He tuned his fork to A423.5.

Englishman John Shore invented the tuning fork in 1711. He tuned his fork to A423.5.

Electronic tuners and strobe tuners are the two kinds of tuners used most often today. They provide a high level of accuracy, even when the surroundings are noisy or you are nervous. Used properly, they are invaluable for tuning our instruments quickly and efficiently, and they can even help to train our own fine-tuning skills.

Your tuner’s most important function is to assess the pitch you play and provide feedback about how that pitch relates to a standard, as in whether the pitch is sharp, flat or in tune. The standard your tuner uses is one you can set yourself on most tuners: the exact frequency of the A. Although the standard frequency for A is 440 Hz, there may be reasons you would want to adjust that (see sidebar).

It is critical that you learn how your tuner makes that adjustment. It is usually referred to as “calibration,” and many tuners offer a wide calibration range, as wide as from 410–480 Hz. If you unknowingly adjust the calibration on your tuner, you could actually be tuning your A to a B-flat! Don’t laugh—it’s happened to many an unwitting harpist.

After you calibrate the A, your tuner uses equal temperament to assess the frequency of each note. Some tuners allow you to change the temperament to a more exotic tuning, such as “Pythagorean tuning” or “just intonation.” Unless you have the extremely specialized knowledge to use these tunings appropriately, you are best served by sticking with equal temperament. Almost everyone does.

Up to this point, all tuners function pretty much identically. But the two types of tuners—electronic quartz tuners and strobe tuners—assess your pitch in different ways and give you different feedback. Let’s look at each type, and you can see what’s right for you.


Electronic tuners like the one above take an average of the sound waves it “hears” and gives you a readout based on that average.

Electronic tuners like the one above take an average of the sound waves it “hears” and gives you a readout based on that average.

Electronic tuners, or quartz tuners, are small, inexpensive, fairly accurate and easy to use. They have a microprocessor that “hears” the note you play, takes an average of the sound waves and gives you a readout based on that average. These tuners usually have one of two types of displays that show you when the note is in tune, either a needle or a colored light readout. The tuners with the needle are more accurate than the others, with an accuracy of +/- 3 cents (one cent is 1/100th of a semitone). Tuners with only a light display readout are accurate to +/- 9 cents. Harpists need a chromatic tuner (as opposed to a guitar tuner) that “hears” all 12 notes in the scale.


Strobe tuners have been around since 1936 and are extremely accurate. Today strobe tuning apps are available at a fraction of the price as mechanical strobes like the one above.

Strobe tuners have been around since 1936 and are extremely accurate. Today strobe tuning apps are available at a fraction of the price as mechanical strobes like the one above.

The first strobe tuners were mechanical. They were first made in 1936 by the Conn company, and are still manufactured today by the Peterson company. Inside the tuner is a translucent disc set to rotate at a speed exactly corresponding to the note you want to tune. Behind the disc are lights that flash, or “strobe,” at the same frequency as the note being played.  When the speed of the disc and the speed of the strobe are the same, the disc appears in an optical illusion to stand still, and the note is in tune. Because of their high level of accuracy (+/- one tenth of a cent, or one thousandth of a semi-tone), strobe tuners are the preferred choice of professional tuners and regulators.

Mechanical strobes can be extremely expensive. More often you will see “virtual” strobe tuners. These don’t have an actual rotating disc, but their readouts have segments that will line up when the note is in tune. The various bands on the readout can be used to tune different octaves. These tuners are as accurate as their mechanical counterparts but they are much less expensive. They are even available as apps for your computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The essential tuner accessory, no matter what type of tuner you prefer, is a tuner pickup, a small microphone you can put inside your harp. When everyone around you is talking or warming up and it’s impossible to hear, you can plug the pickup into your tuner, clip it in your harp and tune your harp despite the noise.

A440 may be the standard, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the right choice. If you play in any ensemble regularly, whether it’s a harp ensemble or an orchestra, you have heard the “Variations on the Theme of A.” The oboe may give a beautiful A440, but once the piece gets underway, the pitch may get pushed higher, leaving your carefully tuned harp in another pitch universe.

There are several possible culprits. If the temperature on stage rises, wind instruments will tend to go sharp, pushing up the pitch. This is especially unfortunate for us, as warmer temperatures usually cause our strings to go flat. Also, the higher instruments like the violin and the flute may unconsciously push the pitch up, looking for a more brilliant sound.

We can learn from the manufacturers of percussion instruments, like orchestra bells and xylophones. Today, these instruments are factory tuned (ah, a harpist’s dream) to A442. This is strategic tuning; A442 may be ever so slightly sharp for the first note of the piece and ever so slightly flat by the last note, but not out of tune enough to make anyone cringe.

We harpists can practice strategic tuning also. By tuning at A441 or A442, we give ourselves the best chance of sounding in tune at the beginning and the end of the piece. Naturally, different ensembles and situations may require more or less drastic measures. As a rule of thumb, tuning one or two cents sharp will give you the advantage.

On the other hand, in harp ensemble you must all agree to tune at the same standard, and tune carefully. In harp ensemble the object is to sound as much like one instrument as possible, so as produce the perfect blend.  Salzedo in his Modern Study of the Harp described harp ensemble sound as “…an incomparable musical atmosphere,” “…a sonorous sea bathed by the streams of elemental light.” But only if the harps are in tune.

There are a few things you can do to make tuning easier.

Tune your harp every day. This is the first and most important rule of tuning—a harp that is kept in tune regularly will stay in tune more reliably. It may seem like a chore, especially when you just want to start playing, but it’s an important habit to develop. Think of it as training for your harp and for your ear.

Replace old strings. Tuning is much easier when your strings are in good condition. If your strings are old or worn, it is more difficult for your ear or your tuner to hear a true pitch. While you tune each day, look for strings that are frayed or worn, especially at the top near the discs or levers. Listen to their pitch and sound quality and replace them when they no longer have a clear pitch or a good tone.

Watch for false strings. When a string wears, the width of the string becomes uneven along its length. It’s thicker in some places and thinner in others. This causes the string to vibrate unevenly, and instead of hearing a note with a clear, true pitch, we hear a fuzzy or wavering pitch without a clear center, or fundamental. We call this a “false” note. Occasionally, you may have noticed a note that your tuner indicates as sharp when you think it’s flat or the other way around. This may mean the string is false.

Don’t forget your bass wires. In addition to their role as strings, they serve as resonators for the entire harp. When they are old, their sound becomes dull. This can affect the tone of your harp overall, and can make it harder to hear true pitches from the upper strings. A good rule of thumb is to change your wire strings every year. •

Anne Sullivan is a harpist and teacher in State College, Pa. Her blog, is dedicated to fostering excellence in harp playing and musicianship.



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