Fife tuning or pitch

I have a long, drawn-out explanation as to why today’s fife pitch is what it is today.  But for the sake of the argument, while today’s “orchestral pitch” or “concert pitch” is the internationally agreed-upon A = 440. This was proposed in 1939 but not agreed upon and adopted by the International Organization for Standardization until 1955. The typical fife made throughout the 20th century and today is generally set at A = 443 to 446, varying from maker to maker; we call this “Traditional Pitch” or “Traditional Bb”, versus “Concert Bb”.  I have found that so many “trad” fifes made in the late 20th century are set right around A = 443 that this is what I set mine to.  However, a more powerful player will make that same instrument sound sharper still, while a weak player or someone who tends to “roll in” while they play will flatten the pitch.  A one-piece fife, once length and tone holes are set, cannot actually be tuned by the moving of the cork, but by the playing style/habit of the performer.  Two-piece fifes are such to provide a limited tuning range, the joint between the head and body serving as a tuning slide, although most fifers simply push the instrument together and play in that fashion.

Before the mid-20th century, there was no internationally recognized pitch.  So everyone was all over the map!  There are examples of instruments made contemporaneously to vary in as much as 50 cents and therefore cannot be played together.  In the 18th-century pitches varied wildly from place to place; A common pitch in London for 1740 was A=422.5 and yet same city in 1780, we find that it was A=409   In some places in France there are instruments surviving that are as low as A = 392, while in some regions of Italy, it could be found as high as A = 465.  There survives a tuning fork belonging to Beethoven (dated to 1800) that is A=455.4  In an opera house in Dresden, Germany, a tuning fork from 1815 is A=423, while another in their collection from 1826 is A=435.   It is generally regarded that in the latter 18th century, A would fluctuate between 400 Hz to 450 Hz, again depending upon where you went. What’s more, is that folk instruments – and the fife was regarded as such – went by a more sloppy consideration of determined pitch based upon surviving examples.  For orchestral groups there needed to be an agreed-upon standard and we find that Boston might settle on one pitch but it was different in New York, which varied from Philadelphia, and so on.  In the 1860s France decided upon A = 435… lower than today’s pitch… but was not adopted internationally.  The modern consensus (1955) for historical instruments playing for the Baroque era has settled upon A = 415 (a half-tone lower than modern pitch), and “classical pitch” (for 19th-century instrumentation) to be at A = 430, with “orchestral pitch” being A = 440.

Based upon the original in the Colonial Williamsburg collection that serves as the model for the “Williamsburg Pitch” fife, A = 456… (see Beethoven, above mentioned).  Sharp enough to actually be almost B!   But not quite.

All my instruments are made to A = 440 with the exceptions being among the fifes.  Williamsburg fifes are their pitch, historical fifes are set to their variance, and traditional fifes are A = 443.


This one is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but very informative.