Tune Up, Listen, and Play!

A classic story told among musicians concerns Camille Saint-Saens. About to rehearse one of his own compositions, he stood before the orchestra for what seemed to be an interminable period of time, waiting for the musicians to finish their tuning. Finally the cacophonic sounds of favorite concerti, arpeggios, and scales dwindled into that background of silence upon which music is performed, and the master musician raised his hands to conduct. After only a few measures of the music, however, Saint-Saens brought the orchestra to an abrupt halt. "You musicians spend half your lives tuning—and the other half playing out of tune!" he cried. Then he emphatically added the command, "Listen!"

Experienced musicians tune with extreme care in order to establish a perfect unison of pitch among all who are to perform together. In the case of a symphony orchestra the oboe is given the responsibility of sounding the A that immediately becomes the standard of pitch to which all of the other instruments must conform. In the hands of a fine musician, the oboe produces an extremely accurate A. This is usually set at 440 vibrations per second, which is the international standard generally accepted by musicians the world over.

Where Do You Really Live?
May 12, 1973

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