The Role of the Concertmaster in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

Now you’re settled into your seat and you’ve read your program book. If this is your first classical music concert, you’ll notice one empty seat on the stage — just to the left of the conductor’s podium. This seat is that of the first violinist — the concertmaster (known in England as the Leader).

The concertmaster has many essential duties. She determines (notates in the sheet music) when the string instruments move their bows up and when they move them down. She addresses questions of articulation — how long or short to play a note — for all the string players. And she acts as a liaison, sometimes as an ambassador, between the members of the orchestra and the conductor. (“Lenny, the violas are still getting a draft from stage left.”)

Finding the pitch

But all that musical work happens in rehearsal. Onstage, before the concert, the concertmaster seems to have only one duty: to tune up the orchestra. This job appears so simple — indeed, so silly — that many people wonder what the big deal is. As far as they can tell, all she does is walk onstage, acknowledge the applause of the audience, turn her back, and point to the oboist.

That’s it. Point to the oboist. For this, she gets her own dressing room.

The oboist sits in the middle of the woodwind section, which is in the middle of the orchestra. On cue, he lifts his oboe and plays a single note. Not just any note, mind you — an A. And not just any A — but A-440.

Twisting and turning, pulling and pushing

The oboist plays his A-440 until all the members of the orchestra have a chance to hear it. The players tune up by trying to match the oboist’s note exactly.

String players twist pegs on their instruments. The kettledrum player uses pedals to tighten or loosen the heads of his drums. Woodwind and brass players push in or pull out certain parts of their instruments, making their piping shorter (so that they play slightly higher) or longer (to play lower). Others may accomplish this tuning by adjusting the position of their lips on the mouthpiece.

After all the players match the oboist’s A, the concertmaster sits down. The orchestra becomes silent, and a hush falls over the concert hall. A moment later, the conductor enters. The audience applauds wildly.

But why? He hasn’t even done anything yet!

A-440: What does it mean?

Before performing, musicians all around the world tune their instruments to match a note called A-440. So what does that mean?

All the sounds you hear are produced by vibrations, or waves, in the air. Imagine that you could see these waves. The number of waves that hit your ear in a given second is called the frequency. Get this: The higher the frequency is, the higher the note you hear. That’s all there is to it. In the two waves, the second one has a higher frequency than the first; therefore, it creates a higher note than the first wave does.

In the music world, the note that everybody tunes to is called A-440 because that particular sound wave has a frequency of 440 microscopic waves per second — producing the note A.

How can you possibly determine with such incredible accuracy what frequency your instrument is playing? Well, over many years, great musicians are indeed able to learn to discern these differences. That’s one of their skills. But these days, many musicians use a tuner. This little machine, slightly bigger than a cellphone, has a meter on it that measures exact frequency.

Actually, A-440 wasn’t always the standard for tuning: The standard pitch has gone up over the years. In the Baroque era (roughly 300 years ago), musicians tuned to a lower version of A — around 430 cycles per second. As a result, music written for, say, soprano singers in the Baroque era are now much harder to sing than it was then. The high notes in Handel’s great oratorio Messiah, for example, are much more taxing for the chorus than they were in 1742.

Today, the frequency of tuning continues to rise. Many orchestras have taken to tuning to A-442, a very slight yet perceptible difference. They feel that the higher frequency gives them a more brilliant sound.

Just great: One more upsetting trend to worry about, right up there with global warming, continental drift, and the sun’s energy depletion.