A pitch pipe, also spelled pitchpipe, is a tool used by a conductor or performer to accurately set pitch for a performance. The usual standard is A-440. Although it is capable of emitting a sound, either when keys are pressed or when it is blown, the pitch pipe is not a musical instrument, as it is designed to render individual pitches for tuning – not to create a performance.
Two frequent users of the pitch pipe are leaders of a cappella singing groups – groups in which the singers perform unaccompanied – and timpani players. Orchestras often play with 3–4 timpani, and it is not uncommon for a piece to require that the timpani be retuned in the middle of the piece, with several bars of rest being designated for this purpose. The timpanist softly blows the pitch on the pitch pipe and retunes the timpani as needed.
For a cappella groups, the conductor or leader will often play the starting pitches for the performers on the pitch pipe, giving each vocal part its beginning note. If the piece has several sections or movements, the pitches may be given prior to beginning each new portion of the piece. More often found in the past, but still found today, a tuning fork may be used for this purpose by a cappella groups, with the other pitches being worked out from the one the fork gave. Timpanists, on the other hand, would own a collection of tuning forks, and selecting the appropriate ones.
One pitch pipe design is a disc with the pitches labeled on one surface and a small hole for each pitch – you find the pitch you want and blow into the pitch pipe, something like a round harmonica. You can also purchase an electronic pitch pipe, which is operated by pressing buttons marked with the desired pitch. Each of these two types of pitch pipe come in two different pitch ranges, F to F and C to C.
There are also pitch pipes made specifically for guitar, violin, banjo, and tenor banjo. At least some of these limit their pitches to the standard string tunings. The specialized guitar pitch pipe, for example, has six pitches each with its own little mouthpiece labeled with the standard tunings for guitar, as follows: 1E 2B 3G 4D 5A 6E