The Rough Guide to Classical Music (2010 5 ed). p. 26 Top.

Tuning & Temperament

A central tenet of music-making is the desirability of singing or playing “in tune”, accurately producing sound waves that vibrate at the correct frequency. In practical terms, this means different things to different types of musician. Singers, violinists, trombonists and others who can slide smoothly between an infinite number of pitches rely on their ears and fingers to “tune” each as they go along; keyboard players simply call in a professional tuner every few months; while harpists, according to Stravinsky, ”spend 90 percent of their lives tuning … and 10 percent playing out of tune.” [I bolded.] For all this, tuning is today a highly standardized affair. An F sharp in Madrid is the same as an F sharp in Melbourne, and pianos in New York are tuned using the same system as those in Paris or Tokyo. But it wasn’t always so simple, as modern tuning relies on two basic principles, both of which took centuries to establish their global hegemony.

What's offbeat or outlandish about tuning harps, as Stravinsky insinuates?

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    I'd even question the 'facts' in the last two sentences. Standard A is NOT 440 Hz all over the world. Could it be a bit of a joke? – Tim Aug 16 '18 at 6:35
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    It's just a 'muso joke' - like adjusting one of the bass player's machine heads while he wasn't looking... then refusing to tell him which one. – Tetsujin Aug 16 '18 at 6:59
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    It's a very old joke recycled. The original version was that a renaissance lute player spent more time tuning his instrument than looking after his horse. – alephzero Aug 16 '18 at 7:21
  • The same joke is also recycled about hurdy-gurdy players, bagpipe players, viola players ... just about any instrument that requires tuning will probably have been the butt of the joke at some point. Stravinsky was just directing it at harp players in his iteration of the joke. – Steve M Aug 16 '18 at 8:48
  • Did you consider that this would be anything else apart from gentle extracting of the Michael? – Tim Aug 16 '18 at 9:16

A violinist has four strings to tune. A harp player has (typically) 47. Stravinsky is jesting (with a degree of justification) that they don't even STAY in tune very long!

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    Harpsichordists have up to about 180 strings to tune, but J S Bach reputedly could retune an instrument in less than 15 minutes! – alephzero Aug 16 '18 at 7:21
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    @alephzero I can tune it in 1 minute. Oh, you want it tuned correctly? :-) – Carl Witthoft Aug 16 '18 at 17:13

A concert harp is made out of wood with a mixture of natural gut and wire strings. If you keep it in one place in a temperature-controlled environment, it can stay in tune for weeks.

But if you move it to somewhere that's warmer, colder, dryer or more humid, then it will quickly go out of tune. So if you have a harp that gets dragged from concert hall to concert hall, it will need re-tuning before every performance. And there are around 46 to 48 strings on a concert harp.

If you're unlucky enough to have a string snap, then the new one can take days or weeks to fully stretch. During that time, it will constantly go flat. For the first few hours, it will go flat as fast as you can re-tune it.

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