432 vs 440Hz: Science or Codswallop?


A432 vs A440Canadian band Walk Off the Earth posted excitedly on Facebook that they had just recorded a new song. Great. I like WOTE and look forward to their new song.

What was really different about that notice was that they also said they had changed their instruments from the standard A440 to A432 tuning, and it made a huge difference to them:

For all the music nerds out there, you might want to look into this. This has not been 100% proven but the evidence is building. When we were in the studio recording our latest album “Sing It All Away”, we decided to experiment with recording our songs in A=423Hz and also Standard A=440Hz. When we compared the 2 different tunings we unanimously chose the 432 tuning as the one that made us feel better. Hence, our album was performed and recorded in this obscure tuning.
Anyway, this is a cool read and if you’re feeling fancy, try tuning your guitar to 432 and give it a jam. You might feel the vibrations of Mother Nature in your soul!

Do you smell woo hoo in that? What difference would a mere 8Hz make? After all, it’s barely audible; a mere 1/6th of a tone.

Plenty, according to some (especially the wingnut population on YouTube, always eager to jump on whatever pseudoscience bandwagon is in the parade). It’s become one of those internet True Believers’ issues. But is it real or just hogwash? Objective reality or merely subjective? Let’s start with a little history and some science (and not the woo hoo Mother Nature stuff…).

A440 means that the middle A (A above middle C, or A4) is tuned to produce a note at the frequency 440Hz. One Hertz or 1Hz is one cycle per second. Your typical North American electrical current is 60Hz. The range of human hearing is roughly 20Hz to 20KHz (20,000Hz), but we are most sensitive in the range between 1K and 4KHz (some reports say 2-5KHz) – much higher than either A432 or A440.

For centuries, musicians tuned their instruments at the pitch they liked (or their instruments would allow), but generally placed A4 in the range of 420-460 Hz. However, there was a greater disparity in the outliers over the ages, from 377 to as high as 567 Hz, according to this paper.

Emmanuel Comte writes:

If the French Baroque tuning varied around 392-415 Hz, the English Baroque tuning of the second half of the 17th Century was near. By cons, in Italy, if the pitch is low in the South, it rises depending on the latitude. We find it at 393 Hz in Rome while it is around 460 Hz in Venice. From 1511 to 1953, the pitch of the ‘A’ rose from 377 Hz (in 1511) to 440 Hz (in 1955). The work of Bruce Haynes deserve to be mentioned. He studied the tone of approximately 1’200 instruments from the Baroque period. He added more than 300, overlapping the Renaissance period until the Romantic era.

Handel apparently preferred A423 and Mozart liked A422 or maybe A432. Depends on whose site you read. But it’s also misleading, because we often don’t know what pitch they liked for A. Sometimes we know what they liked for C. As the Schiller Institute  site notes,

Regarding composers, all “early music” scholars agree that Mozart tuned at precisely at C=256, as his A was in the range of A=427-430. Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, and dozens of other directors of orginal-instrument orchestras’ established the practice during the 1980’s of recording all Mozart works at precisely A=430, as well as most of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos. Hogwood, Norrington, and others have stated in dozens of interviews and record jackets, the pragmatic reason: German instruments of the period 1780-1827, and even replicas of those instruments, can only be tuned at A=430.

Most attributions of a particular frequency are, however, speculative, wishful thinking, or simply erroneous. Some extrapolate from C (i.e. if Mozart liked C=256, then he MUST have tuned his A at 432, which you can see above is nonsense.)

It didn’t matter that much what tuning anyone in particular liked, as long as everyone in the orchestra tuned to the same note. Relative pitch matters more than absolute.

There was no international standard for concert pitch until the last half of the 20th century. A standard makes sense in that everyone will play what the composer intended and every audience will hear the same notes. Can you imagine a Playing For Change video where every musician tuned to a different pitch? Chaos.

The original idea of having national or even international standards for pitch came into being in the late 19th century. In 1859, the French government made A435 the standard for its orchestras. In 1885, the Austrian government decreed that would also be its national orchestral pitch. Britain declared A439 in 1896. Brits never liked to agree with anything the French did.

But in America in the 1920s, jazz musicians informally adopted 440 Hz. It wasn’t made the official American standard until 1936. Historically, this has had a greater impact than any of the previous attempts*. The International Organization for Standardization argued its way to agreeing it should be the worldwide standard in 1955, making A440 as ISO 16 (the French protested, demanding A432, but to no avail). A few protested, demanding A4 as 438 Hz, because it was more “natural” whatever that means (bubonic plague is natural, so is ebola, after all).

So far so good: everyone finally agreed to tune to the same pitch, which simplifies the task of writing and performing music. But that so-called “standard” was being ignored as late as the 1970s:

Lower tuning is common, including in Moscow, Time reported, “where orchestras revel in a plushy, warm tone achieved by a larynx-relaxing A=435 cycles,” and at a performance in London “a few years ago,” British church organs were still tuned a half-tone lower, about A=425, than the visiting Vienna Philharmonic, at A=450.

The modern, international acceptance of A440 may be in part due to the ubiquitous nature of the internet, where music gets shared more than in the past. But again, it doesn’t matter to the listener if the instruments are tuned A440 or A432 or A435 as long as they are all in tune with one another.

So why are some people now moving backwards to the nonstandard A432? Is this just another of those wacky internet mood swings that the gullible easily scammed glom onto? Or are they just headline hunting in the increasingly competitive, but easily gulled online environment?

Mostly, it appears to be because of magic, of course: that heady mix of superstition and New Age codswallop trotted out to explain anything we can’t immediately understand. There is the inevitable flurry of pseudoscience claptrap about how A432 “…resonates with the Heart Chakra, repairs DNA and restores both spiritual and mental health. There is even the suggestion that 432 tuned music stimulates the right brain, responsible for our most desirable human traits.” Yes, that makes my head hurt, too.

You can also read/see hogwash about frequencies and water “memory”, heart rate, Mayan temples, speed of light, the Great Pyramid, the frequency of the universe, and other New Age nonsense. The mind boggles at how convoluted this has become.

It’s all bullshit, of course. Chakra cleansing? Show me a chakra on an X-ray or in an autopsy and I’ll believe in them. Until then, they’re as imaginary as ghosts, angels, UFOs, and chemtrails. Even more magical: some adherents claim A440 affects the “third eye” chakra (the one allegedly involved with thinking) while 432 Hz soothingly stimulates the heart chakra, which supposedly affects feeling and emotions. But apparently not every one in the New Age industry agrees. Some offer different frequencies for these imaginary places. For example, one site lists (along with aptly silly descriptions):

Heart Chakra Frequency: 639 Hz
Reflecting the tone of the Earth’s year, this frequency helps us connect relationships, which is basically the main function of the heart charka.
Throat Chakra Frequency: 741 Hz
Reflecting the tone of the planet Mercury, it is known to awaken one’s intuition leading to better communication with others.
Third-Eye Chakra Frequency: 852 Hz
Reflecting the tone of the planet Venus, this allows us to return to our spiritual order which unlocks the unconscious elements of the mind.

(I apologize for introducing another one of those migraine-inducing touchy-feely pseudoscience sites, but you really need to know what sort of piffle gets published online.) 

Water memory? That comes from Japan’s major wingnut, Dr. Masuro Emoto. It may be the wet dream of hard-of-thinking New Agers, but it’s debunked junk science. Just more Web woo-hoo.

As for those lovely images of sand or salt-forming patterns when subjected to sound – it’s called cymatics — first of all, so what? What does any pattern mean; what does it have to do with emotions? Or health? Or chakras? Is the dancing sand that results from AC/DC any more or less aesthetically pleasing than that from Gregorian chants?

Sure, the symmetries are often nice eye candy. But what is produced is the result of a complex relationship between the frequency, the base surface material, its resonant frequency, its thickness and density, the size and density of the particles on it, the volume of the sound, the temperature of the materials, the ambient temperature, the state of the matter… interesting stuff for sure and physicists may go into paroxysms of delight over it. But any claims about the healing or emotional powers of those patterns or sounds are just woo hoo. Cymatherapy is just quackery

Gary Vey on Viewzone, writes,

Some scientists have noticed that the frequencies of the various notes can be expressed in whole numbers in the 432 Hz tuning system. The 440 Hz system results in more complex fractions. Often the simplest solution is most likely the correct one.

Which is utter nonsense. Which scientists? Wingnuts never like to say, never like to cite actual research, peer-reviewed papers, or scientific journals. And why generic “scientists” instead of a specific discipline, or even mathematicians? Because when you use the catch-all term “scientists” it adds a patina of respectability to magical piffle that makes your fellow wingnuts tremble with anticipation of revelation.

Since numbers are not magic, fractions have no effect or meaning by themselves. No one goes around pointing to eighths, or seventeenths, or even tenths. Numbers are just representational symbols, not items, not physical elements. They have no inherent meaning alone. Numerology isn’t a science: it’s a superstition.

And there’s no scientific basis to the claim that a simple, fractionless number is any way mathematically more appropriate than a whole number. Look at Pi… it’s a lovely fraction and it doesn’t come any more complex than Pi.

(“Scientific” or philosophical pitch was another boondoggle: it tuned all the values of C to a whole number (an integer) so that the frequency of every C was also a whole number and a multiple of the previous (C4 was tuned to 256 Hz rather than the standard 261.62 Hz, making C5 512 Hz, C6 1024 Hz, etc.) which looks pretty if you think numbers are magical, but gets ugly when you look at the frequencies of the other notes, which are those pesky fractions.)

But clearly Vey isn’t a musician because he would know that even the best digital tuner can only guide the tuning. We don’t just use mechanical aids to tune an instrument: we listen for what sounds correct for all the strings or reeds. Strings are likely off by a fraction of a Hertz even when the most meticulous musicians tune them. Fractions, those awful, incorrect fractions…

And you can’t simply drop a recorded song by 8Hz, as this article points out. There’s a whole lot of technical stuff about temperament and what happens to string intonation when you detune an instrument here too:

You can still pitch it 8Hz down, so the Concert Pitch changes from 440Hz to 432Hz, but the piece with not be “in tune” with the 432-TUNING SYSTEM, simply because the temperament has not been changed from 12-TET to Pythagorean (as explained at the introduction to 432-Tuning).

Vey describes an experiment where students listened to classical works in both A432 and A440. The result? Nothing to write home about:

While the students showed no significant preference the experiment did confirm that these early composers were, in fact, using the 432 Hz tuning to create their masterpieces. This might support the idea that they were more creative because the music stimulated their right brains.

First, that right-left-brain dichotomy is more junk science. Debunked, baseless claptrap up there with anti-vaccination codswallop. Dispose of any argument based on it: you cannot base one pseudoscience argument on another: it’s a house of very shaky cards.

Vey then adds the conspiracy theory caveat:

The critique of the experiment was that these were music students who were accustomed to the 440 Hz pitch and perhaps were influenced by their familiarity with the 440 Hz tones.

That’s it; blame the failure of your study to produce the results you wanted on some conspiracy instead of the data. Ooh, they couldn’t hear the difference because they had been brainwashed… and it began with Joseph Goebbels. That’s right: play the Nazi card when you want to stir some fear-inspiring conspiracy nonsense into the mix. And then make it all the result of the New World Order (NWO) secretly taking over the post-war governments… oh, and let’s not forget the “Rockefeller Foundation’s military commercialization of music” by imposing A440 on us that is “herding populations into greater aggression, psychosocial agitation, and emotional distress predisposing people to physical illnesses and financial impositions profiting the agents, agencies, and companies engaged in the monopoly.” Sigh. What a bunch of paranoid, puerile claptrap.

No, I’m not kidding. This stuff is batshit crazy. It’s as historically accurate and believable as homeopathy. A440 was in use many decades before the Nazis were even a wet dream of a party. A440 truthers are at work… but don’t let facts get in the way of New Age visions.

A similar, but wider-ranging experiment with seven close frequencies was done by Trevor Cox at Acoustic Engineering. He found,

People may think that music sounds better at 432 Hz and therefore applying a pitch shifter to their favourite tunes will improve quality, but for people who took part in my experiment this wasn’t true. 432 Hz and 440Hz were rated with equal preference. This doesn’t surprise me, because when we hear a melody it is mostly about relative pitch.

But the nonsense is compounded on so many sites. On the ask.audio site Lynda Arnold writes about A432 tuning in a piece that veritably drips with the grease of claptrap:

The chart below shows how 432 Hz tuning is derived based on Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Multiples of 2 and 3 forms the basis of the chart, and the left column shows all the multiples of 2 as the note C. In the middle, you will see that A=432 Hz. Also of note is the number 108, used in many spiritual traditions as a unifying number. Mala prayer beads come in strands of 108 and in yogic traditions, 108 sun salutations are often practiced. The number 186624 in the blue box is 432 squared and is the frequency of the speed of light within hundredths of a decimal—very close! Also, every column corresponds to a note with each being a 5th apart. You will recognize this as the Circle of Fifths—the basis for music theory, or at least Western music theory… Recently, astronomers at Stanford found the fundamental frequency of the sun to be 144 Hz.  The 2nd Overtone or 3rd Harmonic of this fundamental pitch is 432 Hz (see chart). These are auspicious findings indeed and point to a system that is connected in many ways.

This is jibber-jabber: the sort of New Age word salad that fills so many sites. These are mere coincidences, most of them artificial, not some cosmic love in. Here’s the bad news for New Agers: the universe doesn’t give a damn about you, your vibration, your chakras, your pet angels, your prayer beads, or how you tune your guitar. The universe is completely oblivious to what you wear, eat, play, or screw. Get over it.

Arnold also uses these sort of statements:

…here is a growing movement underway fueled by the sound healing community, select ensembles, researchers and scientists that will keep bringing this issue to light and allow music makers and listeners to consider the power of this tuning and how it affects the mind, body and spirit… Music researchers have also tested traditional healing instruments, like Tibetan Bowls from Nepal, and found they are made in accordance with A = 432 Hz tuning.

Nowhere does she identify these mysterious, anonymous researchers or scientists. They’re magical beings whose identity is known only to the initiates, I suppose. Or maybe they work in Fifth Moon Garden University. Without verifiable sources or facts, these sort of statements have the veracity of 911 truther statements.

The bottom line is that all you accomplish by detuning your instruments to A432 is self-satisfaction and maybe sounding out of tune when you try to play with more sensible musicians. And if you play solo, you just make it much harder for your musical fans to play along with you. Aside, of course, from those already initiated into the piffle.
* If you’ve ever tried to figure out the chords to a song recorded in the 1920s — as I have — you will know the frustration of finding that your modern instrument is not tuned to the same pitch as those of the performers. For years I assumed this was an artifact of recording at a slightly faster or slower speed, Now I realize they may have used an alternate pitch for A.

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