A 440 Tuning – Here Are Several Bad Reasons To Convert To Another Tuning Standard

Yesterday morning I was doing one of my rare scans through my Facebook feed and found a link to the article, Here’s Why You Should Consider Converting Your Music To A=432 Hz. I found it to be a word salad of staggeringly bad logic and motivated reasoning. As an exercise, I wanted to go through some of the claims by author Elina St-Onge and show how her ideas lack merit and in many cases contain outright lies.

A440First, a little background about A440. This term refers to the tuning standard currently favored in the United States and the United Kingdom, where A4 is tuned to 440 Hz. The precise tuning of this A is arbitrary, historically pitch standards varied widely over Europe (and this discussion ignores pitch systems used by musical styles from other cultures in Africa and India, for example, that don’t separate the octave into the same pitches European-influenced music does). The use of the A to tune is an artifact of the strings instruments. Orchestral string instruments tune the strings to different pitches, but all include an open string tuned to A, which make it a convenient note for the entire orchestra to tune to. Some instruments, such as my primary instrument of the trombone, are arguably tuned easier to pitches other than A.

St-Onge begins her article quoting scientists out of context and demonstrates that she is scientifically illiterate.

Tesla said it. Einstein Agreed (sic). Science proved it. It is a known fact that everything—including our own bodies—is made up of energy vibrating at different frequencies.

I won’t deconstruct her misuse of the idea that matter=energy, but instead refer you to an expert, particle physicist Matt Strassler. See his article for the layperson titled Matter and Energy: A False Dichotomy for the real story on this. For our purposes the following bits from Strassler’s summary are important.

Matter and Energy really aren’t in the same class and shouldn’t be paired in one’s mind.

Matter, in fact, is an ambiguous term; there are several different definitions used in both scientific literature and in public discourse. Each definition selects a certain subset of the particles of nature, for different reasons. Consumer beware! Matter is always some kind of stuff, but which stuff depends on context.

Energy is not ambiguous (not within physics, anyway). But energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.

A good working definition of energy is “work potential.” Any time you read the term “energy” in St-Onge’s article replace it with “work potential” and see if the sentence makes sense.

Continuing, St-Onge writes:

The way frequencies affect the physical world has been demonstrated through various experiments such as the science of Cymatics and water memory.

Cymatics is basically the study of how sound can be used to excite a physical medium, such as a metal plate, and create visual patterns of liquid, particles, or a paste on the medium. This is a legitimate scientific area, but the science in no way suggests that the specific tuning system used by musicians has any effect whatsoever on your sense of well being or enjoyment of the music. The idea that water has a memory is simply wrong. Brian Dunning has done a thorough deconstruction of the water “experiments” of Masaru Emoto if you want more information. Even if we charitably assume that this has some scientific merit, which it absolutely does not, it is quite a leap to presume it somehow supports the idea that tuning to A432 is somehow better.

Continuing with St-Onge:

We all hold a certain vibrational frequency…

She doesn’t cite a source for this factual statement. The only online sources I found are pseudoscientific and not trustworthy sources. There’s also a lot of discrepancy over what “vibrational frequency” human beings are supposed to have, and I didn’t see anything suggesting that A432 somehow relates.

With this concept in mind, let us bring our attention to the frequency of the music we listen to. Most music worldwide has been tuned to A=440 Hz since the International Standards Organization (ISO) promoted it in 1953. However, when looking at the vibratory nature of the universe, it’s possible that this pitch is disharmonious with the natural resonance of nature and may generate negative effects on human behaviour (sic) and consciousness.

Does the universe have a vibratory nature? All sorts of things vibrate at different frequencies. It’s how we have music made of different pitches. How can the vibration of things in the universe be disharmonious with the vibration of things in the universe? It’s like stating the color green isn’t in balance with the colors of the rainbow.

Some theories, although just theories, even suggest that the nazi (sic) regime has been in favor of adopting this pitch as standard after conducting scientific researches to determine which range of frequencies best induce fear and aggression.

I have three points to make here. First of all, Goodwin’s Law applies. Invoking Nazis to make your point about musical tuning automatically makes your point invalid. Secondly, St-Onge is misusing the term “theory” in the scientific context (gravity is a theory, it’s also a fact). Lastly, her statement here is a historical question that can be answered through actual evidence. In fact, the standardization of tuning to A440 was around well before the Nazi’s came to power. Even if it were true that 1930s Germany was somehow conspiratorially responsible for today’s tuning system, there is no credible evidence that it will “best induce fear and aggression.”

432 Hz is said to be mathematically consistent with the patterns of the universe. It is said that 432 Hz vibrates with the universe’s golden mean PHI and unifies the properties of light, time, space, matter, gravity and magnetism with biology, the DNA code and consciousness. When our atoms and DNA start to resonate in harmony with the spiraling pattern of nature, our sense of connection to nature is said to be magnified. The number 432 is also reflected in ratios of the Sun, Earth, and the moon as well as the precession of the equinoxes, the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Sri Yantra among many other sacred sites.

Wow. I suggest that if your references cite astrology and alchemy as corroboration, then your hypothesis needs an awful lot of revision. There is no credible evidence that anything in the above paragraph is true and should be taken seriously.

Another interesting factor to consider is that the A=432 Hz tuning correlates with the color spectrum and chakra system while the A=440 Hz isn’t aligned.

Chakras, chi, innate energy (whatever you want to call it) cannot be measured, has never been shown to have any effect on the physical world, and is, to put it mildly, baloney. How can you correlate something that cannot be observed or measured to a measurable vibrational frequency?

Now there are some evidence-based studies that look at color and pitch relationships. Folks with absolute pitch, for example, frequently have an association of color with a particular pitch. However, even if we charitably assume that A432 somehow is more aligned with the visible spectrum of color, this doesn’t say anything about whether it makes the music more meaningful.

Let’s explore the experiential difference between A=440 Hz and A=432 Hz. The noticeable difference music lovers and musicians have noticed with music tuned in A=432 Hz is that it is not only more beautiful and harmonious to the ears, but it also induces a more inward experience that is felt inside the body at the spine and heart. Music tuned in A=440 Hz was felt as a more outward and mental experience, and was felt at the side of the head which projected outwards. Audiophiles have also stated that A=432hz music seems to be non-local and can fill an entire room, whereas A=440hz can be perceived as directional or linear in sound propagation.

While you can find musicians and audiophiles who prefer one tuning system over another, there is again no credible evidence that it makes a noticeable difference in how harmonious it sounds or the experience of most listeners. Acoustician Trevor Cox wrote of an informal web experiment he put together to test this.

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.

Back to St-Onge:

I cannot state with complete certainty that every idea suggested in this article is 100% accurate…

Of course no one can state with complete certainty, but she is either being disingenuous here or covering outright lies. If you’re going to use the veneer of science to prop up your arguments you should do your homework and cite your sources. Don’t be wishy-washy at the end and cover your butt at the inevitable deconstruction of poor thinking.

For this reason, I suggest that we each do our own research on the matter with an open yet discerning mind if we are looking for scientific validation. Perhaps more scientific validation could be done in the near future to explore this topic.

St-Onge again demonstrates scientific illiteracy here. Looking for “scientific validation” is what she did in her article. She searched for resources that supported her preconceived notions about what tuning standard she feels is better, and then ignored anything contrary. If you want to investigate this topic scientifically you should subject the ideas to a test that can actually disprove your hypothesis. If you can’t, then you may be on to something. But looking for validation is only going to reinforce your personal bias, not answer the real question.

I believe we all possess intuition and the ability to observe without judgment, which can be more useful than resorting to ridicule when exposed to information that has not yet been accepted by the scientific community.

It’s good to be nonjudgemental, but St-Onge needs to understand it’s not the information that is being ridiculed here, it’s her lack of critical thinking. At least she finally acknowledged that the evidence she used is unscientific.

Why gripe about this article? Because critical thinking is an important skill and is too neglected in music education. Motivated reasoning and illogic leads to incorrect conclusions and can even result in folks making poor choices when faced with a serious mental or physical illness. The bottom line is that if you enjoy music tuned down to A432 then that is reason enough to do it. There’s no magical reason why it’s better or worse than A440 and there’s more evidence that it makes no difference on your personal enjoyment of the music than that it does. And there is absolutely no credible evidence that it will have any effect on your mental or physical well being.

Tim Brown

It is often said that a given melody has a tessitura in a certain key. Can altering the tuning of A and therefore the tuning of the keys alter the feeling of a melody if it was originally composed using A440? Or is the difference as insignificant or non-noticeable to most people as an mp3 file is to a wave file?

Dave

Hi, Tim.

I think that depends on the individual. Some folks with perfect pitch, for example, might really notice a difference. A friend of my mother’s with perfect pitch was driven crazy by the sound of her refrigerator hum because it was out of tune (when she was going through a difficult time in her life). Other folks might never notice it.

Keep in mind that the difference between A440 and A432 is really a pretty small difference. In Trevor Cox’s informal experiment that I linked to in the post above there wasn’t any statistically significant difference among the listeners. If you completely change the key, particularly drastically, you can make a difference noticeable to many musicians and maybe even music fans.

But a noticeable difference between the sound doesn’t mean that the music is necessarily going to be more enjoyable and it’s certainly not going to make a difference in your general well being, which is St-Onge’s argument.

Dave

Tim Brown

HI Dave,

I am now wondering how people with perfect pitch cope when they either travel to another country or otherwise listen to music from another country where the tuning is different. Can people with perfect pitch re-tune?

And how is it that people with western world perfect pitch have it at A440? Is one born in the western world with A440 perfect pitch? Are people in East India born with East Indian perfect pitch? Is perfect pitch DNA-spawn or is it developed in the womb, or is it all learned after birth?

I’m not formally trained in music, so I’m probably pretty naive, but these things are interesting.

Thanks,
Tim

Dave

Tim, there are folks with perfect pitch who hear standard tuning (A440) as out of tune. One of qmy college music theory teachers described his sense of pitch as out of tune, but he adapted. Other folks may find it more challenging, as in my mother’s friend that I described in my earlier comment. I imagine that musicians from areas that use different standards have different perceptions as what sounds out of tune, according to what they learned as children.

Tom Storm

I have to believe that ‘perfect pitch’ is memory based – with A440 being a baseline for comparison made through a sub-conscious calculation when applied to other notes. Oh, perfect pitch is real – and I don’t have it – but when my instrument is off frequency (out of tune) my ears don’t like it – and that message comes from tuning central, my brain. But there are some melodies which lend themselves to altered pitch and create an aural experience for player and listener which are intriguing and enjoyable. As odd as it may sound – I’ve altered my E and A strings (flat and sharp) and created compelling if not appealing rhythmic bass lines. So for me, keeping an open mind with regard to tuning opens doors – but I still have to wag my finger at the harmonic police inside my head.

Dr Keith Davies Jones

The current ‘standard’ pitch of A439 at 59deg Fahrenheit was adopted by Sir Henry Wood for his first London Promenade Concerts in 1895 at the Queen’s Hall, at the insistence of Dr George Cathcart, an ENT specialist. He had treated many singers who damaged their voices straining at the previous higher pitch. Dr Cathcart agreed to fund the concert series if this condition was met, and to purchase new wind instruments for the orchestra. Through the good doctor’s assistance in this matter, A440 became the orchestral standard in the UK. Brass bands remained at the higher pitch for many years afterwards.

(Henry J. Wood, ‘My Life of Music’ Victor Gollancz, 1938)

barfoden

I actually think that Dr George Cartcart suggested the 435.34Hz Diapason Normal,, I found this on another page..

“Despite a number of attempts to rein it in, it continued until 1895, when, according to conductor Sir Henry Wood, a throat specialist Dr George Cathcart financed the series of Promenade concerts on the condition they be conducted at Diapason Normal (435). It seems a compromise of 439Hz (the predecessor to modern pitch) was actually adopted”.

The Brits could not see themself using a French standard… oh no,, So with the claim of differerent concert hall temperatures they raised it to 439Hz.. Later on as 439Hz is a prime number they raised 439Hz to 440Hz where in my book they should have gone down to 438Hz instead..

Recent quote from an opera singer (joseph Calleja)… “everything above 438Hz is murderous for the voice, especially heavier voices”.

Paul T.

“Scientific validation”. Lovely!

A very amusing post, Dave. Thanks!

As for perfect pitch:

Unfortunately I can’t find the source right now, but there was a study which tested subjects with perfect pitch and “resetting”. They exposed the subjects to a very *slowly* shifting pitch, which rose over time.

None (or almost none, I can’t remember the details) of the subjects could detect the change in pitch. This experiments suggests that “perfect pitch” can be “reset” to match what is being heard, rather than be established once and for all.

Hopefully I am not misremembering the details!

Does anyone know if there is any scientific explanation for how perfect pitch actually functions? I’ve never heard one.

Dr Keith Davies Jones

There is spatial arrangement of pitch recognition on the auditory cortex of the brain. Electrical stimulation of a specific area will produce recognition of a specific pitch. I believe some work has been done with MR mapping of this area at McGill University in Montréal. It would appear that people who have perfect pitch tend to have an auditory cortical area that is larger on the left side than on the right. Since ‘perfect pitch’ would have been developed according to whatever the pitch-standard of the day was, and what are the prevalent scales and modes in any given culture, it has to be something that is learned and not innate. Presumably if you are born with a larger auditory cortical area than is ‘normal’ you have a greater ‘memory capacity’ for learning.

Linda

When I went to college, the conductor of our symphony band, Dr. Robert Hawkins “Hawk”, tuned us to A-442. I didn’t know that the tuner had been calibrated at the higher pitch at the time. I did, however, notice that my ear had been trained to hear that higher pitch and when I’d play with any other band, I was always sharp. To this day, I stil hear it and struggle with staying at A-440 to the point where I overcompensate. Egad. In fact, the show Lion King uses A-442. I’ve been told different reasons as to why that it is by members of the traveling orchestra. But Hawk used it because it gave the band a little bit of a “lift.” Interestingly enough, I agree. It feels brighter and more energetic to me. St.-Onge’s reasoning, however, is interesting, but hardly any reason to intentionally tune that flat. I’ve worked with a few excellent lead trumpet players over the last 40+ years, too, that will drive the pitch higher and higher, unaware of it, until you have to ask “what key are you shooting for?” The oboe player wants to know.

barfoden

one aspect which is not discussed enough is pitch and the human voice.. With the 12-TET system 440-442Hz tuning is too high for comfort.. It places the register shift for most voices at an uncomftable place.. This is why Verdi proposed the 432Hz tuning. It makes the high tenors F# note sit closer to the second register . At 442Hz that F#4 note is getting into the third (head) register.. Even the old Diapason Normal at 435Hz (-19.78 cents) is much nicer than 440Hz for singing…

Dave

Thanks for stopping by, “barfoden.”

Those are very valid points, and I’m all for performing period music in the standard practice of the day. I wasn’t aware that voices were so similar that the small difference bringing the pitch down would have such a profound impact on technique, but have heard singers argue for it before. My shift to head voice changes from day to day, but I don’t sing with any regularity these days.

Anders barfod

Its not only at the shift from middle to head. The “over the top” pitch at 440hz is even revealed at the bridge between chest and middle. A3 at 220Hz is almost impossible for my vocal chords to produce. Lower it to 219hz (438hz) and it can be done but still a bright tense A3. Lower it to 217hz (434hz) and it is relaxed and natural. 216hz (432hz) is no effort as it is basically a tone i use for speech. So whats does this mean?
That you can only stretch you natural relaxed pitch by ~ 24 cents before the 12 notes in the scale does not divide properly. 432hz creates the perfect division where no register shift is needed at all. From 432hz to 438hz you gradually have to start changing register at the passagio. At 440hz to 445hz i am in no mans land for my voice but 449Hz which is in the scale when A4 is 423.8Hz is nice. This is similar to old pitch of Händel.

Dave

Anders, how typical would your vocal range be compared with any other average singer? In my experience (primarily as an instrumentalist) I see that vocal ranges are quite varied from singer to singer. Would another singer of similar range type find the pitches you feel are easy difficult or vice versa?

Anders barfod

I have done some “secret” experiments using My girlfriend. She is a soprano and without her knowing it i played music tuned to 432hz(-31 cents). It was obvious that this pitch aligned perfectly with her natural vocal resonance.In Line with her relaxed talking pitch. Exactly like it does for My voice.

Andrea

I’m a lyric soprano and I’m fine with singing music tuned to 440. It feels just as natural to me as when I sing Baroque music (432). Just my opinion, I want to emphasize, because the only voice I know is my own…but there’s going to be a break in one’s voice (well, more than one) no matter what the tuning. When my vocal teacher told me that singing a bit higher or lower means an infinitesimal change in your vocal folds, that made me relax. 🙂 (I play clarinet and recorders too.)

Anders Barfod

Baroque is a half key at 415Hz.. (G#4) ,, 100 cents down from A4=440Hz with 12-TET..

You have probably never sung in a pitch around 432Hz.. It is not a standard.. Some orcheters play mozart and bach an händel at classical pitch (A4=430Hz) on period correct instruments.. but I think they use other tuning systems like Just intonation, Meantone etc..
Most singers belting in their connected high range seems to struggle at 440Hz or they have to lay of a lot of weight ending up sounding thin.. The former European standard at ~435Hz (12-TET) is much nicer to sing at for me than A4=440Hz.. You can broaden your voice in the upper middle register.. get a nice natural round sound.. Again 438Hz seems to be the upper natural limit for my heavy baritone voice..

Erik Asphaug

I stumbled into this discussion! It is startling. The number 440 Hz means 440 cycles per second. What is a second? It is defined as 9,192,631,770 transition timescales of the cesium atom. It is also defined as 1/60 of 1/60 of 1/24 of a sidereal day, a number that is changing length as the Earth slows down (hence using cesium atoms to define it, for nerds not musicians). To say 432 is more harmonious with anything is arbitrary. Numerology has its uses but this ain’t one.

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