10 Myths of the Tuning Pitch Debate
By Dameon M. Keller, 12/2015
You may have seen one of the numerous articles circulating online, depicting two side-by-side cymatics patterns – the rippled images created by sound in water. One is of the note “A” in our modern standard tuning pitch of 440Hz, the other at 432Hz, which many claim is “better,” for numerous reasons; some of which are true, some just silly. I’m actually quoted in the first, and most of the re-postings of these articles, which originated with one titled “Here’s Why You Should Consider Converting Your Music to A=432.” Which, by the way, you most certainly should NOT, as it may just end up sounding like it’s being played through a boom-box tape deck from 1987, with almost-dead batteries in it.
“EQ? VU? A.M./F.M? Are these diseases? WTF is this thing?”
You may have also heard of the “528Hz Miracle Love DNA Frequency” and “The Ancient Solfeggios,” which is a story full of plot-holes, only believed by the musically challenged. If this includes you, don’t get too offended – I was once a member of this category. The myth was first told in a time before people could just use Google to learn that a “frequency” is the cycles-per-second (CPS) of a wave, and that in “ancient times,” there was no second yet as a measurement of time, let alone any means of measuring the cycles of a wave within one. The “DNA Repair” claim has been tossed aside as of late, as the actual frequencies of our DNA, discovered in the late 1980’s, have recently come to light in the conversations. Classically trained musicians all know that “solfege’” simply means “major scale,” which these 6 math-puzzle “frequencies” most certainly are not, so if you don’t see a red flag from the get-go, you’ll likely fall for the rest of their hooey. Such as…
- Gregorian Chants Used the 6 “Ancient Solfeggio Frequencies”
is probably the easiest to disprove, if you have YouTube and a guitar tuner app. Which no one did back in the early 1990’s when the claim was made. And now that we all do, everyone’s checking their facts, right? Wrong. So far I’m the only one I know of who has. Even just a quick Google search will tell you Gregorian Chant is sung in Just Temperament, and…
- 528Hz is a Magic Cure-All
Actually, it’s simply a “C” in A440 Just Temperament. “The Pitch Game” has been waging for damn near 200 years, and when they switched to Equal Temperament to accommodate keyboards and fretted instruments, singers and strings players protested. Because the higher the pitch, the more strain on the vocal chords and strings, and the higher the dissonance of the intervals. If I’m losing you again, you’re not alone – I didn’t get it ‘til a few years ago either. I actually believed that…
- The Nazis Made Us Do It
The popular and often repeated story is that Radio Berlin proposed the A440Hz tuning pitch standard at a conference in the 1930’s, but the truth is, it happened in the 1800’s, proposed by the Royal Academy of Arts. The switch from Just to Equal Temperament was just going down, as well as the switch from using the note “C” to “A” when defining tuning pitch. So the Academy suggested one thing, meaning another entirely, and the court, who couldn’t have cared less, settled on A440. The “Stuttgart Pitch” was so awesome that people have protested on the regular ever since, and Radio Berlin only showed support for the standard in the 1930’s because, physics for broadcast purposes. Contrary to popular belief, Radio Berlin wasn’t playing quite as much dubstep music back then, though the propaganda they were spewing likely had the same overall effect on listeners.
- Numerology Proves A432 is Better
If you’re the type to use a lot of numerology, this may surprise you – it’s irrelevant when it comes to frequencies. Sure, it has its uses, like determining if you and your significant other are compatible, but applying them to the numerical values that we place on frequencies or man-made concepts like measurements of distance is entirely arbitrary. For example, one article claims that tuning to A432Hz is better because “The diameter of the sun is 864,000 miles (2 x 432) and the diameter of the moon is 2160 miles (432/2).” I’ll save you the boring math I did to get right to the punch-line, which is that if this is true, then all of you musicians who use kilometers instead of miles should be tuning your “A” at the 4th octave to 1080Hz. So get on that, yeah? No. Please don’t.
“1 + 2 + 1 = 4, so really, it’s 4:00. Wait, is this daylight savings time? What time zone are we in?”
- Pitch Doesn’t Matter, It’s the Same Intervals
No, it’s not. There’s a Simpsons episode where Lisa repeats that famous quote about jazz, “Listen to the notes they’re NOT playing.” While most people laugh because jazz is just as funny as Lisa Simpson to begin with, what the quote refers to is the intervals. These are the relationships between the notes in the scale. Again I’ll spare you the math, but in the 4th octave, C minus B equals a 14.69Hz interval. “Who cares?” I hear you asking, but let me tell you why you should care. 14.69Hz is so low you can’t hear it – but your brain perceives it as a pulsed beating dissonance, which is a brainwave entrainment frequency. The higher the tuning pitch, the more aggravating the intervals become. The lower the pitch, the more relaxing and natural they become. It’s simple physics and neurology, based on what is known as Sympathetic Vibratory Resonance. So don’t be mad because science proves that yes, you do actually really feel that one song, but no, you should not play it through headphones on repeat all day then wonder why you’re mad at the world for no real reason. And rest assured, the suspicion that your pre-teen’s playlist is warping their mind is actually more true than you wanted to believe.
“So I just plop these two giant magnets on either side of my brain,
then let strangers broadcast whatever they want into them? Sound’s legit.”
- Tuning to Either C528 or A432 is Better Than A440
because what I just said in #4. In Equal Temperament, C528 is A444Hz – way too high for guitars to stay in tune, and besides, you’re rarely actually going to hit that high C. And it’s way too high for vocalists, unless you rap, or just growl like the cookie monster and call it “singing,” in which case tuning pitch should be the least of your worries.
The truth is, the intervals in Equal Temperament will always be shitty no matter what you do. The only way to achieve pure, natural intervals is to utilize Just Temperament, or the Scale of Fifths. But yes, A432 is better, but only slightly, because…
- A432 is What Everyone Used To Tune To
No, classical musicians tuned to “C” before it switched to “A”, and when they did, “A” was all over the place, hence the need for a standard. The Italian opera singer’s “perfect pitch” at A421Hz was useless in France, where the organ was tuned to A435Hz. And what most people write about in terms of science or physics, refers to Scientific Pitch – or “Philosophers Pitch” – which is C128/256. That’s because C = 1Hz. Also, 1Hz = 60 Beats-Per-Minute, or BPM. Easy for math and physics. In the Scale of 12 Fifths, which you can’t tune your guitar to, C256 will give you A432. But in Equal Temperament, A432 is close enough. It’s a doable compromise, and it closely matches the C# the Sitar is tuned to, which is considered “Om” in the Vedic cultures.
- Cymatics Patterns Prove A432 is Better
No, cymatics patterns can be very interesting and beautiful, or clustered and ugly. And that depends on the many variables, such as using water or other materials like salt or sand, the size of the plate or container, the volume of the audio signal, and the octave of the notes. None of the late Dr. Emoto’s work in cymatics or water “tuning” has been repeated in front of witnesses, and it’s regarded as total bunk by the scientific community.
- You Should Retune All Your Music to A432
and yes, there’s an app for that. For one thing, all of your music may not be in A440 to begin with, so just shifting it all down 8Hz equally will yield questionable results. For example, if you have Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” or the Beastie Boys “Check Your Head” in there, they’re already at A432. If you have the soundtrack to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it’s way up at A444.
And as for the rest of your collection, well if you want most of the lyrics to sound like the guy from Bauhaus, go for it. I’m guessing the B-Boys recorded a song called “Namaste” in the Vedic C# Om key on purpose, taking into consideration the late Adam Yauch’s work with the “Free Tibet” movement, but “Search and Destroy?” Probably not so intentional. Which leads us to claims like…
- John Lennon and Many Others Recorded in A432
No, someone did retune a bunch of their music down to A432, posted videos of “Imagine” and others on YouTube, and now people see those and without reading the video descriptions and comments, later report that the songs were recorded that way originally.
Some of the Beatles and other early rock & roll recordings are at a lower pitch, but this has more to do with the piano in the studio at the time, or tuning by ear, as the electronic tuner wasn’t invented until the 1980’s. The only well-known modern musician to publically express interest in A432 is Prince, who shared the article I’m quoted in as his one lone response to a Facebook Q&A in 2014. Thanks, Prince!
Don’t stare into his 3rd Eye too long, or you’ll find yourself at the bottom of Lake Minnetonka.
I still tune my guitars to A432Hz. On the rare occasions I play music with others, I prefer A432. Claims that “guitars just aren’t made for it” are disproven by the beautiful resonance my Yamaha acoustic rings out at the lower pitch, and I don’t see many guitarists hesitate to “drop-D” or tune to Eb to jam to some Black Sabbath either. People who claim keyboards can’t be retuned have simply somehow missed the “Master Tuning” function in their settings (yes, a professional recording engineer actually tried to argue this to me.) Fortunately for me, I mostly compose electronic music, and I have any pitch or temperament I desire available through both synthesizer software and by using fretless acoustic instruments. These days I prefer Just Tempered Scientific Pitch, the Scale of 12 Fifths, or the microtonal scales of our DNA for my music. So far, no complaints.