Have you ever wondered why we tune to A=440Hz? Many people don’t give it much thought, if any at all, but while some musicians are content in keeping our current international standard (used in the U.S. and several other countries), others are riled up about this mysterious number.
How did tuning originate?
Music has been around for thousands of years, so what did the first group of ancient musicians tune to? When speaking with the Raga School of Indian Music, they explained the source of music and tuning in India came from people trying to emulate birds, waterfalls, thunder, and other sounds they heard in nature. People also wanted to create their own sounds, and of course use their voices in the process. For thousands of years, people all over the world tuned purely to natural sounds by ear.
Though it would be intriguing to find uniformity in the ancient world, it seems each civilization had their own tuning methods that differed based on their unique instruments and music styles, as well as how they used the instruments in their cultural practices.
Many different types of scales sprouted up throughout the globe, accommodating different kinds of international music, including the popular Solfeggio scale. Though its first form may have originated during biblical times, the Solfeggio scale (the traditional 7-tone scale) was Latinized and surfaced in the Middle Ages as a 6-tone scale to be prevalently used by monks in Gregorian and other religious chants (“Healing Frequencies of…”, 2019). Eventually it was changed and refurbished into the Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti scale we presently use.
In 1711, John Shore made a fork in the musical road when he invented the tuning fork (Rees, 2009) to enable easy consistency among instruments. Tuning forks were used by many musicians in classical Europe and are still found in music classrooms today, but it wasn’t until the later 1800s into the early 1900s that the unit of frequency “Hertz” was invented (“Heinrich Hertz.”, 2015) and used to measure the pitches of tuning forks, strings, keys, and drums.
In 1834, silk manufacturer Johann Scheibler created a tonometer (different than modern tonometers used for measuring eye pressure), made of many tuning forks, to determine the pitch of other sounds (“Tuning Forks.”, 2019). One of his tonometer designs included an octave of tuning forks ranging from A=220 to A=440Hz (“Tuning Forks.”, 2019).
Modern digital tuners came into the scene in the late 1930s, leading up to Boss creating the first automatic chromatic tuner in 1983. By the later 20th century, handheld tuners had specified calibration settings as well as enhanced displays and built-in metronomes.
Where did we get the 440Hz standard from?
All orchestral instruments have an A string, so tuning to A (the A above middle C) was probably the simplest thing to do, but deciding upon the pitch of this A wasn’t so simple.
Musicians and composers in many locations began to experiment with different tuning standards in Hertz, including whole number and decimal values. For years, there was a ton of variation – so yes, much of that classical music you’ve heard from the 1700s, performed and recorded in modern times, would sound quite different if you went back in time to the 1700s and listened to those same pieces. However, when traveling musicians constantly bounce around between different towns, cities, and countries, when musicians from different parts of the world collaborate, when sharing sheet music from place to place, and even in the consistency of the way instruments are crafted, many people figured it would be easier to have some kind of a widely recognized standard.
Though Paris, Vienna, and other cities all over Europe developed their own standards, countries like France and Italy wanted to put a national tuning standard into law.
Famous Italian composer (and senator of the first parliament of Italy) Guiseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, who had composed music in several tunings, wrote a letter in the 1880s trying to convince the government’s Italian Music Commission to switch their standard to 432Hz, feeling it was more mathematically sound than the higher pitched proposal of A=450Hz by the city of Rome (Beets, 2015). Verdi felt higher pitches put too much strain on the music and was willing to compromise a little with France’s A=435Hz, but he banned performances of his operas if anyone wanted to play them at a higher pitch (Beets, 2015).
Thanks to Verdi and other proponents, Italy, France, and certain performance groups like theaters and operas throughout Europe and the United States kept their standard between A=432Hz and 435Hz for a while to follow (Bose, 2013, p. 28), but this harmony would not last indefinitely.
In 1910, John Calhoun Deegan, famous for the creation of many percussive instruments, was able to persuade the American Federation of Musicians to use A=440Hz as their tuning standard (Strain, 2019).
The Nazis supported the tuning of A=440Hz two decades later and became the first to advocate for this to become a worldwide standard. Nazi politician and Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (History.com Editors, 2010) controlled Radio Berlin and organized an international conference in 1939 to determine a standard for concert pitch. Goebbels represented Germany at the meeting where he pushed and voted for A=440Hz. In organizing this meeting, he was of course in control of the guest list and not a single French composer was asked to attend (Bose, 2013, p. 28).
At the time, “A referendum by Professor Dussaut [of the Paris Conservatory] of 23,000 French musicians voted overwhelmingly for A=432Hz” (Bose, 2013, p. 28). (No wonder they weren’t invited.) Though A=440Hz was agreed upon at this bias meeting, shortly after it took place, World War II broke out, so the number didn’t stick right away.
In 1971, the proposed tuning standard was still being ignored around the world by Russia, Britain, and the Vienna Philharmonic of Austria who used other tunings, including but not limited to A=435Hz, 425Hz, and 450Hz (Bose, 2013, p. 29).
The decision at the 1939 international conference, though unsuccessful at the time it took place, ultimately prevailed to a large extent when the International Organization for Standardization accepted A=440Hz as the official standard pitch in 1955, which they reaffirmed in 1975 (ISO, 16:1975). This still stands to date.
Which number is better to use?
Here’s where the disagreement still lies… everyone has their own preference. Though many people contributed to and partook in this number dispute, ranging from professional musicians and composers to physicists and others who held non-music related professions, there’s still a lack of consensus on which frequency standard is the best.
It’s no secret that certain sounds and frequencies are pleasing while others make you cover your ears, and still others cannot be heard by humans at all. Though all notes have resonation capability, some notes may have beneficial and attractive effects, while others may have a negative and repelling effect, and others may have no effect whatsoever. On top of it all, the effects, or lack thereof, are different for humans, animals, insects, and plants since all have unique hearing/reception ranges and are made of diverse quantities of different elements.
It is well known the Nazis were constantly experimenting with physical and psychological manipulation to maintain and expand their control. They even went on numerous expeditions organized by the Ahnenerbe society to search the world (including but not limited to museums and ancient ruins) for archaeological relics and mythical objects they believed would bring power to their endeavors (Meltzer, 2019). Even if the science behind the Nazi’s decision in supporting A=440Hz is still not clear, they themselves clearly believed it did something in their favor, else they wouldn’t have invested any time in the matter.
In one study consisting of 33 volunteers, listeners were exposed to sessions of music tuned to A=432Hz and A=440Hz without knowledge of which frequency was being played. The A=443Hz music resulted in a larger decrease in heart rate and respiratory rate than the A=440Hz music (Calamassi and Pomponi, 2019).
Original Stradivarius and Cremonese (from Cremona) violins have been thoroughly examined for physical design properties contributing to their superior, high-quality sound. At a 1989 conference organized by the Schiller Institute and the Italian Harpsichordists Association in Venice, Italy, research findings were discussed in favor of a return to A=432Hz tuning because it not only resulted in optimal sound performance on these violins, but it also sustained their life and preservation by reducing excess tension on their framework (Barosi, 1989). (This is basically resounding the same concept as the physical stress factor mentioned by Verdi which can be applied to instruments as well as the human voice.) Later studies in 2018 by scientists in Taiwan, such as Hwan-Ching Tai (associate professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Chemistry), showed that these early instruments produce sounds similar to human vocal patterns. “The researchers found that the early Italian instruments produced human-like “formants”, the harmonic tones that correspond to resonances in the vocal tract. Specifically, the Amati violins produced formants similar to those from bass and baritone singers, while the Stradivari instruments had higher-frequency formants, closer to those of tenors and contraltos.” (Sample, 2018).
Proponents of this and other frequencies try to apply the Pythagorean theorem and other mathematical formulas to multiple frequencies. Some people feel certain frequencies are “in tune” with the universe, our brains, our souls, and chakras (a person’s various energy fields or spiritual centers). The idea of music being directly connected to the entire universe stems back to our earliest civilizations. Johannes Kepler (later 1500s to early 1600s), creator of the 3 Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, felt that each note in a major and minor scale corresponded to the aphelions (point where a planet is furthest from the sun) and perihelions (point where it’s closest to the sun) of the different planets (Beets, 2015).
Some music and sound researchers have completed studies on the physical healing benefits of certain frequencies over others (in both sound and light), as well as that of certain scales. Though sound and songs in general can have beneficial and healing effects on people (and other living things), and perhaps even distinct frequencies can heal specific tissue and cell types, whether a single frequency’s tuning effect applies to each individual as a whole or all people uniformly is up for debate since being in a state of good health is so unique to each individual – after all, we don’t all exactly have the same genetics or chemical levels in our bodies.
There are some instruments that have never typically been tuned with the A=440Hz standard. For instance, bagpipes are tuned to A=466.16Hz or between A=476Hz and 480Hz (MacLeod, 2016).
Despite all of this, the majority of people in the United States continue to adhere to the A=440Hz standard while others around the world steadfastly compose, play, and craft their instruments to A=432Hz and other alternate pitches, including the Vienna Philharmonic which tunes a bit higher than A=440Hz (Bose, 2015). Just as in ancient times, there are also some who continue to tune based on feeling alone – and how you feel about it is all up to you! While there is definitely more to learn about this topic, to narrow it down to one single frequency that serves as the best tuning standard for everyone seems nearly impossible in a world that’s literally made entirely of vibrations. Ultimately, the decision is up to instrument manufacturers, composers, and, of course, each musician.
Tune Your Own Way
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Barosi, Bruno. “The Geometric Secret of Stradivarius.” EIR, Volume 16, No. 39, 29 September 1989, https://larouchepub.com/eiw/public/1989/eirv16n39-19890929/eirv16n39-19890929_019-the_geometric_secret_of_stradiva.pdf.
Beets, Megan. “New Paradigm for Mankind.”, LaRouche PAC TV, 17 June 2015, edited and abridged in “The Verdi Tuning.” Schiller Institute, NYC Chorus, 2019, www.sinycchorus.com/verdi_tuning.
Bose, Tarit. “Aerodynamic Noise: An Introduction for Physicists and Engineers.” Springer Science and Business Media, New York, 2013.
Calamassi, Diletta and Pomponi, Gian Paolo. “Music Tuned to 440Hz Versus 432Hz and the Health Effects: A Double-blind Cross-over Pilot Study.” Explore, Volume 15, Issue 4, July-August 2019, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1550830718302763.
“Healing Frequencies of the Ancient Solfeggio Scale.” Gaia, 2019, www.gaia.com/article/healing-frequencies-of-the-ancient-solfeggio-scale.
“Heinrich Hertz.” Famous Scientists, 23 November 2015, www.famousscientists.org/heinrich-hertz.
History.com Editors. “Joseph Goebbels.” History.com, 24 March 2010, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/joseph-goebbels.
ISO. ISO 16:1975. “Acoustics – Standard Tuning Frequency (Standard Musical Pitch).” January 1975, www.iso.org/standard/3601.html.
MacLeod, S. K. “What Musical Key Does the Bagpipe Play In?” themacleods.net, 2016, www.themacleods.net/qanda/skmqa019.htm.
Meltzer, Brad. “The Thules.” BradMeltzer.com, 2019, bradmeltzer.com/Books/The-Book-of-Lies/The-Thules.
Raga School of Indian Music, Hicksville, NY.
Rees, Torben. “Historical Notes: A Brief Chronicle of the Tuning Fork.” Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009, www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/acoustics/historicalnotes.
Sample, Ian. “Scientists Find Secret Behind Sweet Sound of Stradivarius Violins.” The Guardian, 21 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/science/2018/may/21/scientists-find-secret-behind-sweet-sound-of-stradivarius-violins.
Strain, James A. “John Calhoun Deagan.” Percussive Arts Society, 2019, www.pas.org/about/hall-of-fame/john-calhoun-deagan.
“Tuning Forks.” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2019, americanhistory.si.edu/science/tuningfork.htm.