It is well known that the frequency of sounds can have a powerful effect on the mind and body. In fact, it's a form of self-healing we all practice instinctively, whether it's by listening to our favorite song to put us in a good mood, shutting a window to exclude the noise of traffic outside, or whistling or humming while we work. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are tuned for sound.
But what is that sound tuned to? If you're like most people, you know that do re mi are the notes in an octave, but have you thought much about how those notes are defined and standardized? It turns out to be a fascinating story, with big implications.
Throughout history, all over the world, people have made music. Every culture has ancient songs, dances, and instruments, that are deeply embedded in their society and traditions. For almost all of human history, songs and instruments were made locally, for their own audiences, and for sharing with each other.
However, in the 1600s in Europe, composers and musicians began to create music that was meant to be shared more widely. The same pieces of music were meant to be played in different cities, by different musicians, with different singers. While staff notation for writing music had been invented in the 11th century, instruments were tuned by ear. While everyone could agree, for example, that the note intended to be played was "C", there wasn't common agreement about what "C" was, exactly.
In 1711, the tuning fork was invented, and it introduced consistency when tuning among instruments and groups of instruments, but individual tuning forks themselves varied widely in pitch.
This variation was frustrating for composers, who intended for their music to sound a certain way. It was also frustrating for singers, who, as stringed instruments were tuned higher and higher, had to strain their voices to keep up. A standard was needed.
In 1834, a self-taught musicologist named Johann Heinrich Scheibler invented a device for accurately measuring pitch, and, based on the science of his time, recommended a pitch standard of 440Hz. In other words, now that we had the technology to measure it, the A above middle C should always vibrate at 440Hz, everywhere in the world. This standard was adopted in Germany, although the French used a pitch standard of 435Hz. In 1926, America adopted the 440Hz standard, and began manufacturing instruments accordingly. In 1955, the International Organization for Standards named 440Hz as the pitch standard, and is has been so ever since (at least, in Western music).
The adoption of 440Hz has never been without controversy. The relationship between music and mathematics has been understood since ancient, and many scientists, musicians, and philosophers prefer a tuning that is more mathematically harmonious. When a string is halved and plucked, it produces a pitch that vibrates at twice the frequency and sounds and octave higher, producing a series of mathematical ratios. Scientific pitch, for example, is favored because all octaves of C become an exact round number easily expressed in both binary and decimal systems, so scientific pitch advocates for A to be set at 430.54Hz.
However, a much older standard dates back to the time of Pythagoras, and advocates for a frequency ratio based on 3:2. Pythagorean tuning is easiest to tune by ear, has pleasing proportions, and puts A at 432Hz. To this day, the Schiller Institute recommends 432Hz for its consistency with the Pythagorean 27:16 ratio.
The pitch of 432Hz is deeply significant, in ways that we are just beginning to understand. Music pitched to 432Hz seems to correlate to many of the features of our natural world, and trigger emotional, physical, and mental responses in people who hear it. Music pitched at 432Hz has a number of striking features:
The difference between 440Hz and 432Hz may be small, so small that it is barely noticeable. And yet it seems that our hearts, minds, and bodies notice it very much indeed.
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