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.
A brief history of concert pitch
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).
Why does 440Hz matter?
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 significance of 432Hz
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 Harmony of the Spheres. Pythagoras first discovered the mathematical relationship between the audible pitch of a note is in inverse proportion to the length of the string that produces it. He theorized that all mathematical relationships produce tones of energy that are connected within proportionate patterns, although they are inaudible to us. He proposed that the sun, moon, and stars all emit a unique tone based on their orbits, and called it the Music of the Spheres. This relationship between the tones and orbits of heavenly bodies has gone on to inspire incredible work, from in Johannes Kepler's work in astronomy to Bjork's 2011 Cosmogony. Interestingly, we now know that the earth does, in fact vibrate at about 8Hz, far below the range of human hearing. However, multiplying 8Hz up to the audible range brings us to 64Hz, and then to a middle C of 256Hz, with an A of 432Hz.
- Sacred Geometry. As you may have noticed, 432Hz pitch is based on ratios of 3:2 and 27:16. These are proportions found in sacred geometry around the world, and are also found in the Golden Ratio, Fibonacci sequence, and pi. The significance of these ratios is that, as with fractals, the small, however small, replicates the pattern of the large, however large. It signifies harmony and unity, and is part of the construction and design of sacred places, symbols, and artwork throughout the world and throughout history.
- Within the human heart. 432Hz corresponds to the heart chakra. Anecdotally, musicians report that audiences are more responsive and engaged in music tuned to 432Hz. Surveys have shown that music at this frequency is easier to listen to and has a broader dynamic range. It seems to fill a space uniformly, rather than music tuned to 440Hz, which is perceived directionally. While many of these experiences are anecdotal, more and more musicians are incorporating 432Hz pitched music into their work, more sound healers are finding the benefits of this music, and more people are incorporating this music into their meditation and healing practices in order to benefit from it.
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.