Music Theory: Exploring The 432 Hz Tuning Debate

Most of the world now uses 440 Hz as the standard pitch tuning. However, this has been a relatively recent standard, and 432 Hz is making a comeback. Lynda Arnold explores why with sound examples.

The music and audio industry currently uses the A = 440 Hz universal standard pitch tuning around the world. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, 440 Hz has been the standard for less than a hundred years, a drop in the bucket in terms of music history. The tuning of A = 432 Hz, also used throughout music history, is making quite a comeback these days, especially in the field of sound healing and meditation. Researchers, scientists and musicians are leading a growing movement to prove this tuning is best for heart-centered, therapeutic sound work.

This article briefly explains the history of tuning and some key points that support 432 Hz as the scientific tuning, by relating it to mathematical relationships, harmonic ratios and frequencies found in nature. Hopefully this will inspire some thoughtful discussions. There are some audio examples to compare tuning for critical listening and a brief explanation on how to compose in 432 Hz tuning in Logic.

A Brief History of Tunings

An article by John Stuart Reid called the ‘Concert Pitch Conflict’ provides a comprehensive history of tunings and I reference many of his findings here. Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras (570–495 BC), is often credited with identifying musical harmonic ratios related to scientific pitch and the birth of 432 Hz tuning with his instrument called the monochord. It is believed, however, that instruments built accordingly to harmonic ratios were used in Egypt and Greece well before this time. The earliest instruments were flutes and lyres, often used for therapeutic purposes. Hundreds of years later during the classical periods of western music, it was documented that composers like Mozart and Verdi used the 432 Hz tuning. Verdi believed it was a much better tuning for Operatic voices. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, 432 Hz tuning was challenged by other countries like Germany, the US and Britain who all seemed to be using and experimenting with different tunings.

In the early 20th century, there was a need to make a universal pitch standard used by all for sake of instrument makers, composers and orchestras everywhere. Even though 432 Hz was fully supported by the French and Italian composers through most of the classical music periods, 440 Hz eventually became the universal pitch standard. German Physicist Johann Heinrich Scheibler invented a device called the Tonometer and did the first experiments with 440 Hz tuning in the mid 1800s. The Tonometer consisted of 54 tuning forks with a range of 220 Hz to 440 Hz spaced at 4 Hz intervals. His work became widely recognized and a conversation began about a standardized tuning.

After much debate, the US adopted 440 Hz as the standard in 1936. Europe soon followed with its adoption many years after it was first proposed on both continents. Even today, musicians believe that music played in 432 Hz tuning has a better audience response, has a calming effect and sounds more integrated overall.

It is still not entirely clear why 440 Hz was chosen. It seems the scientific experiments by Scheibler had a lot of influence on this choice as opposed to what tuning may have been more in line with the harmonic ratios and relationships found in nature. I can’t help but notice how the music of India and the rest of Asia were left out of this discussion entirely. It is a testament to their unique musical and healing traditions that are affecting us more and more today.

Mathematics, Nature and Frequency

The chart below shows how 432 Hz tuning is derived based on Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Multiples of 2 and 3 forms the basis of the chart, and the left column shows all the multiples of 2 as the note C. In the middle, you will see that A=432 Hz. Also of note is the number 108, used in many spiritual traditions as a unifying number. Mala prayer beads come in strands of 108 and in yogic traditions, 108 sun salutations are often practiced. The number 186624 in the blue box is 432 squared and is the frequency of the speed of light within hundredths of a decimal—very close! Also, every column corresponds to a note with each being a 5th apart. You will recognize this as the Circle of Fifths—the basis for music theory, or at least Western music theory.

The Earth’s vibration, which is the frequency measured from the earth’s crust to the ionosphere fluctuates around 8 Hz. 8 Hz falls at the bottom end of where our calm, functioning brainwave state called Alpha is, and is almost in Theta (4-7 Hz), where we receive deep relaxation and healing during our sleep cycle or in deep meditation. Multiples of this frequency bring us to C = 64, 128 & 256 Hz (middle C), where the notes become audible to the human ear and then to our reference pitch A = 432 Hz. Recently, astronomers at Stanford found the fundamental frequency of the sun to be 144 Hz. The 2nd Overtone or 3rd Harmonic of this fundamental pitch is 432 Hz (see chart). These are auspicious findings indeed and point to a system that is connected in many ways.

Music researchers have also tested traditional healing instruments, like Tibetan Bowls from Nepal, and found they are made in accordance with A = 432 Hz tuning. Instruments made for sound therapy do not have to conform to a universal pitch standard and are becoming more popular in sound therapy centers around the world. We can learn a lot from cultural traditions of instrument making, linked to techniques being passed down through generations.

A Note on Equal Temperament VS Pythagorean Temperament

We have to keep in mind that our universal tuning system is based on 12-tone Equal Temperament. Meaning, all the intervals or adjacent notes are spaced evenly from each other in order for all the octaves to sound the same. In true Pythagorean temperament, this would not be the case. Equal temperament is required for instruments like piano where notes cannot be bent. Voices and string instruments however, are able to bend notes and change tuning easier to achieve the subtle differences between the notes. Roel Hollander describes this in detail on his blog post, ‘Concert Pitch vs Tuning System’ ( Roel explains that in order to obtain a true representation of 432 Hz then, one would have to compose not only in A = 432 Hz but in combination with Pythagorean Temperament or a close implementation of it like Just Intonation or Twelve True Fifths Tuning. I did some investigating myself using the Cleartune App for iOS, a handy tool that allows you to change tunings. In Pythagorean tuning, A=432Hz, C =128 Hz, 256 Hz and 512 Hz and G below A = 384 Hz (as examples). When set to Equal Temperament, all the A’s calibrate the same and the others are C=128.4Hz, 256.9Hz, 513.7Hz and G=384.9Hz. There is a difference between .4 – 1.7Hz on those particular notes, but it’s a small difference compared to composing in any other tuning. Plus, when using equal temperament, it’s possible to play in an ensemble, for example, without reinventing instruments.

Audio Examples by Torkom Ji

Torkom Ji, founder of Quantum Harmonix Sound Healing, has graciously provided Ask.Audio with 3 music examples in 432 Hz, 440 Hz and 444 Hz. Torkom facilitates sound healing sessions all over the Los Angeles area with his custom Korg Electribe. He is a master at creating deep, resonant soundscape journeys using just this instrument. It’s very different than what most sound healers are doing with acoustic instruments, but some would argue just as powerful. Listen to the examples below in headphones and through your monitors. Notice how the different tunings affect the entire range of frequencies you are hearing. The excerpt is from his track,Internal Eyes, originally composed in A = 432 Hz tuning.

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