I recently noticed a post on my Facebook page arguing in favour of what is called Scientific Tuning. This is where A4 (just below ‘middle C’) =432 Hz. as opposed to 440 Hz, the modern standard to which all tuners automatically calibrate, and most of the music you hear is tuned to.
The post itself was of a kind I had seen before, and it featured the popular tuning of the universe argument. The idea that as our brains vibrate at 8 Hz, and the solar system vibrates at a perfect multiple of this, music pitch based around a=432 Hz has ‘greater resonance’ with the spheres and our own physiology. Some even use ‘representations’ of how water molecules and snowflakes look based on varying frequencies. What is especially interesting about some of these sites, other than some highly dubious arguments which often have little scientific backup, is their connection to a product – the invariably wish for you to ‘see the light’ about the ‘truth’ of 432 pitch, then buy their music recorded at this frequency! (Quick – it’s for the good of your wellbeing!)
I agree that we are tuned into the universe’s vibrations. As creatures which have evolved on this planet, based on matter being constantly recycled for thousands of millennia before humans appeared, it could only ever be so. But our ears are incredibly complex and amazing instruments, capable of discerning minute pitch differences. We also have an in-built system for relative pitch (the sequencing of one sound connected to the preceding and following sound).
This is not only how we appreciate and enjoy music, but how we developed speech patterns as a species across the globe. It stands to reason, therefore, that the pitching of music is entirely relative. An out-of-tune guitar (with itself as opposed to any other sounds) would sound unpleasant. This is because while one note in isolation is always on set pitch, a chord will include several pitches which are not quite correctly aligned, and therefore out-of-tune. The overall tuning of the instrument only matters when performing with another, and even then they only have to be in tune with each other to produce pleasing-sounding harmonies.
Another classic argument propagated by those opposed to the A=440 Hz tuning is that is was first proposed by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief. It is true that Goebbels commented on the effects of 440 tuning, but many had done so before. Several orchestras were already tuning closer to 440 than 432. The general tuning of ‘middle C’ seems to have risen slowly since the 18th century, highlighting the benefits of standardisation in pitch across the globe. This had already begun to happen before WWII, and was only officially standardised in the 1950’s, after the war had ended (and Goebbels’ suicide). It was also increasingly commonplace for instrument manufacturers to use 440 tuning by the 1920’s as this blog states.
In terms of inducing ‘mass hysteria’, or even attempting to illicit a greater emotional response from a populace through music, 440 tuning would only work at large-scale events, with hundreds of people present, if not more. It could then be argued that the hysteria comes from the crowd (consider the almost war-like ‘crowd mentality’ witnessed and experienced at sporting events) rather than the music’s pitch itself. As social animals, we are designed to be ‘swept along’ by crowds and emotions. It is how we connect. Once again, everything is relative, and I can’t see any proof that the tuning of the music to a specific pitch is the cause of social control, unrest of poor human wellbeing.
Finally, there comes the acid test: Use a controlled experiment, playing listeners the same clip of music but tuned to different pitches. Professor in sound and acoustic research Terry Cox did this very experiment. His results found no preference whatsoever in listeners hearing music played at 432 Hz, compared to 440 Hz. You can hear the clips he used and read his full explanation and results here.
In conclusion, I agree there are good physic-based reasons that music pitched at A=432 Hz. should sound better. However, I strongly encourage you to worry about the bigger problems in life and enjoy music for what it is: the organisation of pitch and rhythm. These pitches, like physics, and indeed like the human condition, are all relative: They are not only what you make them, but what you interpret them to be.