Pitching the argument: the reality of 432 Hz versus 440 Hz tuning


I once 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 instead of 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 ‘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 with little scientific backup, is their connection to a product – they 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; made of matter which has been constantly recycled for thousands of millennia, long before 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. Even then, the instruments 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 (Goebbels committed suicide in the final days of the European conflict). It was also increasingly commonplace for instrument manufacturers to use 440 tuning by the 1920s, 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 a useful means of social control, nor is it detrimental to 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.

Reblog: Ukulele tuning problems

Advice & Tips

Another reblog, this time from early 2016. For some reason, this article has been widely read in Indonesia and the Philippines (according to my stats on WordPress). Either many people route their Internet through these countries, or they have a serious ukulele addiction (or tuning problem)! Either way, hello and thanks for reading – feel free to comment and share these articles!

So you’ve bought your first ukulele & learned a few chords. But now you’ve noticed that it’s gone out of tune. No matter, you have a tuner, you tune up. Done. But after a pretty short time, it’s out of tune again. Why?

I get this query a lot from new ukulele students. Just as they are getting started with their first steps into music-making on this instrument, they become frustrated with it’s apparent lack of tuning stability.

New ukuleles come with new strings, which haven’t been ‘played in’. Just like a new set of strings of a guitar, they need to be ‘stretched’. As ukulele strings are made from nylon, which is a very flexible material, this is even more apparent.

The quickest way to to this is following these basic steps:

  • Tune your ukulele
  • Take a hold of the strings & gently pull them up, away from the fingerboard, repeating across a few different parts of the string (see an example video here)
  • Re-tune the ukulele
  • Repeat steps 2 & 3 until re-tuning is no longer required

Hey presto! problem solved! Your ukulele should now not only remain stable after playing, but also hold it’d tuning better when travelling (though extreme changes in temperature will still cause the strings to expand and contract).

This video is one of many available online to help you better visualize what I mean by stretching the strings. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

(pic courtesy of ukulelemusichawaii.com)

Other things to remain mindful of:

While stretching the strings is by far the most common solution to fixing a consistently out of tune uke, you may still notice occasional tuning issues. Perhaps simple, mostly open chords sound correct, but those with three or four fretted notes, or barre chords, have one or two out of tune strings when played. More perplexing, this can happen when the open strings are still correctly tuned up.

The problem? In this case, it’s intonation.

Provided you have a decent instrument, where the frets are set up and spaced correctly (watch out for the false economy of the bottom range ‘budget models’), then this can easily be fixed by paying close attention to how you fret the notes.

You may find, on new or more interestingly shaped chords, that you are pressing down too hard on certain strings, pushing that note slightly out of tune with the rest of the chord. Some positions might require you to stretch or bend a finger in a way which means it is not sitting behind the fret as per the standard method. This too, can be fixed with a little bit of practice, and a small amount of mindfulness.

Happy Uke-ing!