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    The 432Hz 'God' Note: Why Fringe Audiophiles Want to Topple Standard Tuning

    Written by

    Chris Hampton

    Image: Shutterstock

    The first time Ivan Yanakiev heard an instrument tuned to 432 Hertz, he says, it was like he’d heard God speak.

    In the men’s dressing room at the Musical Drama Theatre Konstantin Kisimov in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, Yanakiev, a young, National Academy-schooled conductor, had his friend, Velimir, tune his cello down eight Hz from the standard A=440Hz. They were arranging an experiment.

    Velimir, “a skilled cellist,” Yanakiev told me, started in on the prelude to Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.”

    “So, la, si, so, si so, si, so/ So, la, si, so, si, so, si, so,” Yanakiev sings to illustrate. It’s one of the most often performed and well known pieces by Bach, but in that backroom rendition, transposed not even a half of a piano key lower, the song sounded fresh and exciting.

    “It was a channelling of pure light and love that vibrated through the whole room,” he said. “It was new. It was brilliant.”

    In November 2013, along with Alexandros Geralis, Yanakiev cofounded the 432 Orchestra. The group is comprised of 12 string players, some borrowed from the best professional ensembles in the country, and is led by the two conductors, all of whom work for no more than goodwill to explore and profess the power of that particular frequency. So far, they’ve made two recordings and they’re fundraising to take their show on the road, hoping to concert throughout Europe.

    Yanakiev is resolute: “432 Hz is a vibration that has to be spread around the world.” For him, it’s not just pleasant to the ear; it’s a profound key capable of unlocking mysteries on the level of consciousness itself.

    Yanakiev is a particularly spirited member of a fringe community of musicians and listeners who believe there’s something more “natural,” “truer,” and generally in tune with the universe, when the A note above middle C, long the keynote against which instruments are tuned, is set to vibrate at 432 cycles per second, or Hertz, as opposed to the Western universal 440.

    Their number is not entirely arbitrary; it has its precedents in historical pitch standards and tuning systems, some as old as ancient Greece. Community hubs like Omega432™ say that the frequency provides a more positive listening experience. Testimonials on the site revolve on phrases like “at one with nature,” “a state of ecstasy like no other,” and “it resonates with my heart.” AttunedVibrations.com claims it has the incredible power to ”fill you with a sense of peace and wellbeing.”

    They couch their arguments in specious talk about sacred geometry and the natural vibrations of celestial bodies and number sequences found even at the level of DNA. YouTube is a 432ers bounty of both classic and contemporary recordings across most any genre, from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon to two-hour deep house sets, stray tracks by storied Norwegian black metal act Burzum, and chart-topping pop from Lorde or Pharrell Williams. That's not to mention ambient meditative tracks, “sleeping music,” whale song, and the like, all digitally retuned to 432 Hz.

    Believers revel in Cymatics demonstrations as though they’ve caught the fingerprints of God, ogling the complex patterns that arise when their frequency is projected through water or some other excitatory medium. (Though it should be noted that those radiant sun shapes, as impressive as they are, would look entirely different if the medium’s surface area changed even slightly).

    Cymatic tonoscope experiment at 432Hz - 440Hz.

    They shed volumes online and off on the comparative advantages of 432 Hz over 440. The thinking attached is as at times as practical and real-world as helping singers to not strain their vocal chords at the higher tuning standard; at the other end, it can be as tin foil hat-producing as a conspiracy theory that A440 is, in fact, an exercise in mood control instituted by the Nazis with the call for its standardization in 1939.

    What’s most interesting is that for all of the conspiracy, numerology, and New Age goop about higher consciousnesses, the 432ers’ underlying inquiry—how does the relationship between music and emotion work?—is a particularly hot topic dear to the contemporary research fields of auditory neuroscience and the psychology of music, wherein researchers study things like how the brain turns a sequence of sound stimuli into musical qualia, the sensitivity of our pitch perception to microtonal differences, and what we really mean by the phenomenon called ‘perfect pitch.’

    Despite all of their mutual interests, these two communities pay little attention to one another.

    Pitch comparison: 432 Hz vs. 440 Hz

    When you start exploring the world of 432, all roads lead to Brian T. Collins. While the idea behind The God Note is at least 30 years old—a century by some accounts, millennia by others—a more pronounced and widespread community has coalesced online. The Scottish-born, Toronto-based producer, musician, and educator runs the Omega432™ website, a one-stop resource for all things 432. He’s one of the movement’s most prolific writers and has been thinking about the frequency for the better part of his 33 years behind the bass and piano.

    In that time, Collins has passed through most every station of the professional musician’s game. He’s been an indie rock upstart opening for CanCon brand names Sloan and Lowest of the Low. He did a stint as a jazz solo pianist on the “Island Princess” cruise ship tripping around Alaska. And he’s long been a successful for-hire session player.

    When Yanakiev conceived of his chamber orchestra project, Collins, the preeminent 432 practitioner if the movement has one, became an important adviser. In Collins’ particular school of 432—and there are others, each with its own quirks—dropping concert A by eight Hz is foremost. The second step is a tuning system he’s adopted from German-American music scholar Maria Renold’s 1985 book Intervals, Scales, Tones and Concert Pitch C = 128 Hz. The temperament, or tuning is called “Twelve True Fifths”.

    Most Western music uses Equal Temperament, dividing the 12-tone scale into even increments, with each semitone or adjacent piano key corresponding to a six percent increase in frequency from the preceding key. Twelve True Fifths, like Just Intonation, another alternative tuning system, instead emphasizes the importance of small integer ratio relationships between certain intervals, that is, the distance between two notes in a scale.

    Akin to Pythagorean tuning, Renold’s intonation prizes the pure fifth, which means the relationship between the frequency of the fifth note in a scale and the first note or root in that scale is always 3:2. (For temperament nerds: The main differences between this and the historical Pythagorean system is that while Renold similarly tunes the white keys by powers of 3:2 or its inverse, the black keys are tuned to fifths built around what she calls the “geometrical mean”.) Anchored at A432, Renold’s tuning system also coincides with middle C=256 Hz, another historically important standard, first proposed in the 18th century by French mathematician Joseph Sauveur because it makes all frequencies of C expressible as a power of two and thus easier to work with calculations-wise.

    In most any tuning system, octave intervals have a ratio of 2:1, so given the keynote, the C below middle C, for example, would be tuned to 128 Hz; it’s actually that halving or doubling that produces “octave equivalence”, or the perceived sameness across all C notes. Renold created Twelve True Fifths based on her studies of turn of the century Austrian philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner, whose cryptic passages included chestnuts like “C = 128 Hz = Sun” or “The fifth will lead to more subjective experiences…it will work like a magic wand, conjuring up the secrets of yonder tone world from unfathomed depths.”

    It was his spiritually bent teachings that instilled in Renold the near religious importance of C=256 Hz, A=432 Hz, and the primacy of the perfect fifth interval. In her book, a bible not only to Collins, but many 432ers, she details a rather unscientific series of experiments that “were made over the course of 20 years…with very many people,” she writes.

    It’s this section that’s grown into the lifeblood of the entire movement: that tones inherently affect emotions and that some tones produce more desirable effects than others. She reports that whenever she played the tones C=128 Hz against the standard C=130.828 Hz, people overwhelmingly (as in, over 90 percent of test-takers) preferred the former. They responded similarly to A=216 (the lower octave of A432) versus the standard A=220 Hz.

    By her accounts, subjects not only preferred Steiner’s prescribed tuning standards, but described their experience of his tones in terms like “harmonized with the human being,” “sunlike,” and “that it awakened trust.”

    Conversely, the pitch standards, octaves of A440 and C261.565, reportedly sounded “irritating and unpleasant,” and “oppressive”. One particularly colourful respondent said “that the sound made one forebode evil, that it droned behind the ear and under the roof of the cranium, as if it wanted to force one out of one’s head.”

    Renold’s conclusion here was that there’s something innately healthful and positive about the one set of tones, and something anxiety-producing or affecting anti-social feelings about the other—standardized and widely used, broadcasted en masse—set. “Such a conclusion may be disconcerting and provocative,” she writes:

    ...especially as it appears to be inescapable. Single tones and groups of tones that are less than a quarter of a tone different in pitch prove to have a very different effect on human beings and the difference is such that the one causes a feeling of spite, the other good will. 

    Of course, this observation opened the door for all sorts of conjecture. In 1988, Executive Intelligence Review, a magazine closely associated with radical political activist Lyndon LaRouche and the Schiller Institute, published an article titled “How The Nazis Ruined Musical Tuning.” Author Laurent Rosenfeld proposes that the Nazis, by way of Reich Minister of Propaganda and supervillain Josef Goebbels, were responsible for the 1939 conference in London to internationalize A440. Rosenfeld doesn’t mention musical mood control, only the bastardization of historical, lower concert pitches across Europe, at the behest of German performing groups, and an American contingent all hep on jazz, and thus, brighter tunings.

    The Schiller Institute has long been active in championing the move back to A432, or “Verdi Tuning” as they call it (the Italian Romantic composer did use the keynote for a period, supposedly, in protestation of the continually rising concert pitches used by his contemporaries). For a time, the Schiller Institute had world-renowned opera stars Birgit Nillson, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti on their side, calling for the standardization of A432, thought to be less of strain on the singer’s voice in the sheer physiological terms of vibrations per second that are demanded of his or her vocal chords.

    But as Larouche and the Schiller Institute’s radical politics and cultural views entered the discussion, the stars distanced themselves. While Radio Berlin under Goebbel’s control did play a significant role in the initial conference to make A440 a Western standard (it was adopted by the International Standards Organization in 1955), there’s no evidence that suggests any malevolent motive, lest soft cultural influence count as such.

    Although it’s difficult to pinpoint its origins, this tidbit about Nazi involvement in the standardization of A440 hit Renold’s piece about the anxiety-producing power of the frequency somewhere in the ether, and now, walking among you, there are rational human beings who believe that the Western psyche has been antagonized by Nazi mood depressants for 75 years and counting.

    Collins calls it “complete cockaboo,” propagated to grab attention and sell a few tuning forks—one of the great misconceptions of 432.

    Here's eight straight hours of pure A432Hz tone. Enjoy.

    Even though we assume the standard is A440, as if it’s become a constant, many bands don’t use it, says Dr. Alexander Bonus, a specialist in Baroque music and historical tunings at Bard College. As much as we want to say pitch has been standardized, Bonus says his friends in orchestras across the US and Europe play higher, around 442, 444, and 446 Hz.

    “We want to say that in a scientific way A is 440, but, in reality, it rarely is,” Bonus explained. 

    He’s played trumpet in a Baroque group that performs at a much lower concert pitch, historically accurate to the composer’s day, region and preference. That’s another trend, Bonus says: groups playing in historical tunings. It’s all part of a picture he paints about the relative arbitrariness of concert pitch.

    In Bruce Hayne’s comprehensive A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of A, he says that over the last 400 years or so, concert A has varied from anywhere between 380 Hz to 500 Hz—the difference of a major third or greater on some parts of the keyboard. In 17th Century Germany, Bonus says, there were two dispositions for concert A, each referring to its own relative pitch: the chorton referred to the high-pitch A that floated around 460 Hz and the kammerton, or chamber pitch, was around 416 Hz on average.

    For Mozart, A was 421 Hz, while organs said to have been played by Bach in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Weimar were pitched as high as A=480 Hz. In This Is Your Brain on Music, cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin explains that the exact frequency of concert pitch itself really isn’t a big deal when it comes to making music (except perhaps for singers whose instruments have their own unique limitations), which explains its movement over time.

    “We can fix pitches anywhere we want,” Levitin writes, “because what defines music is a set of pitch relations. The specific frequencies for notes may be arbitrary, but the distance from one frequency to the next—and hence from one note to the next in our musical system [the intervals we discussed earlier]—isn’t at all arbitrary.”

    It’s unsurprising when Levitin says the storied power of A432 is “a hoax that's been around a long time. Most a capella groups drift away from A440 anyway,” he continues, “and no one associates that with either demonic or heavenly qualities. The whole point of music is that the notes themselves are irrelevant to a very large degree—it is the relations among notes that give rise to music.”

    No one associates that with either demonic or heavenly qualities. The whole point of music is that the notes themselves are irrelevant to a very large degree—it is the relations among notes that give rise to music.

    And even then, he doesn’t see anything magical on the physiological level about Renold’s tuning system: “Neurons are tunable — that is, they can easily adapt to any tuning scheme.” There is no evidence, he says, that different tuning systems give rise to new emotions or different emotions. In Levitin’s view, expectation plays a big part in how music affects emotion. 432ers might anticipate a more relaxing listening experience when music is transposed to their preferred frequency and so any perceived difference might actually register in that way.

    “They expect it to sound different and so it does,” Levitin says. “Old violins don't actually sound better, people simply expect them to.”

    Similarly, University of Conneticut neuroscientist Dr. Ed Large says he’s not aware of any evidence that suggests, as Renold claims, that one pitch could inspire spite and another good will. Large is interested, however, in the advantages of small integer ratio relationships in intervals. Even Collins, Mr. 432, says, “the ratios have everything to do with how resonance affects us consciously.” Although when Large says it, he’s demeaning the whole premise that 432 is at all special.

    Large's interest is squarely in intervals. Whereas it’s long been argued that our psychological response to certain intervals—the sense of stability or attraction, for instance—is learned culturally, Large says those specific qualities don’t refer to a metaphorical relationship, but a mode that the clusters of neurons responsible for auditory perception lock onto.

    In “Dynamic musical communication of core affect”, by what he calls “neural mode-locking,” Large and co-author Nicole Flaig say that the brain can parse out simple mathematical relationships in intervals: “harmonics (k∗f1), subharmonics (f1/m), summation frequencies (e.g., f1 + f2), difference frequencies (e.g., f2 − f1), and integer ratios (e.g., k∗f1/m),” Large and Flaig explain.

    What this means is when a pure fifth (the ratio 3:2) sounds stable, it’s because our brain understands the relation between the frequencies of the two tones. But Large also points out that since our auditory neurons are sensitive within two percent of a frequency, working in small frequency bands (not exact values), the brain makes sense of Equal Temperament, which approximates the ratio relationships of intervals quite closely, just as well as Just Intonation or Pythagorean tuning or the 432ers Twelve True Fifths.

    So how do we explain the voice of God that Yanakiev heard from Velimir’s cello? Or Renold’s test subject who called 432 “sunlike”? Or whatever perceptual buzz has kept Collins interested in the movement for 25 years?

    You’d expect Dr. Diana Deutsch, a perceptual and cognitive psychologist at University of California - San Diego who’s literally written the book on the psychology of music, to toss the lot aside. But instead, she’s intrigued.

    “I’m an experimenter,” she reminds me, “and all of this can be put to experiment, rather than a matter of opinion. People could judge blind pieces in A440 versus A432. First of all, you’d ask: are they able to hear a difference? Do they like one better than the other?”

    It’s the same experiment Renold tried “over the course of 20 years…with very many people,” only this time there would be controls, and the results could be peer-reviewed. She’d do it herself, she says, if only someone would fund it.

    Academia has closed the door on Collins' face time and again, he says. It’s the opportunity Collins has only dreamed of: legitimacy. Even if the effects of his beloved 432 are all in the listener’s head—and they quite literally are—the perceived gains are genuine, and that in itself is a phenomenon that must interest somebody.

    Maybe it’s time these two worlds finally got to talking.