440Hz, 432Hz and junk science…

I read an infuriating blog post today, claiming that we should convert all of our music to 432Hz as there is supposedly a more relaxing, more zen-like sound to music performed at that lower pitch.  The sources and methodology were laughable, but I took the article more as the work of someone trying to gain attention for their blog rather than present anything useful.

Here is the article in all its misguided glory:  http://www.collective-evolution.com/2013/12/21/heres-why-you-should-convert-your-music-to-432hz/

My response?  As a 45+ year musician with perfect pitch, I can tell you this concept is junk science and a placebo effect, using highly flawed methodology.

There is no “zen” or “cosmic” significance to tuning to the A-432 scale–you are tuning ONE NOTE to a supposedly harmonious frequency; that leaves 11 others still out of whack, not to mention numerous other tunings used outside the Western world that may not even correspond to a 12-note scale. I’ve even played an old Selmer saxophone manufactured to the A432 scale, and tuned to an electronic tuner to its manufactured pitch–it always sounded wrong. (And not only that, to attempt to play it with a band or orchestra tuned to A440 is a continuous battle–the horn is ever so slightly lengthened so the notes can all play in tune.)

Tuning is also not an “absolute.” Why do cheaper digital pianos sound “wrong”? Because they do not use the “stretch” tuning that pianos use. In stretch tuning, the keys at the furthest reaches of the keyboard are tuned a bit “outward” from where they should be.  In other words, the upper keys are tuned ever so slightly higher than where their true pitches should be, as the low notes are tuned slightly lower.  When playing harmonies on a piano, the stretch tuning makes the notes sound much more “correct” and strangely enough, more in tune than having them be at their exact pitches.

Let’s also examine how the hearing abilities of most of us on the planet. Just about all people on this planet do not have perfect or absolute pitch recognition skills. Not only can those of us with perfect pitch name a note by its sound, we can often determine if it is properly in tune. Sure, side by side, neophytes can often tell if one pitch is lower or higher than another, but outside a direct comparison, most cannot identify if one pitch is any more correct or different than another, not to mention being able to name it.

We can, however, make one correlation between the speed of playback and how music feels, in a relative sense.  Music played back too slow can sound lethargic or slow, while music played back faster supposedly invokes “excitement;” some turntable manufacturers, in fact, used to have their platters spin slightly faster in order to induce this excitement.  (It took decades of us complaining for them to realize that to not faithfully play back a recording at its original speed was just plain wrong.)

Here is an extreme example.  I read something incredulous in an audiophile magazine (Stereophile) a couple of decades ago: the reviewer (J. Gordon Holt) commented at first that he felt this classical work he was listening to on LP was leaden and lethargic; his pitch skills were so off that he did not at first realize that he was supposed to play the record back at 45 RPM! (I would have recognized this the second the stylus hit the groove.)  Of course, once he kicked in the correct speed, it was a fine performance. Typical example of how the general public has no concept of pitch correctness.  And, how “golden ears” are really not all that golden.

Here is the worst part of this article’s premise that we call suddenly convert our entire collections to 432 Hz: converting music to a lower pitch also throws off the “formants” of the original sound. How is an “A” on a flute different from an “A” on a saxophone, guitar or piano? It’s 440Hz, isn’t it?  Yet why do they sound like different instruments?

Here is how it works, acoustically.  You have the basic frequency of that note, but all of those overtones that distinguish these instruments from each other are called “formants.” By altering the pitch lower, you are also lowering the frequencies of these formants, these overtones, which will make the instrument sound “off”. The only true representation of performing music at a lower pitch is to have it performed at the lower pitch in the first place; “converting” music after the fact is just rampant stupidity of the highest order.

I won’t even go into the sonic degradation of digitally altering files to a lower speed; especially the sonically inferior MP3s that most Internet users seem to be fond of.  Then again, they won’t hear the difference anyway, yet in the same breath will claim some sort of calming zen significance that equates to a placebo effect.  The article tells them what they should be hearing, so they will hear it.  Maybe double-blind in an A/B/X comparison it can claim to have some validity but again, unless the music were actually performed at the lower tuned frequency, every experiment is essentially flawed from the start.

The article’s author puts it best: “I cannot state with complete certainty that every idea suggested in this article is 100% accurate, nor am I an expert on the subject.” That sums it up right there. Don’t blog about it if you know nothing about the topic. Anyone can find junk science or theory such as this to back up some misguided opinion, and this is a perfect example.

In short: don’t waste your time. Leave your music alone. Coat the edges of your CDs with green Sharpies if you want a placebo effect; at least you’ll have a pretty green stripe to look at.