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The Relevance of Concert Pitch

The Relevance of Concert Pitch

The Relevance of Concert Pitch

At this time in world evolution one can safely say that music has a significant impact on us as human beings. Research in the growing field of Music Therapy is demonstrating that we have the ability to utilize music in affecting our cognitive, emotional, physical, and psycho/spiritual health. All of us experience an innate connection to music in varying degrees. Current scientific studies have documented the “Mozart Effect”, which demonstrates we experience enhanced spatial comprehension when listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. We can be energized, focused, relaxed, or unfocused through the art of music. Many of us have been aware of the clarifying potentials of music when used in a conscious manner, but concerns are becoming more prevalent regarding whether there are aspects of music in our time which actually increase stress, and thereby impact negatively on our health. In our increasingly faster paced world we look to all realms of our lives for the causes of our tensions as well as for methods to relieve this stress.

When we experience unrelieved tensions that experience becomes stress, and if this condition continues over time that experience becomes chronic stress. The connection between stress and health is well documented. There are two questions circulating in the music world around the question of tension and music’s possible negative contributions to the health of humankind. The first is, “Has concert pitch been moving up over time and if so, can this have an impact on the health of performers and their audiences?”. The second question is, “Does the concert pitch of 440 Hz, the current industry standard, have a potentially negative impact on our health?”. To answer these questions we must first have a basic understanding of the term “Concert Pitch” and what it is that can lead one to such questions.

The word “pitch” in a musical context, refers to our perception of the highness or lowness of a note. As part of the human condition we experience increasingly higher pitches as increasing tension and decreasing pitch as tension release or relaxation. These perceptions correspond to the fact that pitch is determined by the frequency of vibrations being generated. The faster the vibration, the higher the pitch and the slower the vibration, the lower the pitch. The basic measurement of vibration is cycles per second which is labeled as Hertz, generally abbreviated as Hz.

Concert pitch refers to the standard of pitch used in orchestras, instrument makers, and those creating devices utilized to calibrate musical instruments such tuning forks and electronic tuners. This standard is based on the correct frequency to be utilized when tuning the note a’ , known as “Concert A”. Concert A, or a’, refers to the first A note above middle C, which then provides the basis for the proper frequency for the rest of the notes of the scale. Concert A then provides the basis for overall concert pitch. Since 1939 the standard for the concert A in the United States, and thereby concert pitch, has been 440 Hz, or 440 vibrations per second, and 440 Hz is the most widely accepted industry standard throughout the world when one looks to musical instrument designs.

The establishing of the correct frequency for concert A is in fact a rather arbitrary determination, which has provided a basis for ongoing arguments amongst intellectuals, musicians, instrument builders, and philosophers throughout history. This leads us to our question of whether concert pitch has been rising over time. In the past the determination of concert pitch tended to be established by instrument makers, in particular organ makers, and the requests of their clientele, usually the Church during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. Records show that concert pitch has varied widely from location to location as well as over time. The following chart shows samples of concert pitch from the sixteenth century to now. At first glance if we follow the progression of this chart one would have to say the trend has been downward, although there have been instances when concert A has been substantially lower than 440 Hz, in particular the period from the mid-1600’s to early 1800’s. A closer look shows that the very high numbers tend to reflect “Church tunings” (the idea being that the higher the frequency the closer to God and to the Heavens the music would be). If one were to consider all these factors one could make a case that concert pitch has tended to rise over the last few centuries, although this argument’s outcome will depend on which informational basis one utilizes to support their point of view. One could also note that not much has changed over the last 100 years.

Year Hertz
1511 504
1619 424
1619 567
1636 504
1636 563
1648 403
1740 415
1751 423
1762 408
1823 423
1834 440
1859 435
1859 456
1874 455
1878 447
1879 452
1880 432
1880 460
1885 435
1939 440

Editor’s Note: In the years that are represented twice, the higher pitch is the Church tuning and the lower pitch is the secular tuning.

Why all this fuss? The setting of the standard for concert pitch can and does have an immediate and direct effect on one group of musicians – the singers. Consider for a moment that you are a singer that can transport yourself through time. You are currently living in the year 1648 and are singing an a’ note, (concert A). You will have to tense your vocal chords to produce 403 vibrations per second, which, if you are a trained singer, is a very relaxed gesture to sing a concert A. Now put yourself into the year1619 and try to sing the same note. You will have to tense your vocal chords substantially more to produce 567 vibrations per second to sing the same note, concert A. As another example, many of us have had the experience of singing comfortably in one church and then finding the same piece of music in another church more difficult to sing. This is often due to the “grand old church organs” in various churches being tuned to a different standards for concert pitch. This varying concert pitch is the very phenomena that led the Italian government to try to establish concert A at 432 Hz in 1880, so as to protect the voices of the opera singers. Italy still leads a fight to lower the current standard of 440 Hz to their national standard of 432 Hz. These same varying tensions produced by differing concert pitches applies to musical instruments and in turn, the experience of the listener. As the standard for concert pitch rises in frequency, voices, instruments, and listeners experience more strain. Could one extrapolate this information to mean a higher standard frequency for concert pitch can have adverse effects on humankind? Before we attempt to answer this question let us look at the question of whether the standard of 440 Hz can adversely affect us as individuals, and why this question is even a topic of conversation.

The earliest conventions of Western music held that “Music on earth was a reflection of the greater ‘music of the spheres’, a harmony created by relative distances and rates of motions of the planets – a harmony that was constantly present, if only people were sufficiently sensitive to hear it” (Yudkin, Jeremy, Music in Medieval Europe, 1989). If we as individuals can identify with the concepts presented in this statement, and we accept that we as human beings are multifaceted creatures who must live in harmony with our environment in order to maintain our health and reach our full potential, we can begin to see into the secrets of music and its impact on our health. Such a philosophy would indicate that music should be based in nature and the cosmic rhythms of the universe, if it is to be beneficial to humanity. From this standpoint one can extrapolate that the standard used to determine concert pitch should have an organic foundation as well. One theory of setting the standard for a concert A at 432 Hz attempts to utilize the argument that 432 Hz is based in nature. This theory would indicate by deduction that 440 Hz would then lend itself to generating an unhealthy effect in the environment. To be sure, this debate becomes a very heady and esoteric conversation. Some of the more radical proponents of 432 Hz as the true basis for concert pitch would indicate that everything in nature has a basis in 432 vibrations per second, most of which has not been verified and/or is not verifiable. There is one realm of nature that does support the idea that 432 Hz has an organic basis – that is the movement of the sun. Without going into a lengthy technical monologue we can ascertain that the note C of a scale based on 432 Hz can be reduced to a vibration rate of one vibration per second. We can further establish that the true origination for the measure of one second is based on the movement of the sun. The are further, more in depth, studies based on planetary motion and the harmonic overtones and undertones which do lend further support to the “organic” basis of 432 Hz as a solid foundation for musical structure. The tuning of a scale based on 440 Hz does not lend itself to a reduction on any basis which corresponds to a cosmic movement or rhythm. The difference between 440 Hz and 432 Hz is only 8 vibrations per second, but it is a perceptible difference in the human experience.

Does the material presented in this article tell us what is correct, what should be, and what should not be? No it does not. Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves. My goal is not to advocate for any one point of view but to provide information so each of us can make intelligent decisions for ourselves. I will tell you that my experience as a musician and instrument builder is that as overall pitch moves upward, the experience of music becomes more of a head experience, while as overall pitch becomes lower the experience of music becomes more of a heart experience. As pitch moves up, music and rhythmic elements tend to become more frenetic, and as pitch moves down the musical experience and the sensation in the environment tends to slow down. Regarding the use of 432 Hz as a standard for tuning, at the Rose Lyre Workshop our instruments are designed to perform well at either 432 Hz or 440 Hz and we tune them according to the wishes of our customers, although our instruments tend “feel better” at 432 Hz. At this time if one wants to play music “out in the world” with other musicians, one must be able to play at 440 Hz. We recommend that musicians use a new design of electronic tuners that allow calibration to any concert pitch standard, including 432 Hz, so they can play with anyone they choose to and still play in tune.

If one truly wants to take hold of one’s music environment there are many less subtle endeavors one can undertake. As a listener of music we should consciously choose what it is we listen to and then consciously listen. We can attempt to listen as active participants in the musical experience by attending live performances as much as possible. We can guide our children toward these awarenesses. For those of us who are not musicians, we can improve our lives by learning to play music. There is a growing body of documentation showing improved learning skills for those that study music over those that do not study music. For those of us who are musicians, we can de-emphasize speed and facility as the most desirable traits to develop. We can emphasize the quality of tone and silence. We can be attentive to the space within and between the notes we produce as musicians. The most difficult pieces for me as a classical guitarist and lyre player have always been the pieces which require a slow tempo and long notes. The temptation is to speed up the tempo, improvise in the open spaces, or cut the note short in anticipation of the next note. As musicians rather than dazzle the listener with our brilliance and baffle them with our BS, we can bring the listener into the open spaces of music and the beauty of tone, this is where one finds the healing, healthy gestures.

I would like to thank my musicologically oriented friends for their insights and input, for without their assistance an article such as this could not be undertaken.

Patrick Thilmony is the artist/craftsman behind Nature’s Song and The Rose Lyre Workshop, the designer of the only American Lyre to be endorsed by LANA (Lyre Association of North America), and a musician of sufficient depth and clarity that he can convey concepts about the soul of music in a way that non-musicians can grasp and seasoned performers can appreciate.

Article used by permission of the author.  Featured on Bob & Nancy’s Website.

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