The Frequency of Music

By Raquel W. ’21

Hertz (Hz) is the standard unit of measurement of vibration. It measures waveforms in wave cycles per second. This unit was named after Heinrich Rudolph Hertz who, in 1830, proved the existence of electromagnetic waves. In the world of music, Hertz represents the frequency or pitch of music. A human ear can pick up frequencies ranging from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. The higher the pitch, the higher the frequency and the lower the pitch, the lower the frequency. Today, our modern music is tuned to the universal standard frequency of 440 Hz, where the A4 (the A above middle C) is set to this frequency. However, not everyone agrees that 440 Hz should be our standard frequency for music. Since the early 1800s, the idea that 432 Hz should be the universal standard has persisted because it is “in-tune” with the universe. It is important that there exists a standard pitch so that instruments and musicians from different orchestras or even parts of the world can play together and sound coherent. 

Throughout the years, there has been a lot of debate around what the standard pitch should be. In my research, there was a bit of discrepancy as to when concrete decisions were made in this lengthy process of reaching a standard pitch but this is the information I have gathered. 

The differences in music pitch can be traced back to famous composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, in 1740, composer George Frideric Handel set the frequency of the A in his music to 422 Hz and in 1780, Mozart set his A to 421.6 Hz.

In 1936, the American National Standards Institute standardized the A above middle C at 440 Hz for music. Almost all music today is tuned to this pitch. However, there are some exceptions. For example, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony all tune to 442 Hz.

Those who support the idea that music should be tuned to 432 Hz, also known as Verdi tuning or the scientific or philosophical pitch, argue that this pitch is healthy for the human spirit. They argue that it is the “pitch of the universe,” and a more calming frequency for listeners. It is said that 432 Hz musical therapy can help ease stress and lower blood pressure. Furthermore, they argue that singer’s voices are under less strain when singing at a lower pitch, especially in styles such as opera. Most songs today are released at 440 Hz, straining a lot of young singers’ voices because the pitch is higher and harder to produce. A strong supporter of the move towards 432 Hz as the standard pitch is the Schiller Institute, which has campaigned against the standard pitch of 440 Hz ever since it was set. This organization, founded by Helga Zepp-LaRouche in 1984, is a strong advocate for setting standard pitch to 432 Hz. 

Those who want 440 Hz to remain the standard frequency argue that it has more of an energetic sound which can keep an audience more engaged and entertained. The claim that the frequency of 432 Hz has healing powers has not been backed by science and lacks concrete evidence. Furthermore, changing a standard would be a length process; orchestras would have to recognize this new pitch and adjust their instruments and all of their music to be released at this new lower pitch. This begs the question: would this change really be worth it?

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