Imagine you’re attending a symphony orchestra concert. The lights dim and the concertmaster emerges from the wings and stands in front of the ensemble. The oboist is given a cue to play the “tuning” note and begins to blow a concert “A”…the reference note or tone is used by the entire orchestra to tune up. The strings, the woodwinds, the brass and even members of the percussion (tympani) section come on board. The frequency of that reference note has historically been an “A” at 440 Hz. But that number has been on the move over the past and if the metaphysical types get their way it will change to 432 to align with the cosmos.
Some orchestras have begun to tune to 442 or even 443 Hz. Why? It’s usually at the insistence of the music director…the conductor…who wants the “sound” of his or her orchestra to be “brighter” or “clearer” than the competition. I can’t say that I’ve consciously been aware of a recording or performance I’ve experienced that had the “A” reference pitch juiced up a little. I’ve recorded lots of orchestras for AIX Records (including the Grammy winning New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Georges Enescu Philharmonic) and didn’t even both checking the reference pitch played by the oboist. I wouldn’t feel it was my place to intrude on the domain of the conductor any more than I would expect him or her to tell me which microphone or preamp to use on the project.
But I remember hearing about the general upward drift or “pitch inflation” of the tuning note in a radio story. The note hasn’t always been at 440 Hz. Organs in the 16th and 17th centuries varied from 400 to 450 Hz. Orchestras around the world usually tune to A=440 but the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony us A=442. In Germany and Austria the number sneaks to A=443 after a period where Berlin flirted with A=445 Hz!
While it is indisputable that higher reference tuning pitches do result in real sonic changes to the sound, timbre and amplitude of an ensemble, they can have unintended consequences for singers and the instruments. Stringed instruments with tighter strings tend to have more broken strings. It is even possible to damage an instrument by applying too much tension between the bridge and tuning pegs…neck can snap or crack.
And now there’s an effort by some to return us to the magic number A=432 Hz. And I do mean “magic” in all of the cosmic and spiritual meaning of the word. If you Google 432 Hz, you can read for yourself the ramblings of those that claim “music at 432 Hz transmits beneficial healing energy because it’s found everywhere in nature” or because “Chakras are connection to the Seven Ray of the Solar Spectrum” or because “A-432 Hz if the tuning of the Cosmic Pitchfork”.
I watched a YouTube video that showed a gentleman playing a guitar selection at standard tuning and then at A=432 Hz. I actually preferred the standard tuning version but it was probably because my desk is oriented north-south not east-west.