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The Curious Concert Pitch Conflict Part 1

The Curious Concert Pitch Conflict

© 2021 John Stuart Reid

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Published by: Sonic Age Ltd

The Curious Concert Pitch Conflict

‘432 Hertz’ proponents take on the International Standard: ‘440 Hertz’

By John Stuart Reid

Conflicting points of view have arisen between supporters of the international standard, 440 Hertz concert pitch, used by almost every musician and orchestra in the world, and supporters of a new contender, 432 Hertz, used by a few thousand musicians and a handful of ensembles. Those who have followed the ‘battle of the pitches’ so far will know that both sides are passionate about their pitch and both sides believe their pitch sounds best.

In addition to 440 Hertz and 432 Hertz proponents, another group is sitting not too quietly in the wings that would like the pitch to rise to 444 Hertz, which will also be discussed.

The full history of concert pitch would easily fill a large book and is a story with many twists and turns, but the purpose of this article is to provide a short and accessible introduction to the history of musical pitch, highlighting some of the key facts and offering a balanced view of the arguments both for and against the various concert pitches.

One of the ‘key questions’ that the article seeks to answer is this: Is musical pitch arbitrary or is there one key pitch that is natural? The answer, as you will come to see in part 2 of the article, is more interesting than one might have assumed.

The rise of music in ancient times

It is possible that Humankind have always sung melodies and made and played musical instruments. The oldest known instrument, a 40,000 year-old bird bone flute, was found in 2008 in a Stone Age cave in southern Germany. It is made from the hollow wing bone of a griffon vulture and has five finger holes and a v-shaped mouthpiece. Other flutes found in the same cave were fashioned from mammoth-ivory. Such examples of ancient musical instruments add to the body of evidence that music may have given the first European Homo Sapiens a strategic advantage over Neanderthals and may have helped early humans communicate.1

Photograph by H. Jenen, courtesy University of Tübingen, Germany

There is no doubt that music is an intrinsic aspect of human nature; some would say it is bequeathed to us in our DNA. It finds expression in simple forms, such as people whistling a happy tune to complex forms by musically-gifted composers and musicians creating glorious music. Recent research, using the CymaScope, a device that makes sound and music visible, provides a possible explanation for humanity’s propensity for creating music. We will explore this subject later but quite apart from the scientific reasons why music is part of being human, two of its basic components—sound and rhythm—have always been present on earth, a fact that was poetically encapsulated by Allan C. Inman:

“I am music, most ancient of the arts. I am more than ancient; I am eternal... Even before life began upon this Earth, I was here--in the winds and waves… [and] when humanity came, I at once became the most delicate, subtle, and powerful medium for the expression of emotions.” 2

In addition to the natural rhythms of the earth, ancient peoples may well have been inspired by the melodies of bird song. This possibility is supported, to some extent, by the legend of the Chinese ‘Yellow Emperor,’ sometimes known as Huang Ti, who is thought to have reigned between 2697 and 2597 BCE .3 According to the legend, he ordered a man named Ling Lung to make a set of pitch pipes. Ling Lung travelled to the valley of Hia Hi, north of the Yuan Yu mountain, where he cut bamboo stems to make a set of twelve pipes. When he heard the male and female Phoenix birds sing in the valley he was inspired to make six pipes according to the male bird’s song and six according to the female bird’s song.4 Pipes of this type are usually tuned by carefully cutting them to accurate lengths. Consonant* intervals between the pipe sounds are achieved by careful selection of the ratios of their lengths. Pitch pipes of this type are typically closed at one end and sounded by blowing across their open tops. As the air flow strikes the sharp rim of the pipe it is forced to slow down resulting in a vortex of turbulence that excites the air in the pipe. The pitch /frequency** of sound produced is theoretically and practically close to twice the pipe’s length. A pipe half the length will sound a note one octave higher.

One of the earliest cultures to develop music was ancient Egypt and the flute was probably their first manufactured musical instrument. There would have been no need to fashion a flute to a particular pitch to accompany a singer when the singer’s voice could be readily adjusted to match that of the flute. The pitch of the flute is determined by its length and cannot be changed at will, therefore, when a flautist played alongside a harpist or lutist the strings of the harp or lute could be tuned to match the pitch of the flute. By this simple expedient an ensemble of musicians could easily tune to each other, and a group of singers could simply adjust their vocal pitch to match that of the musicians. There is scant historical evidence concerning how musicians tuned to each other throughout the ages, but it seems likely that this method of basic pitch adjustment was used by the musical ensembles of many, or perhaps all, world cultures. Later in history, as we will come to see, an accurate pitch standard was created and used as a reference for musicians.

*Consonance may be defined as any two sounds that are pleasant to the ear when sounded either together or simultaneously; it is interesting that birds and humans naturally choose consonant intervals in their songs and melodies. The reason for this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this article. **Pitch is a musical term whereas frequency is a scientific term and they are not quite the same thing. If you listen to the sound generated by an electronic oscillator, which produces pure tones devoid of harmonic content (in other words sounds of single frequency), it can be quite difficult to differentiate between two test frequencies if set a few Hertz apart. But if the same two frequencies are played on a musical instrument they are easier to resolve because musical sounds contain harmonics that excite more areas of the cochlea’s Organ of Corti, the frequency-sensing organ in the ear. The cochlea-brain mechanism has more data with which to differentiate between two closely related pitches of musical sounds than it does when asked to differentiate between two closely related electronic oscillator tones of single frequency.

No form of musical notation appears to have existed in ancient Egypt and, instead, it is thought that ‘chironomists’ were employed to direct the musicians.

“ The chironomist presided over the group and, by a range of [hand] gestures, appears to have determined the pitch and intervals on which musicians based their performances”5.

A flautist, lutist and harpist, tomb scene,

Nakht, 18th Dynasty

Pythagoras to the Renaissance

Pythagoras of Samos lived circa 570 BCE to circa 495 BCE and is said to have visited Egypt, as reported by several of his followers including Iamblichus6, who lived circa 325 BCE to 245 BCE. Pythagoras is historically credited with identifying musical harmonic ratios yet, if he did journey in Egypt, it hardly

seems credible that he did not acquire his knowledge of musical ratios from the Egyptian priests, as they had been making and playing musical instruments since pre-dynastic times, a period stretching back over 3,000 years before Pythagoras’ visit. Nevertheless, Pythagoras has been honored with having discovered the relationship between stretched wires and the tension applied to them. Iamblichus tells us:

“He fixed one stake diagonally to the walls… from this stake he suspended four chords consisting of the same materials, and of the same magnitude and thickness, and likewise equally twisted. To the extremity of each chord also he tied a weight. And when he had so contrived that the chords were perfectly equal to each other in length, he afterwards alternately struck two chords at once…Hence he discovered that this symphony is in a…ratio also [as] the weights were to each other…he transferred by an easy artifice the common suspension of the chords from the diagonal stake to the…instrument, which he called chordotonon.”7

(Note: Iamblichus was a Syrian philosopher who lived circa 325 to circa 245 BC, therefore, a period of 170 years separates Pythagoras’ death from Iambluchus’ birth.)

The instrument he made was later named the ‘monochord.’ The most famous followers of Pythagoras, known as Pythagoreans, numbered 218 men and 17 women,8 and reads rather like an ancient form of Facebook.

One last point about Pythagoras is that none of the ancient authors who detail his work mention a method to determine the pitch of the strings of his monochord. Nor do they give any hint that, during Pythagoras’ era or their era, it was possible to quantify pitch in some way. Therefore, regarding the references that frequently appear in online articles, in which a particular writer has a preference for A = 432 Hertz “as used by Pythagoras”, it seems that at least some of the writers are inferring pitch from the ratio 3:2, since this Pythagorean ratio has a mathematical association with A = 432 Hertz. However, regardless of this mathematical inference it must be remembered that we have no way of knowing the pitch to which Pythagoras tuned. Also, unless he possessed ‘perfect pitch,’ the gift that rare individuals have to remember a pitch exactly, it has to be assumed that the pitch Pythagoras used would vary in accordance with the specific weights he used, the stretch of the strings and several other variable factors.

A Medieval depiction of Pythagoras

Many other philosophers and theorists contributed to musical theory throughout the ages, including Aristoxenos (circa 335 BCE, a student of Aristototle), Plutarch (45 CE – 120 CE), Nicomachos (60 CE – 120 CE), Claudius Ptolemy (90 CE –168 CE), Alypios (circa 360 CE), Anicius Boëthius (480 Ce – 525 CE), Safi al-Din al-Urmawi (1216 Ce – 1294 CE) and many others, too numerous to mention in this short article. However, all of these writers share one thing in common: none, apparently, experimented to establish the relationship between a string’s length, mass, tension and relative pitch. It appears that they continued to base their musical thoughts on Pythagoras’ assumptions. Astonishingly, 2000 years elapsed from the era of Pythagoras to the Renaissance era when two men carried out a series of seminal experiments to establish a deeper understanding of the relationship between these parameters. The first was Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564 CE – 1642 CE). His musical theory is set out in his book, Two New Sciences, published in 1638 in Holland while Galileo was under the Inquisition’s house arrest in Italy. However, it was probably written several years earlier. In it he states:

“…the change [in pitch] due to thickness answers [to the squared ratio] when the strings are of the same material, so that one gut string must be four times as thick as another string to sound the octave; or one brass string

four times the thickness of another brass string. But if I should want to form the octave between a brass string and one of gut, it would be done not by thickening [the lower] one four times, but by making it four times as heavy…So it comes about that stringing one harpsichord with gold strings and another with brass strings of the same length, tension, and thickness, the first tuning comes out about a fifth lower, since gold is about twice as heavy. “ (Gold being twice as dense, the effect is as the square root of two, or about 2.8 to 2, which is close to the musical interval of the fifth, that is, 3:2.)9

The French philosopher and mathematician, Marin Mersenne, (1588 – 1648 CE) went much further than Galileo and published his work L’Harmonie Universelle in 1637, a year earlier than the actual publication date of Galileo’s work on this subject. Mersenne was able to relate pitch to the number of vibrations per second and to show that the frequency is proportional to the reciprocal of a stretched string’s length, that the string’s tension is proportional to the square root of the tension, and that its mass per unit length is proportional to the reciprocal of the square root of mass per unit length.10 He established an important formula that encapsulates all these parameters:

Even though no instrumentation existed in Mersenne’s day to measure frequency, amazingly he was able to do exactly that by means of a 90-feet long hemp cord and a 138-feet long brass wire that he plucked then site-counted the number of their vibrations—brilliant ingenuity.

It is extraordinary to think that so far we have covered many thousands of years of musical history, albeit briefly, yet no one until Mersenne had put an actual number to pitch/ frequency. However, it should be noted that his long-stretched string principle would work only at low frequencies. Despite Mersenne’s important work, some musicians were, apparently, not concerned that there was

no way to measure pitch, demonstrated clearly by an extraordinary comment made by German composer, Johann Mattheson, in 1713. “Now whether or why this or that tone is called a or b, chamber, choir, or opera pitch—this is a matter of no importance.”11

The year 1713 also saw an important contribution to musical pitch by French physicist, Joseph Sauveur. He proposed that middle C be 256 Hertz, resulting in whole numbers for all eight octaves of C: C1 = 32, C2 = 64, C3 = 128, C4 = 256, C5 = 512, C6 = 1024, C7 = 2048 and C8 = 4096 Hertz. This (then) novel pitch was not adopted by orchestras in France or any other country, but it was eventually adopted by the medical community and became known as “Scientific Pitch.” We will return to the subject of Scientific Pitch later in the article.

There appears to be confusion in some online sources regarding the connection between middle C = 256 Hertz and A4 = 432 Hertz, which can be easily cleared up at this point. To achieve A4 = 432 Hertz in equal temperament tuning it is necessary to set middle C (also known as C4) to 256.869 Hertz, not 256.00 Hertz. At first thought it may seem that the small difference of 0.869 Hertz is negligible but in fact when C4 is set to precisely 256 Hertz, A4 becomes 430.54 Hertz, not 432 Hertz as some sources erroneously state.

However, it is possible to create a chromatic scale in which C4 is 256 Hertz and where A4 is exactly 432 Hertz. It is called the ‘Scale of Twelve Fifths’. For readers who wish to understand the finer points of this scale the subject is set out in great detail in the book Intervals, Scales and Tones and the Concert Pitch by Maria Renold12. A brief example of the structure of this scale begins by centering a calculation on D4, which is set to 288 Hertz. If we multiply that pitch by the interval of a fifth (3/2) then A4 becomes 432 Hertz. To calculate C4 (below D) we multiply by the interval 8/9* and arrive at C = 256 Hertz. *(Note, for readers interested in the calculations, the ratio 9/8 is the difference between the interval of the fifth (3:2) and the interval of the fourth (4:3). When calculating intervals below D4 the ratio is inverted and becomes 8/9.) And, as the sub title of this article summarizes, the present day proponents of 432 Hertz are taking on the International Standard A = 440 Hertz in a ‘battle of the pitches’, which will be discussed in the section on the scientific perspective.

Joseph Sauveur, the father of Scientific Pitch

Three inventions that helped identify musical pitch

We come now to three inventions that forever changed the course of musical history and concert pitch. The first was the humble tuning fork, invented in 1711 by John Shore (circa 1662 – 1752). He was a Sergeant-trumpeter and lutenist to English composer, Henry Purcell, and to the German-born British Baroque composer, George Frideric Handel. Shore gave Handel a fork of pitch of A = 422.5 Hertz , which still exists and is in the Thomas Coram Foundation for children in London.* 13

Besides providing an accurate way of tuning musical instruments, (prior to which pitch pipes had served as poor and variable reference sources) the tuning fork became a musical instrument in its own right and was successful throughout Europe for a number of years. Measuring the frequency of a tuning fork was typically achieved by attaching a small brush to one of its prongs. The brush was arranged to lightly touch a revolving cylinder, or other method of mechanically moving a drawing surface, which was coated with candle soot. The vibrating fork would draw a sine curve on the drawing surface and the distance between the peaks of the curves were used to calculate the frequency of the fork’s sound, factoring in the speed of the moving drawing surface, as measured with a watch. The fork could be raised in pitch, if needed, by filing its two prongs a little


shorter, then rechecking it on the apparatus.

  • The Thomas Coram Foundation is a charity for foundling children for which Handel was an important and influential patron. In 1835 John Brownlow, the Foundation’s secretary, gave Handel’s fork to Richard Clarke of Westminster Abbey ‘like a good natured fool’, according to a note in the Foundation’s letters. It seems likely that this is how the organ of Westminster Abbey was originally tuned to A = 422.5 Hertz. When Richard Clarke died in 1856 his effects were sold by auction and the 422.5 Hertz fork was bought by Rev G.T. Driffield, along with another fork of 419.9 Hertz, also made by John Shore. 14 The forks eventually found their way back to the Thomas Coram Foundation. (In an odd twist of fate the story of how John Shore’s tuning forks made their way back to the Thomas Coram Foundation involves my namesake, a Mr John Reid, then a partner in the Broadwood Piano Company.)

An early Tuning Fork with attached brush

Over a hundred years after Shore, a second invention had a major influence on the development of musical instruments and played an important part in the story of pitch measurement; it was known as, ‘Savart’s Toothed Wheel’. Felix Savart was a French physicist and in 1830 he made a toothed wheel that was turned by a handle; a sound was generated when a playing card was placed against the moving teeth. The frequency of the sound created in this way was proportional to the speed of rotation of the wheel and the exact pitch could be determined by a simple calculation involving the spacing of the teeth and the rotational speed of the wheel. The quality of the sound was obviously not pleasant, but the basic principle allowed continuous sounds to be produced for the first time in history and with a wide range of pitches. By making wheels with a range of different tooth spacings a significant portion of the audible sound bandwidth could be generated. He even added a revolution counter to the wheel so that an exact number could be read off to quantify the speed of rotation.

Savart’s Toothed Wheel

Another interesting aspect to Savart’s story is that he became a professor at the Collège de France in 1836 and went on to study musical intervals; one of the old methods used to express parts of a musical interval is named after him: the ‘savart’. It is rarely used today since it is divided into 1000 parts, making it rather cumbersome. Instead, the ‘cent’ is now the common and more manageable unit of musical interval, and is based on one hundredth of a semitone in twelve-tone equal temperament.

The third significant invention was born only four years after Savart made his toothed wheel. It was an application of tuning forks called ”‘Der Tonmesser” (The Tonometer) created by the German physicist, Johann Heinrich Scheibler in 1834. It consisted of a set of 54 tuning forks with a range of 220 Hertz to 440 Hertz, at 4 Hertz intervals, which he described in his 1834 pamphlet, ‘Der physikalische und musikalische Tonmesser.’16 If the musical sound to be measured happened to be the exact frequency of one of the forks then that fork alone would resonate. If the frequency of the sound was slightly sharp or flat of a particular tuning fork, then two adjacent forks would resonate and beat frequencies would manifest from the interference between the two forks (beats are clearly audible pulses of sound). The number of beats per second represented the difference in frequency between the two sounds and it was, therefore, a matter of simple arithmetic to determine the exact frequency of the given musical sound. It is not known why Scheibler chose the numbers 220 and 440, perhaps it was because of their round number neatness but whatever his reason it is probably safe to say that Scheibler is the father of A = 440 Hertz.

Johann Heinrich Scheibler, the father of A = 440 Hertz

Scheibler’s Tonometer received wide acclaim in Europe and the USA and its principle was imitated by many other technicians, none more audaciously than German physicist, Rudolph Koenig. In 1876 he made a tonometer with 670 tuning forks, covering the entire range of human hearing. Koenig’s tonometer was exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and was regarded by many American scientists as the most important scientific instrument at the event.

A Koenig Tonometer

The Wild World of Musical Pitch

Despite the fact that in 1834 the German Association of Natural Philosophers took Scheibler’s advice to adopt a concert pitch of A = 440 Hertz, there was no international standard concert pitch at that time; the pitches used by piano and organ builders, and by orchestras, varied wildly all over the world. There is a wonderful book by the German physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz, titled On the Sensations of Tone, first published in 1877. It includes a comprehensive list of the pitches of pianos, organs and pitch pipes used in Germany, France, England, Hungary, Holland, Italy, Spain, Russia and USA.17 The earliest entry in the list dates to 1619 and relates to a north German church pitch called ‘chamber pitch’ that measured A = 424.2 Hertz. The last entries in von Helmoltz’ list are later than the book’s original publication date and, presumably, were added in a later edition, dating from 1879. They include the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which measured A = 444.6 Hertz. Supporters of 444 Hertz will no doubt be pleased to learn this fact.

Another interesting entry in the list will surely be well received by supporters of A = 432 Hertz: an organ in Lille, France, dating to 1854, had a pitch of A = 432 Hertz, as did an old tuning fork belonging to an English organ builder, dating to 1846.

A further entry of note is that only one orchestra in von Helmholtz’ list used a pitch of 440 Hertz, namely the Paris Opera orchestra in 1829. To be accurate, four other entries in the list are close to 440 Hertz and vary between 440.2 Hertz and 440.9 Hertz in Stuttgart, Vienna, London and the Paris Conservatoire respectively.

Mean Pitch

Despite the lack of a standard concert pitch before and during von Hemholtz’ era there were some early attempts at creating a standard that were quite successful. For example, a ‘mean pitch’ in the range A = 421 – 425 Hertz evolved in Europe that may have begun with Mr Stein, who constructed Mozart’s pianos, who had used A = 421.6 Hertz. Perhaps it was Mozart’s notoriety that influenced the trend but in Britain, in 1813 the London Philharmonic Society was founded and chose A = 423.7 Hertz. This pitch, or a variety of pitches very close to it, now enjoyed Continental -wide diffusion. Venues as far afield as London, Vienna, Verona and the Grand Opera in Paris all used what became known as mean pitch and the list of the composers who used it reads like a who’s-who of celebrated musicians and includes, JS Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Purcell and Rossini, to name just a few. In the words of Alexander John Ellis, who wrote On the History of Musical Pitch, “…the heroes of music, the founders and perfecters of modern musical art, all used this mean pitch, all thought out their music, and arranged their vocal parts to be played and sung in this pitch. This is, therefore, emphatically the classical pitch of music.”18

Orchestral Pitch

It is surprising that what seems to have been virtually cast in stone in one part of history can be cast aside at some future time, evidenced by the fact that following this mean pitch trend a new trend emerged in which the pitches increased markedly across Europe, sometimes known as the rise of Orchestral Pitch. Again referring to Ellis, “Both church and chamber pitch were founded on the capabilities of the human voice alone, and the instruments were an accessory. But the formation of large orchestras, for which especial music was written, gave an excessive power to the instruments, which could develop their powers independently of the voice…”19

This new trend may have been started in 1814 at the Congress of Vienna when Tsar Alexander of Russia gave a new set of musical instruments to a regiment of the Austrian army that were tuned to around 440 Hertz. These instruments offered a brighter sound as a consequence of the higher tuning (more about this point later). Whether it was the Tsar’s initiative or some other influence, what is certain is that in 1834, at a conference held by the German Association of Natural Philosophers (die Deutche Naturforscherversammlung) in Stuttgart there was a call for adoption of A = 440 Hertz. Johann Heinrich Scheibler, as mentioned earlier, had advised the conference on this new concert pitch as a result of his Tonometer studies in which a higher pitch was indicated to be beneficial. (Some people still refer to the A = 440 Hertz as “Stuttgart Pitch” or “Scheibler pitch.”)

In Britain, in 1845, the British Philharmonic pitch rose to a staggeringly high A = 455 Hertz, a pitch which may have offered brighter harmonics but drew complaints from opera and choral singers for causing strain to their vocal cords. (An interesting aside is that this was actually history repeating itself. In the early 17th century German composer and organist, Michael Praetorius, reported in his encyclopedic ‘Syntagma Musicum’ that pitch levels had become so high that singers were experiencing severe throat strain and lutenists and viol players were complaining of snapped strings!)20

The Diapason Normal Pitch in France

In 1859 the French government, under the guidance of Gioachino Rossini, called for a standardization of pitch, leading to the passing of a law in which the Diapason Normal * pitch of A = 435 Hertz was set, presumably chosen as a compromise between the lower pitch of Mozart’s time and some of the higher pitches, (such as the A = 455 Hertz mentioned above). An accurate tuning fork of 435 Hertz was held at the Paris Conservatoire to set their standard. (* Note: the word ‘diapason’ is a noun with several musical definitions but the French employed it to mean the entire range of an instrument or voice; in particular many French vocalists were very ‘vocal’ about the problem of voice strain as a consequence of the higher concert pitches.)

Gioachino Rossini

The Birth of A = 444 Hertz

1859 also saw the first mention of A = 444 Hertz as a possible concert pitch. During that year the Society of Arts in Britain appointed an influential committee of 50 members leading to a report being drawn up that was read at a meeting on 8 June 1860, during which two contender pitches were discussed: C = 512 Hertz, (from which A = 430.54 Hertz is derived) and C = 528 Hertz (from which A = 444 Hertz is derived.) Sir John Herschel, son of the famous Sir William Herschel, (who discovered the planet Uranus) opted for C = 512 Hertz, a pitch that later became known as Philosophical Pitch or Scientific Pitch. One of Sir John Herschel’s talents was mathematics so it seems likely that his preference for C = 512 Hertz derived from the elegance of the maths. (The neatness of the mathematics was first noticed by Joseph Sauveur in 1713, mentioned in the section ‘Pythagoras to the Renaissance’). Referring to the Society of Arts committee decision, Ellis states, “Its leanings toward C 512…seem to have arisen from arithmetical [rather] than from musical feeling. Indeed, in subsequent debate, Sir John Herschel especially took the arithmetical view of C 512.”21

Sir John Herschel

The Birth of A = 432 Hertz

Alexander John Ellis also mentions a paper by M. Elie Ritter, read to the Institute of Geneva by Charles Meerens in 1876, in which A = 432 Hertz was proposed as the standard concert pitch, based on it being a multiple of 2 and 3. The paper was titled “Mémoire sur le Diapason.” Ellis further mentions a 432 Hertz tuning fork, which he had tested, that had been owned by the English scientist, Michael Faraday. 22

Spain adopted the Diapason Normal in 1879. Meanwhile, in Italy, Giuseppe Verdi, who had initially supported the French pitch of 435 Hertz, was influenced by the views of Ritter and Meerens and was supported by the 1881 congress of scientists and musicians held in Milan who favored an international standard pitch of A = 432 Hertz.23 Verdi made attempts to institutionalize A = 432 Hertz, bringing pressure to bear on the Italian government. He wrote a letter to the government’s Music Commission in which he complained about the then prevalent higher pitches in his country, saying that it was absurd that “the note called ‘A’ in Paris…should be B-flat in Rome.” However, a British dominated conference in Vienna, in 1885, ruled against Verdi and he eventually shifted his

perspective away from 432 Hertz.

The rise of the Diapason Normal beyond France

Queen Victoria eventually gave permission for the adoption of the French Diapason Normal of A = 435 Hertz for her private band, deciding in 1885 that this pitch should be used at all State concerts. In June of that year a 'Conference on Musical Pitch' was held at St James's Hall, London, chaired by composer and musicologist, Professor Sir George MacFarren, to consider the desirability of a standard musical pitch for the United Kingdom.

Also in 1885, the Diapason Normal was adopted by Italy, Austria, Prussia and Russia.

It is worth considering that the adoption of a particular concert pitch over some previous pitch could be a costly business. Brass instruments, for example, have to be modified and in some cases completely replaced, so it is no wonder that a proposal to alter pitch was sometimes met with resistance. While there was often resistance on cost grounds some experts were concerned about possible harmful effect of higher pitches on expensive instruments such as state-of-the-art violins and violas.

A Nazi Conspiracy?

Returning to the subject of A = 444 Hertz, from which C = 528 Hertz is derived, Ellis commented, “…the arithmetical value of C528, owing to its representation of the natural intervals of the scale by whole numbers, depends solely upon using Ptolemaic, or Just Intonation, for the major scale of C and no other.”24

Some orchestras, particularly in Germany, now tune to A = 444 Hertz, which is sure to please 444 Hertz supporters. The orchestras include: Bach Collegium München, Bamberger Symphoniker, Hamburgische Staatsoper , Orchester der


Deutschen Oper Berlin, and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, to name a few. This is a most interesting fact, given that several online conspiracy articles cite Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi party’s propaganda minister, as having organized a conspiracy for the introduction of 440 Hertz to the world, the articles claiming that this pitch causes people to be aggressive and in extreme cases can incite riots. The pertinent question that arises seems to be: Assuming it is believed that 440 Hertz tuning can incite people to riot how would deploying such a ‘weapon’ have forwarded the Nazi party aims? Wouldn’t the opposite effect hold advantages, in which people are subdued and made tranquil by music? Whatever the answer to that question, contrary to the view that the Nazi’s were involved in creating such a population control method, many German orchestras today tune to 444 Hertz. (Another aspect of the alleged Nazi conspiracy is mentioned in the section titled “Setting the International Standard of A = 440 Hertz”.)

The A = 439 Hertz British Standard

Before the International Standard of A = 440 Hertz was achieved there was an earlier British standard of A = 439 Hertz, set by the British Piano Makers in 1899 and adopted by the Philharmonic Society, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and several other British orchestras. This strange standard was based on the French Diapason Normal of A = 435 Hertz but tweaked upward in a calculation involving a higher room temperature than that which it was believed the French had used. In this matter they may have referred to the Society of Arts for guidance. Alexander John Ellis, writing in the Journal of the Society of Arts in 1880, mentions that [a tuning fork] “varies very slightly for temperature…flattened by heat and sharpened by cold to the amount of about 1 in 21,000 for each degree Fahrenheit.”25 Thus, the British increased the pitch from the French 435 to 439 Hertz believing that the warmer room temperatures in British concert halls would cause the 439 to flatten to 435 Hertz. It seems that someone was in grave error because even a 30 degree Fahrenheit increase in room temperature would result in an orchestra’s tuning pitch of 439 Hertz being flattened by a tiny fraction of one Hertz.

The Rudolf Steiner View of Pitch

In 1924 the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, a staunch supporter of A = 432 Hertz, and a deeply spiritual man, gave a lecture in Torquay, England, in which he said, “…the ‘hallelujah’ of the Christ may sound out of this musical configuration, purely as music, purely out of the configuring of the tones. Then the human being will conjure up within the configuration of the tones, in giving this form, something that is immediately superhensible and place it there for sentient musical feeling.” 26 Steiner is also quoted as saying that C = 128 Hertz (from which pitch A = 430.54 Hertz derives) is the correct pitch for modern human minds and spirits. It is also reported that he said that [C = 128 Hertz] is always prime. We can only presume that he was not referring to this pitch/ number as a literal Prime Number, but using the word ‘Prime’ to mean of first importance.

Setting the International Standard of A = 440 Hertz

In the USA, in 1926, the American music industry informally set the standard as A = 440 Hertz, which resulted in the manufacture of some musical instruments that were tuned to that pitch, although it wasn’t until 1936 that the American Standards Association confirmed the standard, perhaps based on Scheibler’s Tonometer work.

Then, on May 11th 1938, a momentous international conference was held by the International Standards Association in London at which the present A = 440 Hertz standard was established. Held at the British Broadcasting House it was organized by the British Standards Institution under its director, Mr Le Maistre. Apart from the British contingent, delegates were present from France, Germany, Holland and Italy while the views of the USA and Switzerland were lodged prior to the conference. 27 The BBC subsequently broadcast the 440 Hertz frequency tone by radio, having generated it electronically, so that orchestras and musicians had a reference sound to which to tune their instruments.

For completeness it should be mentioned that some of the online conspiracy articles, mentioned above, refer to French musician, Robert Dussaut, who apparently held the opinion that the 1938 London conference had been organized at the behest of the Acoustic Committee of Radio Berlin and saw the Germanic preference for A = 440 Hertz as an aggressive pitch. He also complained that no French musician had been invited to the conference. However, we should remember that the German voice was only one of the countries represented at the London conference and since they had only one vote it seems unlikely that they could have influenced the outcome. It is also known that the French were indeed represented, as confirmed by Dr G. W. C. Kaye’s 1939 paper in Nature Journal, International Standard of Concert Pitch, as referenced above.

The 440 Hertz standard was adopted in November 1955 by the International Organization for Standardization (usually abbreviated to ISO) and reaffirmed by them in January 1975 with the classification: ISO 16. Even so, some orchestras continue to use variations such as the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra who use A = 442 Hertz. This slightly higher pitch is also often used in Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Norway and Switzerland while almost all modern symphony orchestras in Germany, Austria and in several other continental countries, including Russia, Sweden and Spain, use A = 443 Hertz. Readers wishing to look up the pitches used by modern orchestras will have fun browsing through Franz Nistl’s ‘Klaviermachermeister’ (Piano Tuning) site where there is currently a humorous home page note stating: “We are familiar about tuning a piano up or down. Nothing helps.”28

Before discussing the scientific aspects of 432, 440 and 444 Hertz there is one last unusual twist to the curious concert pitch conflict that also began in 1938. It concerns the Rockefeller Foundation, an organization that is named in several sensationalist online articles in relation to their alleged dangerous interest in musical control of emotions, the articles sometimes including the subject of 440 Hertz. An article that offers what appears to be a grounded and factual report on this subject was authored by Professor James Tobias and titled: Composing for the Media: Hanns Eisler and Rockefeller Foundation Projects in Film Music, Radio Listening, and Theatrical Sound Design. Tobias mentions Harold Burris-Meyer, an audio engineer and drama instructor at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology. In 1938 Burris-Meyer worked on implementing public address systems to be attached to airplane wings and broadcast battlefield messages to enemy combatants to surrender. According to Tobias, “[He] became convinced that audio control of human emotions was possible for a large enough portion of an audience to provide effective crowd control…sonic warfare and musical behaviorism as Burris-Meyer succeeded his early Rockefeller-supported activities with work for the Department of Defense and the Muzak Corporation in the early 1940s…”29 However, it seems clear from this next statement that the Rockefeller Foundation eventually withdrew their support of Burris-Meyers’ work. Tobias reports: “His move from engineering audio environments for the dramatic theatre to engineering audio environments for theatres of war implies what might be called an only loosely coherent musical behaviorism. In fact, it appears that it was precisely this dangerously incoherent aspect of Burris-Meyer’s work which seems to have spelled the end of Rockefeller Foundation funding after several successful outcomes achieved through Rockefeller support.”30

The scientific perspective on the battle of the pitches is available in part 2 of this article.



  2. Allan C. Inman

  3. "Yellow Emperor," The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2008).

  4. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, Curt Sachs, p 114.

  5. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, Lise Manniche, p 30.

  6. Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras, translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor, p 7.

  7. Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras, translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor, p 62, 63 & 64.

  8. Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras, translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor, p 138 & 139.

  9. Two New Sciences, Galileo Galilei, p103.

  10. The Science of Musical Sound, John R. Pierce, p 22.

  11. The Montiverdi Vespers of 1610, Jeffrey Kurtzman, p 404.

  12. Intervals, Scales, Tones and the Concert Pitch C = 128 Hertz, Maria Renold, p

  13. The History of the Tuning-fork. Part 1: The invention of the Tuning-fork, its Course in Music and Natural Science. Die Geschichte der Stimmgabel Teil 1: Die Erfindung der Stimmgabel, ihr Weg in der Musik und den Naturwissenschaften. Prof. Dr. Harald Feldmann.

  14. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 319.

  15. Heat Light and Sound, R.G. Shackel, p 412.

  16. ‘Der physikalische und musikalische Tonmesser’ Essen, Badeker, 1834, p. 80.

  17. On the Sensations of Tone, Hermann Helmholtz, p 495.

  18. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 309.

  19. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 309.

  20. Michael Praetorius (1991). Syntagma Musicum: Parts I and II. De Organographia. II, Parts 1-2. Clarendon Press.

  21. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 314.

  22. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 322.

  23. Executive Intelligence Review (February 24, 1989.

  24. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 314.

  25. On the History of Musical Pitch, Alexander John Ellis, p 297.

  26. Intervals, Scales, Tones and the Concert Pitch C = 128 Hertz, Maria Renold, p

  27. International Standard of Concert Pitch, Dr G. W. C. Kaye, O.B.E., F.R.S., Nature Journal, No 3630, May 27, 1939.

  28. Franz Nistl, Klaviermachermeisterhttp (Piano Tuning) site:

  29. Composing for the Media: Hanns Eisler and Rockefeller Foundation Projects in Film Music, Radio Listening, and Theatrical Sound Design. p 9 & 10.

  30. Composing for the Media: Hanns Eisler and Rockefeller Foundation Projects in Film usic, Radio Listening, and Theatrical Sound Design. p 8.

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