Episode 141 - The Physics of the A=440 Hz Conspiracy
Recap: A conspiracy idea is that part of Nazi Germany propaganda was to redefine the musical standard for the world, moving it up in pitch from a standard A4 note that vibrates at 432 Hz to the more jarring 440 Hz which allows mind control and agitates people to be more war-like. I look into this claim from a physics and physical standpoint to determe if it could have any validity.
- Logical Fallacies / Critical Thinking Terms addressed in this episode: Natural Fallacy (Appeal to Nature)
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Claim: For this episode, the claim is something completely different from what I’ve been talking about for the past few months, and even really any other episode I’ve done. I’m going to be talking about the conspiracy idea that various persons or groups in the early 1900s decided to change the definition of the music note “A4” to one that produces angst, destroys the body’s natural healing or energy or harmony, and various other nefarious goals.
There are lots of ways I could go about addressing this claim in this episode. Looking into the history of it, whether it’s true, or things like that. The problem with that kind of approach is that it’s been done before. I’m also not a historian, I’ll be relying on one of the most popular websites in the world for that portion of this episode.
Instead, I thought I would take an approach that I haven’t seen taken before, which is to address this claim from a physics and physical standpoint rather than a historic one. In other words, instead of addressing whether the conspiracy itself has any roots or basis in historical reality, I’ll ignore that other than a brief history of the claim, and instead focus on whether it could work for nefarious purposes.
Before getting into that, since I’ll be delving into some physics that I very rarely do, I need to give some definitions.
First up is the second. When you think about it, how do you define a second? From what I can find, one of the earliest true uses or codification of the second was one of practicality for mechanical clocks in the mid 1500s. These were clocks driven by a spring and ratchet system, and based on the length and weight of a pendulum, it would move forward one unit of time. Prior civilizations had already introduced the idea of dividing the day into 24 hours and hours into 60 minutes, and the Babylonians had the concept of divisions of 1/60 down to the modern equivalent of about 2 µsec. From this, for practical purposes, 1/60th of 1 minute was a good division that worked with the mechanics of clocks.
As science progressed we needed to measure time more accurately, and with advancements of astronomy, in 1956 the second was defined as 1/31,556,925.9747th of the tropical year starting January at 12:00 in the year 1900. This definition was ratified in 1960 at a conference which also established the International System of Units, not to be confused with U.N.I.T. from Dr. Who.
Several years later, atomic clocks were developed and in 1967, the second was defined as the time it took for 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.
Unfortunately, gravitational time dilation meant that, very quickly, no atomic clock agreed with another because of differences in elevation — distance from Earth’s core. Same reason why I weight a fraction of a gram less here in Colorado than I will when this episode goes out and I’m in New York. In reaction to that, a uniform standard was made such that the definition referred to that many periods when the clock is at sea level, and in 1997 it was revised yet again to specify that it was when the atom is at absolute zero, which isn’t physically possible yet.
Okay, so why do we care about this? One reason is that I thought it was interesting. But another reason is that the whole point of this conspiracy is that it is about the definition of a musical pitch, A4. And, pitch is measured in the unit Hertz.
And, the definition of Hertz is “per second.” So if I move my hand back and forth, once per second, that is 1 Hz. If I watch a movie in the theater, the normal rate is 24 frames per second, or 24 Hz. The human hearing range is ideally around 20 to 20,000 Hz, meaning your ear, ideally, can pick up sound waves that are moving 20 to 20,000 times per second.
Which means already that if we have been continuously revising the definition of what “1 second” really is, then unless this conspiracy says that everything was set up in the last few decades, we can dismiss it out of hand because before the 1950s, everyone’s “second” varied by a non-trivial amount when we’re talking about measuring hundreds of Hertz.
Which brings us to the definition of A. For those who are musically inclined, bear with me while I go over this for those who are not. In Western music, one can look to the now-standard 88-key piano to understand this. One of the fundamentals of pitch and music is the “octave,” so-called in Western music because there are eight notes that span each octave, hence “oct” which means “8.”
From one octave to the next, the frequency doubles. So if I play one note and it has a frequency of 200 Hz, and I go up one octave, it’s 400 Hz. Another octave, and it’s 800 Hz. Just like this: [1 second audio each of 100 Hz, 200 Hz, 400 Hz, 800 Hz, 1600 Hz] That was 5 octaves, starting at 100 Hz and going to 1600 Hz. And all of you, unless you have a hearing impairment, should have been able to hear that. If it sounded a bit fake, there’s a reason, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
Anyway, so I’ve defined the octave for you, so where does “A4” come from? An octave is 8 pitches, and conveniently they’re just alphabetical, A through G and then A again. For a reason I didn’t care to look up, the middle of the piano is the note “C,” possibly because the key of C, going from one C up to the next, for a major scale requires no sharps or flats, which are a way to modify the note a half pitch up or down. I just introduced a lot of new terms, if you’re interested and don’t know what they are, look them up, moving on …
So the middle of the modern-day, Western piano is C. It is the 4th C on the modern piano. Five notes above it is A. A4. It is that note that is the subject of the conspiracy.
Why Is A4 The Conspiracy Note?
A4 is the conspiracy note because the whole basis for music is one pitch relative to another, and everything about music is defined as such, like one octave to the next is double or half the frequency of the other, and the eight notes between are geometric fractions of that. And to those who know music, yes, I realize there are actually 12 half-notes from one octave to the next, but let’s move on, that’s not important for this discussion.
And so, if you DEFINE the fourth A on the piano to be a certain frequency, then everything is tuned relative to that note, such that the relative pitches will be correct. So if A4 is 440 Hz, then A5 is 880, and A3 is 220.
Conspiracy History / Formation
So with all of those definitions out there, and hopefully now that everyone has at least the basics of music theory from a physics standpoint to understand this episode, let’s at least very briefly address the conspiracy on its face.
I’ve heard a lot of different perturbations on the basic idea, but the general jist of the conspiracy perhaps can be summarized by the beginning of the “440hz Music - Conspiracy To Detune Us From Natural 432Hz Harmonics?” from the “Why Don’t You Try This?” website:
Most music worldwide has been tuned to 440 hertz since the International Standards Organization (ISO) endorsed it in 1953. The recent rediscoveries of the vibratory / oscillatory nature of the universe indicate that this contemporary international concert pitch standard may generate an unhealthy effect or anti-social behavior in the consciousness of human beings.
A=432 Hz, known as Verdi’s ‘A’ is an alternative tuning that is mathematically consistent with the universe. Music based on 432 Hz transmits beneficial healing energy, because it is a pure tone of math fundamental to nature.
There is a theory that the change from 432 Hz to 440 Hz was dictated by Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. He used it to make people think and feel a certain manner, and to make them a prisoner of a certain consciousness. Then around 1940 the United States introduced 440 Hz worldwide, and finally in 1953 it became the ISO 16-standard.
440 Hz is the unnatural standard tuning frequency, removed from the symmetry of sacred vibrations and overtones that has declared war on the subconscious mind of Western Man.
In a paper entitled ‘Musical Cult Control’, Dr. Leonard Horowitz writes: “The music industry features this imposed frequency that is ‘herding’ populations into greater aggression, psycho social agitation, and emotional distress predisposing people to physical illness.”
You just have to go out in the street and take a look around. What do you see? School kids, young adults on their way to work, a woman pushing her baby in a pram, a man walking his dog – and what do they all have in common? iPods or MP3 Players! Ingenious, isn't it?
The powers that be are successfully lowering the vibrations of not only the young generation but the rest of us as well. These destructive frequencies entrain the thoughts towards disruption, disharmony and disunity. Additionally, they also stimulate the controlling organ of the body - the brain - into disharmonious resonance, which ultimately creates disease and war.
So, that’s kinda the basic idea. To anyone who’s not embedded in New Age thinking, I’m hoping that you are were not nodding along with that text. There are so many things I could talk about with it, but let’s draw back and remember that the IDEA here is that music was tuned prior to the Nazis where A was 432 Hz, and after them it was tuned so A4 is 440 Hz. Because of stuff.
I’d point out that the definition of A4=440 Hz was set as an ISO standard in 1955, according to Wikipedia, not 1953, but either way that’s at least a full year before we had a set definition for 1 second that everyone in the industrialized world would use.
But there’s more. The article is factually wrong in other ways. Prior to the 1800s, there was no standard musical pitch for tuning. Everyone kinda did what they wanted in Western music. With the invention of the tuning fork in 1711, there was some standardization, but it still varied depending on manufacturer and who wanted what. Over centuries, the range was over 50 Hz.
Over time, there was pitch inflation, meaning that people were tuning slightly higher than the last person to make the music “sound” brighter and more lively. This becomes a problem for practical reasons, though. If I have sheet music written in an obnoxious singer key like, say, A# major, I might be able to sing it when it’s written. But a year later, if the pitch that the piano has given me has crept up, it may now be out of my vocal range.
And it’s not just an issue for vocalists. Having played woodwind instruments for over a decade, it becomes harder to get high notes out than low notes because, to get to basics, you have to force air through the instrument to get it to vibrate faster and faster. If I buy a clarinet in 1960 that’s tuned so A=400 Hz, I might be able to get over the break to the next octave fine. If I buy a clarinet in 1970 that’s tuned so A=450 Hz, that’s not the case anymore.
For string instruments, it’s an issue not necessarily of being able to play a higher pitch, but your strings breaking. To get the strings to vibrate faster, you have to pull them tighter. This is very easily demonstrated by a rubber band, where if you hold it loosely and strike it, it will produce a low tone. If you pull it tighter and strike it, the pitch will increase. If you pull it even tighter, it will break.
And so, for all these reasons and more, standardization was desired. In France, a law was passed in 1859 defining A4 as 435 Hz. Notice, that’s well before the Nazis.
Alternatively, OCD scientists like myself might prefer middle C to be set to 256 Hz, which is 2^8. That means A4 is going to be 430.54 Hz.
In the 1800s, the British, hating the French, selected A4 to be 452 Hz and revised it in 1896 to be 439 Hz. A year before, at the Queen’s Hall in London, the diapason normal was established where everything was tuned to the organ having A4 be 439 Hz at 59°F (15°C), or 435.5 Hz in a heated hall.
Meanwhile, it was over a century before the Nazis rose to power in Germany that the Stuttgart Conference of 1834 recommended A4 be set to 440 Hz, but this wasn’t adopted very widely until an international conference again recommended it in 1939.
Is It Even Possible to Tune Perfectly to A=Anything?
But, that doesn’t mean that everyone uses it.
As an extreme example, I was in marching band, concert band, orchestra, and the pit orchestra while in grade school. When we tuned, it was usually to either the first chair in our section for concert band which was ultimately based on the first chair oboist; or in orchestra it was the first chair violinist who tuned the strings and first chair flute tuned to them and then tuned the wind instruments. In marching band we used a tuner, and in the pit orchestra, it was up to us. I can guarantee you that we were all over the place, and the only time anyone ever collapsed was during Disney Magic Music Days when we were in 5 layers of cotton uniform in the hot and humid Orlando Florida. Or the Great Flute Collision of 1997.
But more professionally, even though A4 = 440 Hz is the only official standard, many Western orchestras throughout the world use something different. In the USA, the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra use 442 Hz. Most modern symphony orchestras in continental Europe use 443. The Berliner Philharmoniker has, in the recent past, used 445.
Meanwhile, many modern groups that play forms of music called “Blues” or even “Rock and / or Roll” will tune lower. It’s a practical reason that gets to two things I’ve mentioned earlier. First, pitch inflation causes music to sound brighter, and if you’re going to play depressing Blues music or Satanic Rock and Roll, then you often want to be more depressing, so you’ll lower the pitch. But on a slightly more serious note, the other reason is that lowering your tuning pitch will let you loosen string instruments’ strings, which lets the strings literally move more, be slacker, which lets you do something called “improve the sustain.” I, not being a string instrument player, am going to just imagine in my head what that means and let the couple of you who know what this is hopefully nod your head in agreement.
But, vibrating strings reminds of me what I promised I’d get to awhile back: Why that octave I played for you sounded artificial. The reason is that it was pure. It was a single, individual frequency with nothing else going on. That’s pretty much impossible to do except by artificial means.
Almost every instrument has what are called harmonics, partials, and overtones, with some flutes and ocarinas being the only exceptions I could find. These are other frequencies that are produced whenever the one you want is made. These are all produced because the instrument cannot produce a perfect, individual frequency. Some of the energy will go into the next octave. Some will go into other pitches.
One of the many reasons for this can be thought of by looking at something like a trumpet. It is, at its most basic level, a pipe that you vary the length of to get a different pitch. If you have a certain length, you’ll get a pitch. But you’re not just vibrating the pipe length. You’re also vibrating the keys. You’re vibrating support structure. You’re vibrating the mouthpiece. You, yourself are vibrating. All of these different things combine to give you different pitches overtop the one that you’re intending to play. This is what makes a real instrument sound so different from an artificial one.
A string instrument is another way to look at this. When you have one string vibrate, it is physically moving, which physically moves the air, which physically touches the strings next to it. Causing them to also vibrate at their own frequency.
While this might be less obvious in more tightly strung instruments, if you get a chance, go to an open piano and play some low notes. You’ll see that when you press one key, it causes a hammer to strike anywhere from one to a few springs, depending on exactly how that piano was made. If you look closely, the ones next to it, or them, that were NOT struck by the hammer will also vibrate a little. This is emphasized more when you press the petal that raises all the pads that suppress this extra vibration.
But, I digress. The point of that digression gets back to the musical standards, official or unofficial, and whether the A4 tuning to 440 Hz affecting the body in some way even makes any sense whatsoever.
If nothing else throughout this shorter episode, I wanted you to take home the idea that 440 Hz as a standard, as THE pitch that’s going to affect you, doesn’t make sense historically, doesn’t make sense practically speaking, and doesn’t make sense in how instruments really work.
With that in mind, I don’t even need to get into the idea that the way conspiracy people say this affects you is because your body vibrates at a certain frequency and 440 Hz disrupts it. I don’t have to get into the fact that the human body is full of a huge number of different molecules and tissues in different arrangements of different sizes. So a single vibration that your body would vibrate at doesn’t make any sense to begin with. I don’t have to get into the fact that even if it did, if I take a drink of water, or if I excrete waste, I have now changed how at least a couple of my organs will vibrate. I also don’t have to get into the fact that vibration is fundamentally also based on the length of an object, so even if you tuned something to make me somehow vibrate in a bad way, I’d be the only one affected that way unless someone else was exactly identical to me in size and shape not only on the outside but also the way everything is sized and arranged on the inside. Nor do I have to get into the fact that fat tissue and air pockets and blood vessels would tend to dampen any vibration.
And since I didn’t get into that, I also don’t have to get into the fact that this only applies to Western music. I find it interesting how ethno-centric this particular conspiracy is, considering that the majority of the world doesn’t primarily listen to Western music and therefore would never be affected by this conspiracy idea, even if it were true.
And so with all that said and not said, that’s about all I have on this topic. It doesn’t make sense historically. It doesn’t make sense anatomically. It doesn’t make sense physically. And it’s not even applicable in how music is played anyway.
So, it’s just wrong.
Oh yeah, and somehow I got through this without actually playing those pitches for you. Here’s one [play 432 or 440 Hz], and here’s the other [play the other]. Did you hear a difference? Think about it, and we’ll get to it after the break.
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 13. Page 1 of 2. Average Rating:
Peter Sacramento, CA
2:15pm on Wednesday, January 25th, 2017
Very Good explanation for a subject I knew very little about. My wife loved all your band references as she plays the flute. I could tell a difference in the tones and the second one was easier on my ears. I learned of your podcast through Michael S Heiser; thank you.
5:08am on Thursday, January 28th, 2016
just listened to the podcast as it was in the post about conspira-sea cruise on violentmetaphors. i know it's a bit late, but i did hear the difference between the two frequencies at the end. i hadn't read the transcript first, so didn't know you were going to play two different frequencies but it was clear to me that the second one was lower. i'm over 50 and my general hearing is not particularly good but i've alwa**cored well in music tests.
7:52am on Tuesday, January 26th, 2016
The problem with your argument here is that conspiracies are not falsifiable. The counter-argument would be that you are in on the conspiracy.
Steve Blue Bell, PA
1:24pm on Thursday, January 7th, 2016
This was my first Exploring PseudoAstronomy podcast. I've listened to quite a few others just this week; they are great.
7:21am on Thursday, November 5th, 2015
After reading this I thought I should stop giving oboists a hard time about playing tune. But why spoil the fun.
8:47am on Friday, October 9th, 2015
I'm another guitarist, and could tell the difference right away.
9:52am on Sunday, September 27th, 2015
I was able to tell the two pitches apart, but it was a very slight difference.
5:38pm on Saturday, September 26th, 2015
As I have been playing guitar for the last 20 years (only as a hobby and rather bad :-) ), I had no problems hearing the difference between the two notes.
9:47am on Saturday, September 26th, 2015
I had no trouble telling them apart, and it was obvious to me the first one was slightly higher pitch.
Lau Dam Denmark
5:45pm on Thursday, September 24th, 2015
Yes, I could tell a difference and I did guess the right one.
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