Forgotten Audiophile History
This series explores little-known stories of twentieth century audio technology, sound experiences, and radio chicanery.
There are some ideas so compelling that you want to drop everything and take up the cause full-time. The fact that it gives you a reason to drop all that job, house, and spouse baggage is an extra bonus. Ideas like this correspond to something akin to the hot-crazy-matrix, where the idea is so distractingly lovely that you may find yourself at a Berlin conference surrounded by neo-Nazis particularly interested in tuning forks. It happens.
Words by Nan Pincus
In 1989, Pavarotti, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, and Plácido Domingo got seduced by one such idea, namely that if the international standard for middle C was lowered from 262 Hz to 256 Hz, (and correspondingly, the tuning for the A above middle C would be lowered from 440 Hz to 432 Hz) classical music would be restored to its place as the pinnacle of art and civilization, and the world would stop decaying like an antebellum tooth.
In this case, the hot crazy lady was Helga Zepp-LaRouche, a German woman with no musical pedigree, who got the financial resources and the type of dinnertime conversation that encouraged global quests for domination from her husband: America’s own, six-time third-party presidential candidate, Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche may have been a supportive husband, but he was also a self-identified fascist who called Jews a subhuman oligarchical species. (Guess I wouldn’t have proven much competition for Helga).
Zepp-LaRouche wasn’t the first person who got the idea that A at 432 Hz as the standard pitch would be a panacea to the world’s problems. It was an idea that became an oppositional stance throughout the 18th and 19th century as standard tuning crept up due to changing temperature conditions of live musical performance and the shifting power dynamics in orchestras between vocalists who benefit from lower tuning, and strings players, who benefit from the brighter, showier sound that higher tuning provides.
However, the history of orchestral tuning over time is not a straight northeastern line. Sure, in the Baroque period Handel’s tuning fork was at 422.5 Hz for A, and Verdi, in the later Romantic period, used the beloved 432 Hz tuning for his works. But, it’s also been far from consistent, and the British Library has in its collection Beethoven’s tuning fork, which he also lent to Gustav Holst of interplanetary fame (and the fabulous declaration that Uranus is a magician). It was tuned at 455.4 Hz, which is even higher than today’s standard.
The standardization of A440 as the tuning pitch was put into place in 1955 by the International Organization for Standardization, the same organization that sanctions how we can write the date and what safety practices should be used while creating medical devices. For years, 439 Hz had been the preferred tuning pitch in the United States and the United Kingdom, but when the BBC started using electronically produced tones, the London Philharmonic joined them in a 440 Hz standard since it, as a non-prime number, was much easier for the BBC to produce.
Along with orchestral tuning, since 1955, A440 has also been the standard used in creating and tuning instruments for everyone from professionals to your niece’s handbells, as well as in digital audio platforms for creating electronic music. If you don’t have perfect pitch or an electronic tuner, you can tune into the WWV shortwave station and hear an A440 long tone at minute two of every hour.
So given that A440 seems to have achieved the type of communally-held respect between international governments, orchestral bodies, and the music industry that the A432 movement sought, why in 1989 did a small collection of prominent singers ignore the at best helter-skelter, and at worst, blatantly fascist views of the LaRouche movement, and sign their names to the LaRouchian petition for A432 as the new tuning standard? The answer is in the fact that it was the vocalists and not the timpani players. This pitch lowering, indiscernible to almost everyone, matters when you’ve been singing for a lifetime. As LaRouche’s primary ideological mouthpiece, the Schiller Institute‘s website declares: “At a conference on “Music and Classical Aesthetics,” held at the Casa Giuseppe Verdi, speakers, including Lyndon LaRouche, who had conceived the initiative, called for an end to the high-pitched tuning, which has been literally destroying all but the most gifted voices during the past century, and for a return to the principles of Classical aesthetics, according to which the process of musical composition is just as lawful as are the orbits of the planets in the solar system.”
Now, I might be a writer living in a glass house here, but I’d call that a run-on sentence. I’d also say it’s an interesting choice to declare Lyndon LaRouche the originator of the movement to lower the standard pitch when most documentation has Helga Zepp-LaRouche holding the title, and she has the added PR benefit of not being on the record denying the Holocaust. But hey, I can’t deny that the LaRouches knew how to make some of the 20th century’s most beloved singers, well, sing.
But alas, the utopian dream of A432 has not yet been fulfilled. No prominent conductors or composers signed on, and the New York Philharmonic’s own Zubin Mehta openly acknowledged that he was a A440 man himself. The movement was able to garner considerable media attention, and at the turn into the ’90s, the political views of the financial and ideological heads of the LaRouche organization led to some awkward questions for Pavarotti and others, and
they started to back away from the campaign.
Although the heyday of the movement has passed, it’s far from over, and anyone sympathetic to the search for perfect sound is bound to experience something of a siren’s call to the idea that a tiny correction in the standard tuning pitch could lead to vocal health, heavenly sound, and a greater alignment with scientific principles. Even now, if you look up 432 Hz you quickly find yourself in an ecosystem of online communities espousing the miracle tone of a 432 A, and the harmony with the universe and inner peace it provides. I got curious and listened to a few recordings with the miracle tuning and felt a certain warmth to the sound, but not an unfolding of inner peace. Maybe it’s my deification of Beethoven, or just too much coffee.
At the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest of 2017, Schiit Audio co-founder Mike Moffat previewed “The Gadget”, a single-purpose, digital-in and digital-out device, designed to offer “a new class of audio control: dynamic re-tuning of concert pitch.” More information about “The Gadget” and C=256 Hz tuning can be found at this webpage.
About the Author, Nan Pincus
Nan is a graduate of The University of North Carolina and Duke University. She writes about audio culture and analog technology of all kinds. She DJs FM radio, operates ham radio, and got her first job in high school to save up for a belt-drive turntable. She works in classical music and theatre, but she often puts down her work to drop the needle on Scriabin’s Preludes and dream in technicolor.