There seems to be a resurgence lately of some music-based pseudoscience; with the most current being the claim that “A=432” or “Pythagorean” tuning is “the most ideal for humans because it resonates with the body and soul.” I’ve recently gotten into a few silly debates with defenders of this nonsense, and so I’ve turned to jotting down some of my thoughts on it.

While there is no denying that certain musical chords, progressions, and keys can illicit emotional, even physical, responses in many people, this claim is quite different. The basic premise is that music written in a Pythagorean temperament, where A = 432hz, as opposed to the current “standard” of A = 440hz, will “resonate” with the natural vibrations of the human body and soul, healing the body. It’s important to note that Pythagorean tuning is a a real thing, even if what is being attributed to it is absurd. Also important to note is the difference between a pitch and a temperament. A440 has been the agreed-upon standard pitch since the early-to-mid 1900’s, but many different temperaments exist. A temperament is a system for tuning an instrument that involves compromises in order to achieve a close-to-proper intonation across all intervals. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. We will assume that 432hz is the resonant frequency of the human body (it’s not, nor is it a harmonic of 432hz, it seems to be between 2 and 12hz from the very few sources I can find on the subject, and I am suspicious of their validity), and assuming again that we have somehow found a way to measure the resonant frequency of the “soul.” Let’s add one more assumption into the mix: that harmonizing with the human body and soul have measurable benefits. Basically, let’s say “fuck science” for a little while.

With that in mind, my main question is this: What happens when we introduce the Wolf Interval? This is an imperfect fifth, inherent in the Pythagorean tuning temperament, which creates dissonance, especially in the relationship between thirds and fifths.. This is actually hypothesized as the reason this tuning temperament is no longer widely used. In fact, most Western music written after the 15th century would sound dissonant in this temperament. You can also throw any desire to change keys mid-composition right out the window. So, we’ve established that this temperament would lead to less-adventurous musical compositions, and in the case of much of the modern Western music written in the last 6 centuries, it would be uncomfortable and dissonant when played in this temperament.

You see, there’s something many of the A432 advocates forget: Even though you’re tuning your guitar (it’s always guitarists making this argument!) to A432, the relative pitch of the notes across the fretboard will not necessarily fall into the rest of the Pythagorean temperament. The reason for this is that the instrument you’re playing wasn’t designed with that temperament in mind. This will be true for any modern Western fretted instrument, barring any custom builds.

So, your A is at 432, but as you go to play an E or a G, your entire argument that you’re harmonizing with the body (you’re not, just to be clear), is thrown under the bus…well, that is, unless you’re composing your music with only one note. And I hope you don’t strike the string too hard, pulling it sharp…

Wow, we had to make a lot of assumptions in favor of using the Pythagorean temperament just to wind up showing that there really isn’t much point to it.

I could write much more about this subject, but I’m going to leave it at this:

Use whatever tuning or temperament you like (I prefer to write most of my music a fifth below A440), but don’t try to shoehorn your anti-science bullshit into it to make yourself feel special and enlightened. You’re reaffirming some rather bad stereotypes about musicians, and those of us that aren’t ignorant fools are tired of it.

 

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