MUSICAL OBFUSCATION AS A MEANS OF CONTROL?
Updated: Sep 20
Seeing clearly at dawn in Death Valley, March 2023
Using different words to mean the same thing (unless one is a poet and seeks not to bore one's audience), being vague (mushy and shadowy) or ambiguous (meaning this or that but not both), and withholding information, are three negligent, lazy, or intentional means to exercise power and control another person.
How can one live an independent and responsible life when shrouded in ignorance?
I'm short-tempered when exposed to any of those means, especially when it comes to women being on the receiving end. Although today rarely overtly stated in this country, there yet exists the sexist and classist belief that it’s not important that women be fully educated or understand exactly what is going on, especially when it comes to technical matters.
I ran into these beliefs in the Bay Area musical community a few years ago when I was seeking to purchase The Duchess, my grand piano (a rebuilt 1927 Steinway Model M). A notable number of male sales staff, brokers, composers, and technicians I met made short shrift of or ignored relevant and detailed questions I asked regarding a piano I might purchase; this continued during the eventual rebuilding process of The Duchess.
The underlying belief of these men seemed to be, “Why bother her pretty little head? If I give her too much information, like most women, she’ll get unduly confused and then influenced, since she obviously can’t think and decide for herself.”
Gratefully, I also met a few musical men who stood out in welcome relief. Recently I made the acquaintance of one more of these stand-out individuals, David Amendola.
David is a Bay Area piano technician and a specialized concert technician for Steinway & Sons, as well as a competent cellist who also plays a mean piano, especially Bach. He has a substantial number of years of experience, and an excellent reputation as a technician among top-tier performing pianists, music school and conservatory personnel and students, and amateur musicians as well.
The latter group now includes me because of David’s willingness to introduce, explain, and suggest educational resources regarding an important concept of tuning, one about which I had no clue:
What is the larger significance of the question: “to what frequency can and should my piano strings be tuned?”
My rebuilt piano had been delivered a year-and-a-half ago with strings tuned to A440 Hertz ("Hz") and nothing was ever said by the rebuilder about any other possible option or its implications. Who knew there were other choices I could have made?
Other choices and how I found them
I heard about David at least two years ago in discussions with my neighbor friend and piano mentor, Joe. About a year later David was recommended to me by Marc Wienert, the East Coast “magician” piano technician who brought author Perri Knize enormous relief when he volunteered to visit several times and properly tune, regulate, and voice her by then two-year old beloved Grotrian grand piano. He brought back the ideal tone and touch as it was when Knize first fell in love with and purchased it. That’s a story she chronicles in her book, Grand Obsession; it’s an informative story I wished I had read before I started my piano search. Wienert did not know David personally, but a client of his highly recommended David as a skilled and sensitive piano technician.
This past April I finally got around to asking David to regulate and tune my Duchess. Loving the results after he notably lightened and evened the touch and created the sweetest tone ever (I was stunned!), I engaged his services again four months later for another tuning. A few days before that appointment I happened to read one of his client's comments about how her piano sounded after David tuned the A above middle C (fifth A on the keyboard) to A432 Hz (sometimes designated as "A4-432") and not A440 Hz, a tuning that is the common standard with regard to western music and western style musical instruments. David later told me that this client, the Diana below, and an owner of a Steinway M model like mine, had become disheartened (for an unstated reason) and just about given up the piano. He suggested re-tuning her piano to A432 Hz, and she completely changed her mind after finding the results notably more “sonorous” and “bright.”
“David: I keep forgetting to tell you how beautiful I’m finding the sound of my piano these days. I don’t know what you did this last time, but it has the sweetest richest sound it has produced since I’ve had it. The touch is quite fine and sensitive as well. Thank you very much." -- Diana [David notes: "I did nothing to change the touch, yet touch perception is influenced by tuning, and I assert, by tuning frequency."] “Thank you very much! You really woke that instrument up. It went from slightly depressed with no energy to bright and cheerful with a mellow attitude.” -- Diana “I’ve been meaning to send you a note for weeks since you’ve tuned my piano. First of all, I love the new tuning [A=432Hz]. My sister, who has a very sensitive ear, heard it immediately. She said, 'It sounds more like the human voice.....it’s both ‘brighter’ and yet more ‘sonorous’ at the same time.' Agreed. I’ve been working on the Shostakovich preludes and fugues again and beginning a new relationship with the instrument. We’ll see where that goes. Hope all is going very well. And really.......many thanks for your taking an interest in my musical life.” -- Diana
I was intrigued and exceedingly curious upon first reading about Diana's experience, so just after he arrived for the tuning, I asked David about this difference and how tuning strings to the specific hertz affected the tone and quality of sound in a piano. I didn’t really expect much response, thus was surprised by his ready answer that seemed as detailed as time permitted on that occasion. (I was yet to learn how very complex this topic is, at least for a non-mathematician and non-sound engineer!) Noting my keen interest, the next day he followed up with a number of references to informative YouTube videos.
Now, just mention a new, mysterious musical concept to me (such as when I first discovered the term “inner voices” about which I wrote two poems in my first anthology), and without needing to become an “expert,” I’m still off to find out what it is all about and how I might be affected!
What I learned, in brief
According to standard definitions, “A440 Hz” refers to the fifth A on the piano tuned to 440 vibrations per second (such as those of a piano string). To tune to this frequency, a musician would either listen to a tone played by some tuning device and tune by ear, or use an electronic tuner. Wikipedia says that hertz is a unit of frequency equal to one cycle per second, and piano strings are each tuned to some unit of frequency.
In 1939 an international non-governmental conference recommended that the A above middle C be tuned to 440 Hz, now known as the “concert pitch.” This was adopted as a tuning standard by the International Organization for Standardization* in 1955 and reaffirmed by them in 1975 as ISO 16, then reviewed and reaffirmed in 2022 and set for same every five years.
(The ISO is known by many as setting standards in the industrial safety fields. As applied to music, this makes sense regarding hearing aid fitting management, noise levels that affect hearing health such as in traffic and underwater, and the like. However, my first and last question is: how does that valid focus relate to, and should it address the creative, individualistic processes and preferences at play in the arts, beyond any safety concerns?)
In general, frequencies of other notes are defined relative to this pitch. David says that A440 is the ISO “Minimum Standard” and today it is strongly adhered to in pop, jazz and digital music, but minimally so in classical music; major orchestras as well as individual performers and amateurs may, of course, tune to various higher hertz such as 443 or 445.
One website says that "musical aesthetics is a flexible thing. Musicians are not obligated to use 440 Hz as their base frequencies, and many orchestras around the world use different pitches according to the music they are about to play. It is generally agreed that baroque music is to be played at around A 415Hz, classical and early romantic eras at around 425 Hz and later repertoire at 440 Hz and up. Tuning to different pitches has subtle effects on the timbre of acoustic instruments, but makes no difference to electronically generated sounds."
That set me to wondering about this question: If the specific hertz tuning has a "subtle effect" on the timbre of the instrument, would that not be one of the considerations a composer would want to consider in composing? And yet, my research shows that most do not consider it. Key yes, hertz no. I don't know many composers but I intend to inquire about this among that group.
To delve much further into the topic quickly gets esoteric to me, such as Wikipedia’s mysterious statement that "The term 'concert pitch' is used to refer to the pitch on a non-transposing instrument, to distinguish it from the transposing instrument's written note."
Of interest however, is that historically, this A has been tuned to a variety of different pitches. Over time pitch seemed to rise, straining singers’ voices and leading, at least in part, in 1939 to the general worldwide agreement on a A440 Hz tuning standard in the field.
Also, according to Wikipedia, “particularly in the beginning of the 21st century, many websites and online videos have been published arguing for the adoption of the A432 Hz tuning–often referred to as "Verdi pitch" (Ed. note: more commonly known as "Verdi's A" says David) – instead of the predominant A440 Hz. These claims also include conspiracy theories, related to claims of specious healing properties from A432 Hz tuning, or involving Nazis having favored the A440 Hz tuning.” (Emphasis added; note that the word “claim” has a derogatory implication and different meaning than the more neutral term, “state.”)
Whether or not Nazis, or Rockefeller, as some claim (or “state"?) were in fact involved in forcing or influencing the adoption of the A440 Hz standard, is less important than actual studies demonstrating the health properties of listening to music in the A432 Hz pitch. Albeit those studies are not the gold standard of randomized control trials, nor are they multitudinous, but they are certainly not “specious,” meaning they are not “superficially plausible but actually wrong.” One Australian musician described the reason that the A432 pitch is healthier (whether or not it is ever distinguished by the listener in a direct comparison with A440) is because: "432 Hz is the perfect mathematical balance in a universal geometry with the body...it just feels better."
Thinking more about the relationship of mathematics and temperament to music, I learned that the belief that a god created the universe according to a geometric plan has ancient origins. The applicable concept seems to be "sacred geometry" promoted by one famous architect advocate, Keith Critchlow. Physics, cosmology, and geometry were and are seen by some as helping make sense of nature and the universe. According to Stephen Skinner, the study of sacred geometry has its roots in the study of nature, and the mathematical principles at work therein.
There is definitely mathematics at work in piano tuning. I avidly researched, found, and read online articles and studies, and watched each video that David recommended and to this day am finding others. Perhaps the seminal one to watch if you are interested, is especially the video by mathematician Robert Edward Grant who in 2020, using geometry only, developed, named, and popularized the importance of “precise temperament” tuning at A432 Hz. Grant, as well as many other video commentators, delves deeply into mathematics involved in naturally-occurring phenomenon and A432 Hz tuning and its results. A commentator to one of Grant's YouTube videos says he normally experiences music as either cheerful or sad, but in 432 Hz, he now hears both sad and happy sounds all at the same time. Another person said his migraine cleared, while another said "it feels like going home."
Grant and others explaining this phenomenon spend an inordinate amount of time and brain cells analyzing and explaining the frequency of numbers in sounds produced by instruments and occurring in nature. The ultimate purpose seemed to be "proving" that with A432 Hz tuning, all things and beings are interconnected ("infinite patterns of interconnectedness" as one writer said) – which seems, in general, a self-evident proposition. Didn’t the Native Americans and likely other human beings living on this and other continents way before, believe the same or something similar?
Why not just write a poem or two about the general effect of all music tuned to any frequency, and be done with it? (See below, lol; I call it by another term, “The One.”)
Certain health benefits beyond soothing one migraine
But consider the claims and research proving that when and after listening to music at A432 Hz, blood pressure goes down, people sleep better and more deeply, feel less anxious and more calm, and possibly are more creative. Individual and community well-being is enhanced. Would all music sound more profound and cause deeper emotional response? Would I finally “hear” certain music or musical genres that now do not touch or reach me? Maybe world peace is promoted, and if so, what could be better?
It’s easy to find this research by a google search, but here is one credible study worth a read.
The importance of experience
Of more interest to me is actually to experience and hear the difference in the two tunings. Understanding the mathematics or physics of something is well and good, but these days after so many work years living in and working from my head, I now seek knowledge and ultimate pleasure through undeniable sources of wisdom that I find in my perceptions, observations, and emotional responses.
Sadly, David could not extend his gift to me simply by tuning one or two strings of The Duchess to A432 Hz. He explained that with more effort and time than normal, he would have to tune down all strings on my piano to A432 Hz for a fair trial as to what I preferred.
He also advised that in the meantime it would be useful to listen to examples of two different pieces, one with the instrument tuned in A432 Hz and one tuned in A440 Hz. That’s because it would be all too easy to “prefer” the A440 Hz tuning if we listen to the same piece for the comparison, because our ears would likely find it more familiar since that’s about all we hear these days. Good point. However, comparisons of the same piece in the two different Hzs is all I have so far found on YouTube.
Once I excitedly raised my new discovery with him, my friend Joe told me that his Bosendorfer had a notation on the plate that it should be tuned to A443 Hz, but he doesn’t know if that has been done in the ten years he owned the piano, or why that Hz is specifically mentioned. He also said that after listening to a few comparisons, he prefers A440 Hz for classical music and A432 Hz for pop music, calling another matter, musical genre, to my attention to pay attention to in my comparison research. He finds that listening to classical music at A432 Hz sounds “flat” (as David had warned me that I might initially find--but I did not. Below is Joe's most handsome "Sir B" Bosendorfer accompanied by his precious cat, Mr. Rocket, my friend, whose portrait I painted).
You can also hear a comparison in a pop song by Coldplay, and choose from a list of a number of pop songs played or sung in A432 Hz. One of my favorite singers, Enya, appears on this list singing “Only Time;” now I know one reason why I loved it 23 years ago and why my heart still dances when I hear it today! You might want to listen to this Halidon (an Italian record label) compendium of Romantic era music to judge how you respond to A432 Hz, and if you love Mozart who is said to have played on a piano tuned to A432 Hz, you will find many examples on YouTube.
Since David had no time during The Duchess' recent tuning to do the more laborious down-tuning from A440 to A432 Hz, he encouraged me to pursue more research, then think about and decide why I wanted to hear her tuned with one Hz or the other.
It was an apt suggestion because I am sometimes one to become overly-enthusiastic with a new discovery and embrace it a little too early without adequate understanding. However, the risk of down-tuning The Duchess seems very small if I decide earlier rather than later to do so as an experiment, because my piano can always be tuned up again, albeit holding the A432 tuning might be more problemmatic and require more frequent tuning. As for up-tuning, David says that is a less laborious and less costly task than the opposite. Regardless, for his wise advice I am grateful.
I am now pursuing other comparisons, but listening principally to my preferred Romantic era and classical genres where music is played in A432 Hz, since I surmise that my jury has already come in regarding the direction–and vibration–toward which I am preferentially leaning.
What I hear
At this early stage, what I perceive and experience in my body is that music of many genres in A432 Hz sounds:
rounder, fuller, warmer, more engaging and focusing, and deeper
when by comparison, music in A440 Hz sounds:
superficial, shallow, lacking, thin, crisp, cooler, and a bit “jangly.”
Of what importance is all of the above?
What I have worked out as the answer to David's cogent question of "why" I wanted A432 tuning, very quickly became clear. First, health is my number one personal value and priority in life. Above all I value it and guard it assiduously in as many ways as reasonable based on scientific research, but also valuing alternate health practices as they may individually fit me and the circumstances. I am convinced that there will be no harm and a good possibility that with A432 tuning of The Duchess and listening to more of that online, I can improve the current health challenge of getting over tendinitis from previously spending too long at the computer, and from some other-sourced emotional stress. The possibility of achieving more calm in my life is a welcome invitation indeed!
Second, music from the Romantic and classical eras provides a significant source of calm and bliss in my life, principally based upon the process of discovery. Although I clearly have a musical genre preference, my pleasure derives at least equally from an individual composition, piano, or specific pianist which or who transports me outside, or inside, myself, and also in substantial part in the process of discovering, or rediscovering, something that touches me deeply and uniquely. An A432 tuning holds the potential of giving more of music to me than I currently experience, and in a more intense, novel, surprising, and delightful way so that I "hear" better and more deeply. Since I adore adventuring and exploration, the decision regarding an A432 tuning is a clear one. It's like taking a new road to who knows where.
A third reason to downtune The Duchess came clear after a few more days of thinking. Four years ago I had my first official hearing test at Kaiser. The result was that in my left ear, I have a slight hearing deficit such that female voices, normally in the higher range of pitch, are heard less well than male voices. Since 432 Hz is a lower pitch than 44-0 Hz, I believe that I "hear" music better in A432, that is, more clearly and completely in terms of the critical elements of pianism such as dynamic range and nuances. If that is true, it would make sense to tune pianos commonly found in senior residences and assisted living communities, to the lower frequency. I wonder if they are?
However, you, as I, must wait for results of my intended experiment involving The Duchess, until the expected and appropriate time to re-tune her has arrived. Hopefully, then I can convince David to schedule the time and energy to accomplish the down-tuning for me.
*You can read about the ISO and learn they are a successor to the first such organization established in 1928, now composed of 169 countries and based in Geneva, Switzerland with a task to develop standards for a wide variety of disciplines. Either consumer or industry groups can request that a standard be developed. They claim to be "evidence-based" and customer oriented, however, I have yet to find who worked that issue, and on what studies the 440 Hz standard tuning for instruments and orchestras was based, and why? ISO says that "standards are developed by groups of experts" from all over the world, that are part of larger groups called technical committees. With a bit of digging I unearthed the following membership of the musical Technical Committee 43; Committee Manager: Dr Agnes Sayer, Chairperson (until end 2024): Douglas Manvell, ISO Technical Programme Manager, Tamaho Takai ISO Editorial Manager, and M Vincenzo Bazzucchi.
The American participating unit is known as American National Standards Institute (since 1918). It's a private non-profit organization (to which many financial benefits can accrue and not prohibiting prohibitive executive salaries for some, although I have no information as to ANSI). ANSI says they do not develop standards, but rather "promote a framework for standards." (At this point it might be well to revisit the first paragraph of this blog.) They say they are all about the "global competitiveness of U.S. business and the U.S. quality of life" - which of course to some or many of us, seems to be focused on materialism and the relevant concept called by some or many of us, "kleptocorporate capitalism."
Who populates (and how they are chosen) the ANSI powers-that-be, seems of critical importance when it comes to inclusion or exclusion of our musical community. Phil Pequiera (I could not find him in a google search) is listed on the ANSI website as Chairperson of the Board and S. Joe Bathia, an electrical engineer who works in the underwriting industry, is listed as the President and CEO. Sixteen of the 51 Board members are women, but there is no information about minority members. Of Board members, megalith corporations such as Boeing, Apple, Kaiser, Microsoft, and Oracle are mentioned as are the principal fields of industry, medical, manufacturing, banking and oil, but --
NOT ONE BOARD MEMBER IS FROM THE MUSICAL OR OTHER ARTS COMMUNITY! So much for the musical community being represented on the policy board that ultimately sets or authorizes tuning standards.
* * *
THE FIRST (from Vol I “Poetical Musings”)
Is the first the best?
The very first version of what we play–
or our first kiss?
Does refinement tend to grow with practice
and with age?
Does it depend on the stage of life
or the day we try to express our very best?
But if the worst?
Must we stand still and stare and wonder
where’s the thrill
and what should come next, we ponder?
Could be the second will be better
if we heave a sigh and try another then another?
Why bother? Because we can–no lie!
Start first to listen deep within,
search for the sound and then
the sweet and light and pure delight, then try again.
You’ll win this time, don’t brook one doubt!
Just move and play
first from within then out.
Think the notes, think the sound,
a tone hard or round?
Imagine that you travel far beyond a star
and enter into the welcoming black hole of oblivion
and become One,
where all melodies and harmonies begin.
WITHIN (from Vol I)
What attracts my mind, attracts my soul,
Then body follows suit,
It’s first the one joined with the other,
And the third in hot pursuit.
Court me well, ideas first
In words, with roses next,
Plus a poem with rhyme or not,
And along come all the rest.
But music’s better, the stuff of soul
In tempo, rhythm, and rhyme,
Show me song and then your heart
And next, I’ll show you mine.
For all connect, the One and Same,
None standing, side apart,
But be all, end all, bliss and joy
Begin within the heart.
WHERE MUSIC HAPPENS (From Vol. III)
On the stage of my life is where it really happens,
up and over it goes like a roller coaster on wings,
a moment of flow, a catch in the breath
with Mendelssohn,* as my heart skips a beat in my chest.
Sometimes it’s in quiet and the smallest of things,
a memory of mom suspended in air,
a hint someone offers or a sweet baby’s smile,
or the light in her eyes when a bride walks down the aisle.
Can be the smell of the sea or at instant of sleep,
the ring of one note or the glow of ivory keys,
when time comes together and all things become One
in a heavenly symphony as our ego comes undone.
For some there's hard work or work that’s never done,
as our days play out on our bodily drum,
and no matter the rudiment** or with conductor or none,
we play our unique concerto ‘til our setting sun.
*Inspired upon receiving the unexpected gift of the score
of Mendelssohn’s “On the Wings of Song” from B.N.
**From Wikipedia, a drum rudiment is one of a number of relatively
small patterns which form the foundation for more extended and
complex drumming patterns.
# # #
(If you have something to say about A432 tuning, I'd love to hear from you!")