Absolutely Uninterested

Every couple of weeks I get a query from a stranger asking me to explain some mathematical aspect of microtonality, and I am so fanatical on the subject that I tend to answer them quickly and at generous length. But for just as many people, I seem to be a go-to guy on the issue of whether we should maintain A as 440 cps or raise or lower it to 432, 442, or whatever. I suppose it says a lot about how immersed in microtonality I am, and how vague the concept is to the general population, that I am astonished that people think these issues are interrelated. I could not possibly care less what standard frequency we tune to. I abstractly understand that for opera singers and custodians of historical instruments it’s kind of a big deal, but since there are no compositional decisions riding on the issue, I wouldn’t even try to form an opinion. Harry Partch’s instruments are tuned to a G at 392 cps, and La Monte Young’s sine-tone installations to 60 cps, and those are the only facts relating to absolute pitch that I keep in my head. I’ll admit that 440 is convenient for theory classes, since one can build a harmonic series on 110, 220, 330, 440, 550, and so on, and students tend to get it quickly; 432 would be 108, 216, 324, and not as obvious. Otherwise, it baffles me, and sometimes starts to annoy me, that people imagine I would give a damn.

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Comments

  1. says

    So who is the go to guy or gal on the 440 issue?

    KG replies: I suppose anyone who runs an early-music ensemble or works on pre-19th-century organs.

    • MWnyc says

      Not exactly, Kyle. The issue people are asking about is whether we should abandon A=440 now, as our current pitch standard for today’s conventional orchestras/ensembles, individual instruments, pianos, electronic instruments, etc.

      Most period-instrument and early-music folks would limit themselves to what was done in the period(s) whose music they’re working on (and, by extension, what choices they’d make when reproducing that music today). They wouldn’t suggest, except perhaps as a matter of very personal preference, what pitch-standard today’s instruments should use.

      But I bet a few of them would have some opinions on whether we should keep using equal temperament – and, if memory serves, you yourself have some ideas along that line.

      KG replies: Well I’m aware of all of that – that’s why I’m being asked about it. And I still have no opinion.

  2. Jim Dalton says

    Kyle,

    Do you know about Lyndon LaRouche’s advocacy of 432hz?
    The Schiller Institute (LaRouche’s primary “think” tank) sent the conservatory library a book (I don’t recall the title) that lays out his/their reasoning for this advocacy.

    It’s a bunch of hooey (pardon the technical term). I stopped reading after I realized that many of the musical terms about tuning and such were being misused. I didn’t want to waste any more time on it than I already had.

    Now, any time someone mentions 432hz to me, I’m immediately suspicious of them

    KG replies: Yeah, I’ve actually read all of that stuff. When my wife managed a performing arts center, European orchestras sometimes came through and requested A 442 or A444 so the piano in the concerto would sound more brilliant. But the more I learn about the issue, the less it interests me.

    Actually, since you’d understand this, if A became 432, 440 would become A^- in Ben’s notation. So we could just transpose upward.

  3. Jim Dalton says

    P.S. I view it in the same way I see the Obama-with-a-Hitler-moustache photos that his followers post around boston periodically.

  4. says

    Agreed, it’s kind of hard to get excited about this particular subject. But it seems to be a big deal for many string and wind players.

    KG replies: Even 432 is only 32 cents.

  5. says

    I had no idea about the 432 enthusiasts. Googling brought vistas of delusion, including blaming 440 on the Nazis. Steer clear of it. My beloved vintage bichord gives A as 426.7 (just) and 430.5 (tempered), so I assume those are correct.

    KG replies: Wow, I looked some up too. “Another interesting factor to consider is that the A=432 Hz tuning correlates with the color spectrum while the A=440 Hz is off.” “Attuning the instrument to 432 Hz results in a more relaxing sound, while 440 Hz slightly tenses up to body. This is because 440 Hz is out of tune with both macrocosmos and microcosmos.” No attempt to even explain what any of this might mean, just confident dogma.