Tonal Warfare: Why Composers Are Fighting Over the Way We Listen to Music

You’ve been hearing music the wrong way for your entire life. Anthony Morss believes this more than anything. And the conductor is hell-bent on correcting the pitch.

Thirty years ago, while leading Spain’s Majorca Symphony through Mozart’s Il Seraglio, Morss felt something was amiss. The soprano singing Blonde’s aria, while technically hitting the notes, sounded “a bit pale.” He had a hunch why: the orchestra, as always, was calibrated to the universal tuning standard of A440 hertz (Hz). All his career, he’d followed this pitch, which sees A — the reference note against which instruments are tuned — vibrate at 440 cycles per second (or hertz). After all, it was — and still is — the global norm, set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1955. But lately he’d grown wary of it. An alternate tuning, A432 Hz, championed as “warmer” by 19th century composers like Giuseppe Verdi, had piqued his curiosity.

He had a thought: why not tune a piano down eight Hz? He asked the soprano to run through the aria again, this time to the lowered pitch. The results induced awe. “The first note that came out caused an audible gasp in the audience,” he recalls. “Her voice, instead of being white and cold like before was warm and round, rich and beautiful, as if she was in touch with the vibratory frequency of the universe itself.”

Anthony Morss 2

Since then, Morss has been a maestro on a mission: to spread “the God tone” throughout the world. He’s part of a growing fringe movement of composers, researchers, and audiophiles who believe that when you set A to vibrate at 432 Hz, something profound happens: music sounds more natural, authentic, and generally in tune with the cosmos. The pitch isn’t arbitrary; it was used by the bel canto composers of the Romantic era, after the Italian Parliament — at the urging of Verdi, who argued it was ideal for singing — passed a law for tuning at A432 in 1884. But for the last six decades, A440 has been the global music industry’s yardstick, used as a reference for concerts and instrument manufacturers. Morss and like-minded musicians now protest with their tuning forks: they call for a return to A432, vowing it will make music more pleasurable — and, just maybe, unlock the mysteries of consciousness.

You’re skeptical. Morss is used to that. A cursory Google of “432 Hz” yields a swath of cryptic blogs linking the number to sacred geometry and the ratios of celestial bodies. The 85-year-old’s symphonic crusade has attracted its fair share of eccentrics. While the Boston-born, Harvard-educated maestro boasts an impressive resumé — leading the American premiere of Massenet’s Marie Magdalene in the ’70s; helming the Marseille Opera’s Tosca, featuring Éva Marton and Giacomo Aragall, in the ’80s — he’s met great resistance advocating for A432 Hz. In the early ’90s, he founded New Jersey’s Lubo Opera Company, dedicated to performing symphonies, like Beethoven’s Fidelio, strictly in A432 (also called the Verdi standard). He launched a campaign with the Schiller Institute calling for the pitch to become the new norm. At the time, it was a divisive move; The New York Times, while praising Lubo’s “more natural” tone, ridiculed Morss’s “paradise lost” narrative.

Orchestra performing

Nonetheless, the movement drew support from world-renowned opera stars like Birgit Nilsson, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. All argued A440 was detrimental to instruments and the human voices straining to keep up with them. It’s an issue that still gets Morss rattled: “In the past, the fountain of great singing voices was Italy. Now, few Italian singers come over here. Why? Because the tuning is so high they’ll burn their voices out before they’ve got the experience to go international!”

But for all the Verdi campaign’s efforts, the ISO remained impassive — and still does to this day. Letters have been mailed, petitions signed, conferences held, but the regulatory body has stayed resolute in its devotion to A440. Morss, now grizzled but no less determined, figures their reticence is “mostly a matter of practicality.” It would be expensive for orchestras to retool or replace their instruments. Woodwinds, for instance, can’t be tuned down, as they’re built for A440.

Which raises the question: how did A440 become the ideal in the first place? If we are to believe certain theories circulating on the Internet, it’s all part of a heinous Nazi master plan. As the long-standing story goes, Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s chief propagandist, forced the decision to internationalize A440 as a way of warping the consciousness of the masses. Morss dismisses this as a rumour — one that hasn’t done wonders for the movement’s credibility. And while Radio Berlin, under Goebbels’ helm, was indeed among several proponents of A440, this was part of a greater trend toward higher tunings in the West.

Instrument tuning has long been a subject of contention. Most concert pitches during the Renaissance and Baroque periods were lower than today’s standards. But as instrumental music rose in prominence, so did the tuning — a result of musicians competing with each other via brighter, more brilliant sounds. (Think hair metal guitarists in an ear-piercing shred-off.) By the 20th century, a universal pitch standard was necessary for the sake of instrument manufacturers. While Italy favoured 432 Hz — a pitch also proposed by French physicist Joseph Sauveur for making mathematical sense — a sharper A440 was becoming the de facto norm in a jazz-crazed American music industry. Britain and Germany would eventually follow suit, and in 1955 the ISO made the tuning a worldwide rule.


Today, a younger generation is taking up the A432 cause, albeit for a slightly loftier reason: its ability to heal the human condition. Ivan Yanakiev, a National Academy–schooled conductor in Bulgaria, founded the A432 Orchestra after hearing a cello tuned to the frequency in 2013: “The whole room was filled with a different kind of musical flow and energy,” he said. He’s since dedicated his 12-piece ensemble to exploring and professing the power of A432. “The problem with A440 Hz is it puts the focus on glamour — the technical mastery of the player. It overstimulates the brain. But the God tone brings the essence of the music to the foreground. You feel it throughout your body.”

Like many 432ers, Yanakiev believes there’s something inherently healthful about the Verdi standard, and something destructive about the tone currently being broadcasted en masse. YouTube is teeming with ambient meditative tracks, and chakra-cleansing hymns, all digitally retuned to A432. For these, we may thank Maria Renold’s 1985 tome Intervals, Scales, Tones and the Concert Pitch — aka the God tone bible. In it, Renold explores the claims of turn-of-the-century Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who warned against the stress-inducing “luciferic brightness” of higher tones and heralded the God tone as spiritually uplifting. She put his theory to the test, examining the effects of A440 Hz and A432 Hz tuning on thousands of people worldwide over 20 years. About 90 per cent preferred A432, describing it as “correct, peaceful, [and] sun-like.” Conversely, they called A440 “uncomfortable, oppressive, [and] narrow-minded.”

One might expect Dr. Diana Deutsch, a pioneer in perceptual psychology (she literally wrote the book on the psychology of music), to brush this all off as New Age quackery. Instead, she’s fascinated. “There are many reasons to wonder why people feel so strongly affected by this pitch. I think it would warrant a proper scientific study.” Such an experiment would be akin to Renold’s, but peer-reviewed and more meticulously controlled. Deutsch says she’d conduct it herself, if someone were willing to fund it.

The A432 movement’s greatest challenge, of course, lies in convincing the powerful to lend them their ears. Morss is fed up with trying in the West, so now he’s pointing his baton toward the Far East. As chairman of the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture, he’s arranged a meeting with China’s foremost musical bureaucrats, during which he plans to play footage of a soprano singing an aria twice: once at A440 Hz and once at A432 Hz. The communist nation, for the first time in its history, is experiencing a classical music boom, eagerly building concert halls and musical instruments to meet the surging demand. Morss sees an irresistible opportunity: “If we can persuade them to research how to adapt their instruments to A432, they’d then be in a position to set up demonstration orchestras all tuned to the pitch. They can become international leaders in the field instead of johnny-come-latelies.”

To the maestro, a pitch that’s evidently had such gripping effects on so many people deserves, at the very least, an honest listen, even if those effects are all in the listener’s head. Though, when it comes to music, that’s literally always the case.