By Frederic Friedel

If you find this article too tedious, or technical, do scroll down to the end. There you will find a video you should not miss.

Aimee van der Wiel was an accomplished harpsichord player. She was in Germany on a concert tour, and as a student I had the job of driving her to and from the museum in Hamburg where she would be giving a recital. It was in very elegant surroundings, and the instrument that was set up for her was the very best you could find in the city.

Our first trip to the venue brought an unpleasant surprise. The harpsichord, called a cembalo in German, was mistuned, Aimee said. Not, it turned out, the relative tuning of the individual keys, but that the entire instrument was about a quarter of a note too high. Aimee could hear that upon striking the first chord. She had perfect pitch. That is she was blessed — in this case perhaps cursed —with the ability to identify the absolute pitch of a musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.

An expert was called in and he agreed: the harpsichord was indeed tuned higher than the standard values. This was confirmed by an oscilloscope. Instead of the 440 Hz frequency of the “middle A” (A4) the pitch was slightly higher. Which meant that all the other notes were higher as well. The A on the instrument was not 444 Hz, which is also common in European instruments, but considerably above that, which was especially serious since Aimee was a Bach virtuoso, and the “Baroque tuning” she was used to had A = 415 Hz, i.e. lower than the 440 standard.

What to do? Retuning would take days — the instrument has to rest after such adjustments—and a second harpsichord that she tried had the same pitch as the first. The culprit was found: a slightly defective tuning fork that had been used on both instruments. In the end Aimee agreed to play on the first instrument, but in her practice session I could see the discomfort she had to endure. “It is like playing in the wrong key,” she confided in me. The concert went well, she got rousing applause, and of course nobody noticed a thing.

I was reminded of the Harpsichord incident by this interesting article: In “The 432 Hz vs. 440 Hz conspiracy theory” Jakub Marian tells us the following:

In Bach’s era, there was no standardized way to tune instruments. The same piece could sound much higher or lower depending on where and when it was performed, and even organs in two different churches in the same city could be tuned in completely incompatible ways … Until the tuning fork was invented in 1711, there was no simple way to make tunings consistent among different regions and even performances in one region.

The article goes on to tell us about a vigorous conspiracy theory that claims that 432 Hz is the ideal pitch for A4, giving us music that “softer and brighter, with greater clarity and easier on the ears. It is mathematically consistent with the universe. Music based on 432 Hz transmits beneficial healing energy, because it is a pure tone of math fundamental to nature.” The quote is taken from this article, which speaks of “the universal music of sacred geometry.” The 432 Hz conspiracy theory draws on the fact that this number is the sum of four consecutive primes (103 + 107 + 109 + 113), that it is exactly three gross (144, a traditional unit) and many other numerological fantasies. It culminates in the claim that it was the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who introduced the “faulty” 440 Hz tuning, thus depriving us of true celestial music. If you are really into this kind of nonsense (which it certainly is) you can want to watch many hours of mystical videos and musical experiments on YouTube.

But let us proceed to an incredible demonstration of perfect pitch. Eight-year-old Dylan Beato received intense musical training since birth, and in a series of videos demonstrates his unique abilities to recognize and name notes and complex chords by ear.

I pray that this is all genuine, that there is no trick involved. It is so inspiring. Watch this video if you cannot get enough of Dylan —It shows his progress over the years. There are plenty more on YouTube.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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