Updated: Mar 9, 2020
If you’ve spent any amount of time following the handpan art form, you have probably heard the term A=432Hz floating around. What is A=432Hz? And why should handpan players avoid it like the plague?
Let’s dive in.
When someone says A=432Hz what they’re referring to is a tuning system where the pitch A4 resonates at the frequency of 432Hz and all subsequent pitches above and below can be derived from this point. In most music created today the frequency of an A4 is not 432Hz but instead 8Hz higher at 440Hz. The A=440Hz system has been in use for nearly 100 years and was officially adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1955. A = 440Hz has long dominated the musical world since as the universal standard.
So why is having this standard so important? Well, you can think of it this way: Having an established pitch standard is just as important as any other unit of measurement. Can you imagine not having one agreed upon measurement of a centimeter? Or the weight of a kilogram? Things would get pretty chaotic to say the least. The same goes for music. In order for music to work cohesively, we must have a universally accepted pitch system.
Where does A=432Hz come along and why do some people believe this tuning system is superior to A=440Hz?
While the exact origin of the A=432Hz theory isn’t known, its proponents cite everything from the Schumann resonance, to ancient instruments apparently tuned in this system, to composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi who were known to have used lower tuning systems as reasoning for the superiority of the A=432Hz system. A=432Hz music has been credited with everything from spiritual awakening to physical healing and even DNA repair...neat.
I’ll get straight to the point.
Buying a Handpan tuned to A=432Hz is a terrible, terrible idea.
Let’s go through the top 5 reasons why.
Reason #1 – All of the Claims of A=432Hz are Bull S***
Yes, I hate to break it to you but the plain and simple truth is that music in the A=432Hz system has no more convalescent powers than music in the A=440Hz system.
Zero. Zilch. None.
There is little to no documented scientific evidence that supports the dramatic claims made by supporters of the A=432Hz system and the vast majority of these claims fall apart pretty quickly with very little research. But don’t just take my word for it, check out this deep dive into the A=432Hz system by music vlogger Adam Neely who disproves the claims of the A=432Hz system far better than I could myself.
Reason #2 – No handpan can be perfectly tuned to A=432Hz
Ok, so we know that A=432Hz might be a bit of a new age snake oil but let’s pretend for a second that it isn’t. Let’s assume that it is the true frequency of the planet and can add years to our life with its amazing healing powers. (Right…)
Even if this were true, here we face a new challenge. Handpans are not electronically perfect instruments. If we are sitting in front of a synthesizer or a computer DAW it’s pretty easy to create a perfect 432Hz frequency but with the handpan this is a different story.
The tuning of handpans is significantly more fluid than many other musical instruments.
Since these instruments are tuned entirely by hand often the pitches of your handpan can be tuned a few cents sharp or flat. Occasionally this is even intentional by the handpan builder! On top of this add in factors like outside temperature forces, adjustments for equal temperament, and just plain detuning from time, and you’ll realize that maintaining a handpan perfectly within the threshold of the 432Hz framework isn’t easily done on these instruments.
Reason #3 – You Won’t Be Able to Play Your Handpan With Anyone
Next, we have the biggest and most obvious drawback of the A=432Hz system; you won’t be able to play your handpan with anyone! Yes, that’s right. While the pitch difference between A=440Hz and A=432Hz is subtle it is anything but subtle when you try playing these two tuning systems together. Nails on a chalkboard would be an understatement.
If you have a handpan tuned to A=432Hz you will be unable to create music with ANY other instruments unless they are also tuned to the A=432Hz system. In a world where it is hard enough to find a friend who has a handpan in the same key as you, having an instrument tuned to A=432Hz makes things about 1,000,000 times more difficult. And it’s not just other handpan players you won’t be able to play with, wind instruments, keyboards, pitched percussion, any instrument that is unable to change their tuning on the fly will be 100 percent incapable of making music with you.
Reason #4 – Retuning Your Handpan to A=440Hz Can Be Troublesome and Expensive
Now before I bash the A=432Hz system more than I already have, I do have to admit that experimenting with non-A=440 tuning systems isn’t completely useless. Some artists such as virtuoso Jacob Collier have been able to use alternate tuning systems in their music with some fascinating results. The only difference between our situation and his? The microtonal changes he and other artists have used can be changed with the simple turn of a knob or tuning peg.
The handpan? Not so simple. Unless you are an experienced handpan tuner changing a handpan from A=432Hz to A=440Hz can be quite an ordeal. For most handpan players you are lucky if you happen to live within even 150 kilometers of the nearest handpan tuner. Unlike our guitar playing friends if we want to change our tuning system that means boxing up your handpan, taking out the credit card at the post office, shipping the handpan out, paying for the retune, and waiting for the handpan to ship back.