"Me and Willow are scientists," a 17-year-old Jaden Smith told GQ's Zach Baron in 2015, "so everything for us is a scientific test upon humanity. And luckily we're put in a position where we can affect large groups of human beings at one time." Banksy-like art installations, global cross-disciplinary free-education programs, and superhero anonymity would come in the future, he said. But as things were, his Twitter followers were his lab rats. And the results were to his liking. "I don't think I'm as revolutionary as Galileo," he explained, "but I don't think I'm not as revolutionary as Galileo."
Syre, his debut full-length LP, a semi-psychedelic mix of swooning rock and social media R&B, came out two years later, in 2017. "It's time for a new awakening and a new consciousness," he said at the time. But the experiment was incomplete until last month when he put out Syre: The Electric Album, an EP that reworked five Syre songs as loose, heady R&B exhalations. It was the first album by any artist to be released on Instagram, but that was only a side-study. The real experiment was given away on the artwork. The text reads: "Syre: The Electric Album In Its Original 432hz Format."
In an interview with Noisey earlier this week, Smith tried to explain what this meant in practice. "Sound frequencies build everything in reality," he said. "If you take a vibrating metal sheet and you put sand on it and you vibrate it at 440, it will make a different shape than it does at 432. The shape that it makes at 432 is a bit more coherent with geometry and Phi ratio, which is 1.618, which is what everything is based off in nature: how your hair knows how to grow, how your body knows how to grow proportionally so you look like a human, how trees know how to grow so that every leaf gets the maximum amount of water and sunlight. There's a ratio to that. Supposedly the divine proportion, the perfect proportion, that we're trying to get close to every single day of our lives or with whatever we do."
He continued: "Certain paintings—like the Mona Lisa, all these different things, Da Vinci, all of these people—they knew about these proportions. So the shape that gets created when you vibrate it at 432 is closer to the proportion of phi ratio, and harmonically with your brain, it works better. The original people that discovered how the frequencies work—like in Ancient Greece, they would say that 432 is the vibe that we should be tuning everything to. People say that it changed in different wars—like it apparently changed during World War II—I don't know what the real story about it is, when it got switched to 440. But I just know that 432 is more coherent with the frequencies of humanity. So scientifically, you can look it up. That's why I did it."
When asked if he felt different listening to 432 Hz music, Smith replied, "I do. I do. It just feels more like a vibe."
There's a lot to pick apart there. Smith was alluding to a conspiracy theory that, on its fringes, brings in Nazi mind-control, the Illuminati, the cosmos, and Renaissance art. He was, as ever, trying to see if he could save the world. And he almost certainly had websites like PowerThoughtsMeditationClub.com in his browser bookmarks.
Contemporary pop music conforms to one standard pitch. Punch the same key on two different electric keyboards from two different manufacturers, and you'll hear the same note. Middle C on a computer in Cairo should be the same as middle C on the bass guitar in Caracas; the key of F# is the same to a metal band in Jakarta as it is to a hip-hop producer in Jacksonville. A modern tuning fork and a decent smartphone app should give you identical D#s.
This wasn't always the case. In the late-18th Century, you could have traipsed across Europe and heard a thousand different versions of B♭on a thousand different church organs. Sometimes that would have been flatter than our present-day B♭, sometimes it would have been sharper, but it would rarely have been the same from one place to the next. Throughout the Baroque period, for example, Venetians tuned their instruments to a higher pitch than their Roman counterparts. Each locale had its idiosyncrasies, and traveling musicians had to adjust on the fly.
Compromises were made, but by the mid-19th Century, pitch inflation had become unmanageable. Cavernous concert halls were springing up across the continent, and orchestras, hoping to impress audiences, started tuning their instruments to higher and higher pitches to fill these new rooms with livelier and more brilliant sounds. That wasn't a problem in itself, but the singers who accompanied these musicians were vexed. Pitch things too high, and a singer can do real damage to their throat. Human vocal cords can't be retuned or replaced like cello strings.
Something had to be done about pitch inflation. In 1859, the French government passed a law declaring that the A above middle C should be set at 435 Hertz, or cycles per second, the diapason normal. The British, being obstinate, decided that the temperature of their concert halls had such an impact on sound waves that the A above middle C should be set at a little above 439 Hz. Arguments raged on, different standards were enforced, and composers and concert halls across the world continued to use their own frequencies until 1939 when the International Federation of Standardizing Agencies held a conference in London. Everyone there except for representatives of the Italian state agreed on 440 Hz—a round and easily divisible compromise frequency—as the solution for A. The outbreak of World War II stopped that from fully going into effect, but the ISO reconvened in 1953 to officially adopt it as the international standard.
Some symphony orchestras still play a fraction above that, but most musicians have, at least tacitly, agreed to conform. When you play the A above middle C on those two keyboards, you're hearing sound waves vibrate at 440 Hz, and every other note on a scale corresponds to that.
Back to Calabasas in 2018: When Jaden Smith says that Syre: The Electric Album is presented "in its original 432 Hz format," he means that, unlike almost all commercial music today, the notes on his record correspond to A=432 Hz. If you put your guitar in standard tuning and try to play along with the new version of "Lost Boy," it'll sound awful and dissonant. Everything on this album is slightly flatter than before—not quite a semitone, but enough to notice if you play it next to the original.
This puts Smith in interesting company. Proponents of a "return to 432" run the gamut from New Age bloggers to paranoid pseudoscientists to digital snake-oil salesmen, but they all agree that 440 Hz music is disharmonious and damaging to humankind. Tuning all of our music to 432 Hz, they say, would help us to better resonate with the universe's base frequency—it would squeegee our collective third eye. A website called Attuned Vibrations, for example, describes it as "an alternative tuning that is mathematically consistent with the universe"; Universal Truth School says that 432 Hz music "connects us to source, opens up the heart, harmonizes our energetic systems whilst bringing about healing and homeostasis"; an author called Alpha One on Universal Intelligence says that 432 Hz "vibrates kindness, love, compassion, and emotions all in its perfect light."
As with any theory on universal "compassion" and "healing," the arguments behind A=432 are shrouded in galaxy-brained untruths. One article might tell you that millennia-old Tibetan bowls, also known as "singing" bowls, adhered to A=432 (there's no evidence at all to support this). Another might insist that Mozart and Verdi both tuned to A=432 throughout their careers (though Mozart actually preferred what turned out to be 421.6 Hz, and Verdi only dabbled in A=432 after asking for his Requiem to be performed in diapason normal.)
The most outlandish claim involves Joseph Goebbels and the Rockefeller family. In an internet-infamous rant called "Musical Cult Control," Dr. Leonard Horowitz—who is a doctor, but only in the sense that he used to be a dentist—argues that 440 Hz music is an agent of chaos in itself. "The monopolization of the music industry features this imposed frequency that is 'herding' populations into greater aggression, psychosocial agitation, and emotional distress predisposing people to physical illnesses and financial impositions profiting the agents, agencies, and companies engaged in the monopoly," he writes.
Follow the blogs far enough, and you'll find pieces like Gary Vey's at ViewZone. "Something radical happened in 1939[…] that forever changed all music and is right now controlling how you and I live, how we feel and what we do," he writes. Vey—and he's not alone—believes that The Rockefeller Foundation and the Illuminati, seeking to make the population more violent and inflict chaos on a grand scale, worked with the Third Reich's Minister of Propaganda to organize that 1939 meeting in London. There, the English, in debt, agreed. And now we all live in disharmonious, Nazified, pop music hell. (The truth is that most American instrument manufacturers were using A=440 already, and an international resolution to adopt that as the standard put them in position to all but monopolize the market. Commerce, not Naziism, gave us 440.)
Still, there are plenty of bloggers on the more zoned-out side of the internet who point to this more as an "interesting theory" than a historical fact. They like to focus on the idea that A=432 vibrates along with "earth's heartbeat." Some of this is at least distantly related to science. During a thunderstorm, flashes of lightning create electromagnetic waves which travel around the planet, bouncing between the earth's surface and the ionosphere. If the wave created is just the right length—a multiple of the earth's circumference—it'll meet itself on its way back around the planet. The frequencies can vary, but the lowest one is recognized as a 7.83 Hz wave. It's the fundamental Schumann resonance, and even NASA refers to it as a "repeating atmospheric heartbeat."
The A=432 crowd cites the Schumann resonance whenever possible, but it takes some very shaky math to get to their conclusion. To truly buy into the A=432 phenomenon, you have to round that 7.83 Hz up to precisely 8 Hz, something many adherents are willing to do because the Schumann resonance has, according to one blog, been measured "anywhere from 7.86 Hz to 8 Hz." Multiply eight by two and to get 16, multiply that by two to get 32, and so on until you hit 256. If we agreed to set A at 432 Hz and used Pythagorean tuning, in which the frequency ratio of each interval is based on a 3:2 ratio, then middle C would vibrate at exactly 256 Hz. Singing bowl players of the Shang Dynasty smile upon us from the beyond, knowing that we vibrate as one.
But even then, even when we've rounded the Schumann resonance up to a nice, easy 8 Hz, the theory remains nonsensical. Pythagorean tuning doesn't really work, for a start. We don't use the precise 3:2 intervals between fifths that Pythagoras suggested because, despite the theoretical purity of the math on a small scale, it can lead to garish dissonance when you extend it over seven octaves. You end up with something called "wolf interval." It sounds like hell.
That's why we got rid of Pythagorean tuning and replaced it with equal temperament in the Renaissance era, and that's why you can listen to Renaissance pieces, with all of their resonant varieties, and not feel the need to hack your ears off with something rusty. Equal temperament, the system we use today, is an imperfect compromise—"There is no perfection, only varying tastes in corruption," Jan Swafford wrote of competing tuning systems—but it works.
Play along though. Imagine that the earth constantly vibrates at 8 Hz, pretend that Pythagorean tuning has no drawbacks, and gaze upon the pyramids. Then turn to Barry, an author at altered-states.net, one of the many online authors who think that the number 432 holds a mystical significance in and of itself. "The number 432 is considered sacred in a majority of the major temple complexes of this planet," Barry writes. "For instance, one side of the Great Pyramid, Egypt, at its sea level foundation, is 432 Earth Units." Now consider the fact that Hertz means cycles per second; humans only started thinking about seconds around 16th Century; and a second, according to the 13th meeting of the International Committee of Weights and Measures, is actually "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom." Tuning A to 432 Hz isn't even tangentially related to our Egyptian ancestors and their big triangles.
Syre: The Electric Album is just tuned a bit flat. In practice, It has nothing to do with Joseph Goebbels, Egyptian mysticism, or the hum of the cosmos.
There's another layer to Smith's A=432 theory that needs investigating though. Throw some sand onto a metal plate, as Smith suggested, plug a frequency generator in directly beneath it, fiddle around with different tones, and you'll see some interesting patterns emerging. The natural scientist Hans Jenny devoted much of his life to this visual study of sound. He called it "cymatics," though scientists had been experimenting with it for centuries, at least as far back as Galileo. New Zealand composer Nigel Stanford made a music video in 2014 that played with the phenomenon, and it's more fun than most things on YouTube.
The physics behind cymatics is relatively straightforward, but the most important thing to note is that the pattern created has to do both with the frequency generated and the size of the plate. A 432 Hz wave might create a pretty-looking sand pattern on one metal plate, but it might create something less pleasing on a slightly larger or smaller plate. A 440 Hz tone might produce something mind-blowing on one slab of metal, but next-to-nothing on a slab of different dimensions. There are dozens upon dozens of cymatics videos online attempting to prove that 432 Hz is supreme and 440 Hz is ugly—"The 440hz makes me feel disgusting & noisy," one commenter writes, "432hz sounds more naturally"—but they're all junk. A slightly different set of apparatus would produce completely different results.
Which leaves us with Phi, the "golden ratio," studied by Euclid, considered by Pacioli to be something "befitting God himself," a source fascination for Renaissance artists, a mysteriously ubiquitous force in nature, and the cornerstone of Smith's A=432 ideal. It's apparent everywhere from Da Vinci's Mona Lisa to your uterus. But if the cymatic patterns created by a 432 Hz frequency don't mean anything outside of rigged YouTube videos, then the "golden ratio" can't have anything to do with the constant hum of the universe. The shapes on that plate are just incidental.
And that incongruity is a shame in some sense. With enough experiments and tweaks, an artist could build the golden ratio into their music—some academics argue that everyone from Béla Bartók to Erik Satie have consciously done so in the past. The artist might end up with something as fascinatingly dissonant as John Chowning's "Stria," and that might not do so well on Jaden Smith's Instagram, but it certainly wouldn't be boring.
Legendary former Korg engineer Tatsuma Takahashi talked to Aphex Twin's Richard D. James about pitch standardization last year. He concluded that A=440 was a useful baseline for collaboration, nothing more. "It's like how a green light means you can cross the road or if you shake your head sideways it means no. Those two standards will help you through life in many places around the world," he said. "But it's dangerous to enforce standards in creativity. I have a son who's started school in Japan, where every kid will paint the sun red. Now that is some fucked up standardization! Just really messed up on so many levels." He's right: musicians should be experimenting with sound, twisting things, finding tones that fit them and ideas that challenge us.
But 432 Hz isn't challenging anyone except the kid trying to play along on guitar. If Smith is using the world as his laboratory—twisted though it may sound—he'd probably get much more interesting results from us, his rats, if he tried something that didn't come from half-baked conspiracies. Bumping everything down by 8 Hz isn't helping anyone to connect with the cosmos. We'll just have to try to enjoy the vibe.
Alex Robert Ross really enjoys vibes on Twitter.