When I was thirteen years old, I spent my Saturday afternoons at a music school, drilling chord progressions and harmonies. My teacher — a classical music theorist — was Russian and an impossible romantic. He had these immovable caterpillar eyebrows and a mess of gray streaks in his hair. I imagine I was probably responsible for a few of them.
Mr. T’s classes were metronomic: fifteen minutes of pitch practice, a half hour of composition, another fifteen minutes of harmonic analysis, and an hour of history. If I was unlucky and it was the second or fourth week of the month, there’d be a practice exam at the end. But thankfully, there were seven other students in the class. Within a couple months, cheating became both systemic and systematic.
Mr. T spoke of music as this cosmic experience. Music was, he said, the voice of God. The metronome was His heartbeat and the conductor a prophet. That would make music notes the very atoms that made up the space between the fingers of Adam and those of the Divine Creator. And though Michelangelo would spend hours stuck in the strokes of different kind of art, I’m sure he'd still agree — there is no more profound communion than music.
There’s little I can recall from Mr. T’s lesson plans — the cheating probably didn’t help — but there was this one class I remember. It was mid-November and the rain in Southern California had been uncharacteristically severe. Water pelted the wall of the classroom, the same wall that supported the back of Mr. T’s piano. And so, every note Mr. T played had this background of white noise, making every note a shudder of the pitch it should have been.
When it finally came to chord identification — during which he’d play a measure of chords and we’d break the notes down by name — even the girls with perfect pitch were having trouble. I was frustrated. He was frustrated. Everyone was frustrated. Why was learning this important? Wasn’t music a feeling — an out of body experience, driven by heartbreak and heartmake and what feels right? Certainly, the calculations aren’t what make people cry or what make people remember their first loves.
Mr. T could have said a lot of things. As we now know, there is a science to musical composition. Even today, there’s a theory that the majority of pop music that millennials listen to is based on a string of eighth notes alternating between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth — the “whoop,” as it’s called.
Instead, he quietened, as if retreating into himself now that he’d lost his students. He crumpled behind the keyboard — hands in his lap, eyes on the ivory — and breathed in. It was the same breath I’ve seen pianists start with at the beginning of concerts — a breath that could dim the din of an entire hall of concertgoers.
He lifted his right hand and played a single note.
With only his index finger, he picked A, the middle white one that’s busy being hugged by the two black keys above it.
Then again, he played an A, this time sustaining it. AAAAAAAAA. He turned, goofy smile and all, eyebrows still hanging out where they were.
“They say,” he said, “that Verdi’s A is the fundamental pitch of the universe.” He claimed that mathematically, it was the sound at which the universe rang.
Verdi’s A clocks out at 432 Hertz — about eight Hertz below the 440 to which the concert piano is typically tuned. It’s been said that this frequency has magical, cosmic powers of healing because the purity of its tone manages to tune into some part of our human consciousness. Historically, fiction has sported the idea that ancient instruments like Tibetan bowls and Pythagoras’ monochord used 432 Hertz as their base pitch. There’s even a rumor, Mr. T told us, that Mozart tuned all of his pieces to 432 Hz.
Years have passed since I heard Mr. T wax and wane about the virtues of Verdi’s A — and over time, I’ve had to discount many of his idealistic lectures and factoids as little more than the musings of a man with his fingers on the keys and his eyes on the stars.
But perhaps there is something otherworldly about a good song, whether it’s Schubert’s last sonata or Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA. Almost all of my best moments have had a soundtrack amping me up — graduation, birthdays, first dates. Sometimes, my parents even joke that my middle name, Viola, comes from the instrument to which I was conceived.
So, maybe it isn’t arrogance to think that music is man’s conversation with a higher power. And maybe it isn’t frivolous for man to try to project math onto this divine dialogue. Were it the case for music, shouldn't mathematics and physics be considered a product of His hand as well?
And perhaps it’s that we think, if we play that A long enough, loud enough and sincerely enough, we’ll remember what it used to be like in the gardens of Eden.