by Craig Good
Proponents on the web speak of Solfeggio Frequencies, musical notes that have great healing power. They claim that these pure sounds from antiquity can liberate us from fear, awaken our intuition, and even repair our DNA. Do specific sounds have such power? Where did these mystical frequencies come from? And what can we learn from them?
First, their claims. The idea is that certain notes found in ancient music have special uses. Pitches, or notes, are described in Hertz (abbreviated Hz), which is their frequency in cycles per second.
For example, one of the special Solfeggio frequencies is said to be 396 Hz. It sounds like this. [396 Hz] Named UT, it is supposed to be good for "liberating guilt and fear".
Next is the one called RE, at 417 Hz. [417 Hz] This is good for "undoing situations and facilitating change".
Impressed? Wait until you hear MI, at 528 Hz. It does "transformation and miracles", including DNA repair. [528 Hz]
FA, at 629 Hz, is for "connecting and relationships". [629 Hz]
SOL, at 741 Hz is for "awakening intuition". [741 Hz]
And LA, at 852 Hz, is for "returning to spiritual order". [852 Hz]
Now, you may have noticed a couple of patterns. One is that, just like most other woo-y, New Age modalities, the claims are all very breezy and unspecific. If they remind you a little of Deepak Chopra that's not exactly an accident. Some of the web pages promoting Solfeggio Frequencies use his confused misinterpretations of quantum physics for support.
You may recall from Skeptoid #431 how acupuncture proponents can't even decide how many meridians exist, nor where they are. Similarly, when we dig into Solfeggio Frequencies there are disagreements. One proponent says that the key frequency is not 417, [417 Hz] but 432 Hz. [432 Hz] Further, he claims that this "purest" of sounds is the same frequency to which both the great pyramids of Giza and the Sun itself are tuned.
Yet another proponent says 528 Hz [528 Hz] is the "love frequency" that not only repairs DNA but can "raise the vibration in our chakra system". There's no evidence for a chakra system, and this odd use of the word "vibration" resonates more with woo than science.
In fact, if I play the Solfeggio Frequencies as specified on most of the websites, the scale sounds a little out of tune. [Solfeggio Mystic Hexachord]
As is typical of woo, proponents make an appeal to antiquity. What makes these notes special, you see, is that they come from a medieval Gregorian chant to John the Baptist. It's one of those things the ancients "just understood." But, in modern times, our music was retuned to 440 Hz  and the secret was lost. Or hidden on purpose, depending on who you read. Some even blame the change, darkly, on a Nazi plot.
Did Concert A become 440 Hz around World War II? Sort of. Did it used to be a different pitch? Yes. Part of the problem was that it was several pitches. Many in the period instrument movement hold 415 Hz [415 Hz] as the correct Baroque A. In 1885 the Austrian government suggested 435 Hz [435 Hz] as the standard. To this day there are orchestras in continental Europe using anything between 440 [440 Hz] and 444 [444 Hz] Hz.
Fortunately, I suppose, it wasn't the Nazis who moved the A above Middle C to 440 Hz. The idea was suggested by the American Standards Association in 1936. In 1955 the International Standards Organization made the 440 Hz A their ISO 16.
As also often happens with woo, there is a grain of truth to this story. No, there's no evidence that certain musical tones can "repair" DNA, whatever that means. The idea that the sun or a collection of stone edifices could have a single resonant frequency, let alone the same one, is patently absurd. But, even if they did, it's not even plausible that such a coincidental resonance would have any effect on our health. As we'll see, the Solfeggio believers' grasp of musical history is as weak as their mastery of physics and medicine.
Did you notice another pattern in those notes?
Do UT, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA ring a bell? How about with a TI? [Do Re Me Fa Sol La Ti]
Meet Guido of Arezzo. Born around 991 or 992, he was a Benedictine monk and music theorist, who wanted a better way to teach songs to other monks. At the time musicians used hexachords, or sets of six pitches. Guido first described the Medieval Hexacord as a mnemonic device. He developed a system now known as the Guidonian Hand. Without falling down a medieval rabbit hole, let's just say that notes from the hexachords were mapped onto the fingers and joints of the hand. A teacher could point to a portion of the hand and the student would know to sing a certain pitch.
The notes needed names for this to work, so Guido used a hymn to John the Baptist known as Ut queant laxis. Each musical phrase starts at a successively higher note on the hexachord. Listen to the first syllable of each phrase:
The Latin initials for Saint John (Sancte Iohannes) are S and I, thus SI was eventually assigned to the seventh note, a pitch that is not used in this hymn. Now Guido had UT, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA, and a visual way, using a hand, to indicate which pitch to sing. Today musicians still learn a similar system known by the French word solfege which, like solfeggio, takes its name from the notes SOL and FA.
This alone might have cemented Guido's place in musical history, but he was far from done. He is credited as coming up with a way of marking notes on a 5-bar staff, which gave birth to the way we read music today. Guido of Arezzo is thus known as the father of musical notation.
Here's an interesting bit of etymology from the Guidonian Hand. It was a roughly three-octave system where the lowest note, what we now call G at the bottom of the bass clef, was known as gamma ut. As you may have guessed from the fact that these scales are called sol-fa, not fa-sol, they thought of scales as descending, as opposed to the way we learn them now as ascending pitches. When you arrived at the lowest note you had traversed the entire span of pitches. So the gamma ut, or gamut, came to mean the entire range.
Little could the original writer of Ut queant laxis, who may even have been Guido himself, have imagined the impact that his little hymn would have on both music and language over a thousand years after his death.
In the 1600s, an Italian musicologue named Giovanni Battista Doni suggested that UT be replaced with the open syllable DO. I think the fact that the first syllable of his last name happens to be DO is entirely a coincidence. But there we are with DO RE ME FA SOL LA SI.
We shift now to England in the early 1800s. Sarah Glover adapted the DO RE ME solfeggio into a sight reading system, changing SI into TI. Her Norwich Sol-fa is the scale many of us learned by singing along with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Later, in the mid-19th century, Reverend John Curwen further refined Glover's system into a Tonic Sol-fa to aid in the sight reading of notated music on the staff.
Curwen had his own hand-based mnemonic. Rather than pointing to fingers and joints the way Guido of Arrezo did, he invented hand gestures to represent the notes. Rather fancifully, and perhaps inspiring today's Solfeggio Frequency woo-meisters, he had some interesting descriptions of the tones.
When you consider his illustrations, it's easy to imagine that these emotional descriptions are just further mnemonic aids to recognize the hand positions. Movie fans might just recognize some of them, even without having had music or singing lessons. Look for these gestures signaling out the famous five note sequence in the climax of Spielberg's film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Can music, which is just a series of notes, actually change your health? Not directly. But if you're dancing to the beat you're getting exercise. If you chill out to your favorite tunes you're lowering stress. Music can have profound emotional effects on us. That's why we sing to our babies, and why movie producers hire composers to create a score.
Some of the music available from the Solfeggio Frequencies sites is rather pretty. Think of it as aromatherapy for the ears. It's certainly harmless. But claims that specific frequencies, or musical tunings, can treat or cure disease, or even cause miracles, is just not supported by science. When you have a condition that needs treating, seek competent medical help, not mystical links to pyramids or ancient hymns. I also wouldn't recommend using software to re-pitch your entire music collection the way some proponents urge. After a lot of work you'll just end up with music at a slightly different pitch than was intended.
Music is one of life's joys. Appreciate it for what it is. Maybe think of Guido of Arezzo when you sit down to sight read. Make up some music of your own. Who knows? Maybe in a thousand years your lyrics will still be changing the world.
By Craig Good
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