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Pitch: How High or Low a Note Is

Posted on December 18, 2023

One reason we can enjoy our favorite songs is that we can hear the big and small differences between notes. Whether a note is high or low is one way to tell two different notes apart. To understand this difference, we need to look closer at pitch in music. Pitch is integral in shaping a musical piece’s overall sound and feel and our listening experience. Let’s explore the essentials of musical pitch — what it is, how it is measured, and why it matters in music.

What Is Musical Pitch?

In music, pitch is the perceived frequency of a note or sound, which determines how high or low we hear a sound. ​​In Western music, there are 12 pitches, all of which correspond to a letter, such as A or C. Pitch is one of the core elements of music and is fundamental to constructing melodies and harmonies. It’s also one of the first things we notice when we hear a sound and helps us to distinguish one sound from another.

In simple terms, pitch refers to how high or low a sound is, determined by the frequency of its vibrations. It’s the attribute that allows us to classify sounds as being high, like the chirp of a bird, or low, like the growl of an engine. To bring our example to the world of musical instruments, you can think of the sounds played with the left hand on a piano as low pitch, whereas the keys on the right produce a high-pitched sound.

Similarly, stringed instruments, such as the guitar, ukulele, and bass, produce lower-pitched sounds low on the instrument fretboard. In comparison, the same instruments let out high-pitched sounds when playing the higher frets.

In music, pitch is what enables us to identify and differentiate notes. Each note on a musical scale corresponds to a specific pitch. For instance, the note A on a piano has a different pitch than the note C. Essentially, pitch is the reason why each note on an instrument sounds different from the others. In addition to its pitch, there are also other features of a note that can distinguish it from others, such as its duration, volume, and tone.

How Is Pitch Measured?

Pitch is measured in Hertz (Hz), a unit representing the frequency of sound waves per second. The human ear typically hears sounds ranging from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (or 20 kHz). In music, the standard pitch (also known as concert pitch) is typically set to A4, equivalent to 440 Hz. In other words, the note A above middle C vibrates at a frequency of 440 times per second.

The measurement of pitch follows a logarithmic scale. This means that each octave (a complete series of seven notes) doubles in frequency. For example, going an octave lower from A4 to A5 would mean going from 440 Hz to 880 Hz. Similarly, A3 at an octave lower would be 220 Hz.

Different Types of Pitch in Music

There are different terms and ways we can describe or categorize musical pitch. These can relate to whether a sound is high or low in relation to another or if we can identify a specific pitch produced by an instrument, for instance. Here are a few helpful concepts to better grasp music theory and pitch.

Definite and Indefinite Pitch

The main difference between definite and indefinite pitches is that definite pitches can be clearly identified and notated on a musical scale, while indefinite pitches cannot. For instance, you can play a C note on an instrument like a piano or guitar, but try doing that with a regular drumset!

Definite pitch in music refers to sounds with a clear and identifiable pitch or tone, and you can recognize them as particular notes in the musical scale. Indefinite pitch, on the other hand, refers to sounds that do not have a clear or identifiable pitch. They cannot be notated as specific notes on a musical scale.

Examples of indefinite pitch include the sounds produced by a drum, a gong, or applause. Although both produce an indefinite pitch, you can still discern a difference in pitch when you hear the sound of a bass drum and a snare drum. The latter produces a noticeably higher-pitched sound in comparison.

Sharp and Flat Pitch

The terms sharp and flat are used to indicate alterations in the pitch of a note. In musical notation, these are marked with # for sharp and♭ for flat. When a note is sharp, it’s a half-step (or one semitone) higher than its natural pitch. For instance, an F# note (or F sharp) is one semitone higher than F.

Meanwhile, a flat note is a half-step (or one semitone) lower than its natural pitch. For example, the B sharp note (marked as Bâ™­ in musical notation) is played one semitone lower than B.

When a note sounds off due to being too high or low in pitch, we can describe it as flat or sharp. A note can come off as sharp or flat by accident if the instrument is out of tune, for example, in the case of a stringed instrument. A singer can also be off their course and sing a particular note too high or low, resulting in a sharp or flat pitch.

Absolute Pitch

Also known as perfect pitch, absolute pitch refers to a person’s ability to identify or recreate a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone. Musicians with absolute pitch can hear a note and immediately identify it as a specific pitch, like C or F sharp.

Relative Pitch

Relative pitch refers to the ability to determine the pitch of a note relative to another note. For example, a musician with relative pitch can listen to a series of notes and identify the intervals or distances between them. They can do this even if they can’t name the exact notes being played.

Musical Pitch vs. Tone

The terms pitch and tone are often used interchangeably in music, but they differ in meaning. While pitch refers to the perceived frequency of a sound or how high or low we hear it, tone refers to the quality or color of a sound.

Pitch is a subjective attribute of sound that we can measure by the rate at which sound waves vibrate. Meanwhile, tone is determined by the source of the sound and the physical characteristics of the sound waves, such as their amplitude and shape. In other words, pitch is about the perception of frequency, while tone is about the quality of the sound.

For example, two different instruments can play the exact same pitch but produce different tones. Compare how guitars, pianos, and flutes sound different when they are played to produce a particular pitch.

What Is the Role of Pitch in Music?

The role of pitch in music is multifaceted as it’s the backbone of melody, the horizontal aspect of music that we follow over time while we listen to a piece of music. Without different pitches, a melody would simply be a rhythm consisting of the same note being played over and over again.

Pitch also plays a significant role in harmony, the vertical aspect of music where we hear different pitches simultaneously. The specific arrangement of pitches creates chords, which give depth and richness to a piece of music. For example, a piano or guitar chord consists of multiple notes with different pitches that sound harmonious when played together.

Learn Music Terminology and More

To learn more about music theory and terminology, visit Yousician’s full glossary of music terms. You can also practice and learn your instrument with Yousician’s interactive music learning app that listens to you play and picks up the pitch your instrument or voice produces. Download Yousican on your computer or iOS and Android mobile device.

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