What is pitch

In music, pitch is the psychological correlate of the fundamental frequency of a note.

Monotone Music by us.  midi/lesson21.mid Dance of the Reed Flutes by Peter Tchaikovsky. Wide range of pitch midi/lesson22.mid

What are Pitches?

We know that musicians can produce both high and low notes, but how does it work? Sound is simply vibrations of air. We've established that there is an infinite variety of vibration possible, creating an infinite variety of sound. But that still doesn't answer our question of "What are Pitches?". What is the sound without a pitch. Pretty uninteresting. It seems to us like music without pitch is like a colorful flower without any color. Music just doesn't mean anything when there is only one note. Well, of course, music contains many more notes than just that one.

Well, consider this: the main chamber music instruments all have strings, right? Well, a string instrument player can raise the pitch of his/her instrument by moving his/her fingers to shorten the string! A pianist can raise the pitch of his/her instrument by playing a key connected to a shorter string! So, a shorter string must cause a higher pitch, and a longer string must cause a lower pitch! Maybe you've tried this with a rubber band before: if you pinch off the rubber band and pluck it, it will vibrate; causing a high pitch to occur. If you don't pinch the rubber band and just pluck the entire band, it will vibrate and cause a lower pitch to occur.

Now we know how to create a higher or lower pitch. Every time a musician plays a note, his or her string is vibrated very rapidly. In other words, the string moves back and forth almost inconceivably fast (the violin's A string vibrates at 440,000 times per second!). A longer string will vibrate more slowly than a shorter string. Perhaps you've experienced this with a jump rope. A single person jumping rope can get his/her rope to go very quickly. This is similar to the vibration of a short string. A jump rope held by two people standing far away will not travel nearly as quickly as the single person's jump rope. This is similar to the vibration of a long string. So, fast vibrations must correspond to higher pitches, and slow vibrations must correspond to lower pitches.

Note Names

We have some idea of what pitches are. It gets a little more complicated, though. In music, only a select number of pitches are ever played. Why? Well, music has just evolved over thousands of years to only incorporate a select number of pitches. You can bet that it has evolved the right way, too, if you've ever heard an out-of-tune viola. An out-of-tune instrument plays pitches that are slightly off from what they should be. For example, if an instrument was supposed to play a pitch vibrating at 440,000 times per second, it might vibrate at 441,000 times per second. This creates an awful sound, almost as bad as those.


How did musicians decide to use only a certain number of notes? Well, that brings us to a funny story involving the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach. After the end of the Renaissance, there was some debate over the best notes to be used in music. For example, Indian music uses 22 notes per octave. Well, J.S. Bach was a strong supporter of using 12 notes per octave, which is the system still used today in Western music. To prove that his system was the best, Bach wrote a prelude and fugue in 24 keys: two on every note (both major and minor). Evidently, Bach made his point and so his system of 12 notes per octave is still used today.

Anyway, since there are a fixed number of pitches, they actually have names! These names include: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. Of course, these note names repeat, but we'll get more into that later. Note names are vital to musicians because they represent each pitch. You can see how confusing it would get if someone told you to play a note vibrating at 500,000 times per second. It would be much easier if they just told you the note name.

In addition to these 7 pitches, there are 5 more pitches that can be represented by adding a '#' or a 'b' symbol to each note (e.g. A#, Bb). These symbols are referred to by a group as "accidentals". An accidental can be cancelled out by using the "natural" symbol, which is unfortunately not a member of ASCII text. We have put together a little display of the most common accidentals used in music. There are more complex symbols (such as the double flat or double sharp) but these are rarely used.


Pitching Exercises

In this section we concentrate on learning how recognize and 'pitch' the notes by listening and singing back.

You will need a 'Cassette Tape Recorder' to record and review your progress and a musical instrument that is tuned to perfect pitch - preferably keyboard, piano although a guitar, violin or other stringed instrument or a chromatic tuner will do (If you don't have a piano or guitar use the Computer Keyboard at the Electric Blues Club, although there is a much better Virtual Piano at Piano World - Links open in a new window - (don't use a wind or brass instrument you need to concentrate on singing not playing).

Using a guitar or piano play the note 'C' (any octave within your vocal range is fine) - listen carefully as it sounds then play it again - this time singing the note as you play. If the note is too high or too low for your voice play the note in another octave and/or sing the note in the octave that is comfortable for you - even if the note played is higher or lower than the C note you sing - if you are pitching correctly both notes will 'gel' together. If, however your pitching is incorrect your voice will sound 'sharp' or 'flat' (or may be a completely different note!).

Repeat this exercise with each note going up and down the scale. Then do it again picking random notes.

Once you have mastered the exercise above and can pitch the notes you are singing to the ones that are played then move on to the following exercise.

Play the chord C (notes C, E, G) listen carefully to the notes that make up the chord. Play the C chord again, identify the middle note E and sing it. Repeat the exercises listening and singing each note within the chord until you can identify each note and sing it easily without being put off by the other notes being played. Repeat this exercise with the chords D, E, F, G then repeat again randomizing the chords order of play. Then do it all over again using minor chords, 7th's etc., until you can sing any note from any chord in every scale that your voice is comfortable singing.

Now lets make it a little more difficult! Play a C chord an octave above or below your vocal range, but sing the notes in your range. This will help you recognize the chords regardless of where on the scale they are played and consistent practice should aid in improving your ability to pitch your notes regardless of how 'busy' the accompanying music.

There are a couple of fun software games by 'Happy Note' that teach ear training and music theory aimed at children and beginners (although fun & educational for any age!) - details and free downloads are available in the Freeware & Shareware Music Downloads section.).

We will get round to sticking some midi exercises to practice with at some point! Another option is to sing along to our vocal scales or use one of the online resources listed below.

Ear Training at Home by Australian Singing Teacher Anthony Winter, site includes various articles, exercises and lesson.

Harmony How To tips and advice on staying in tune aimed at barbershop singers and directors from The Harmonizer Magazine the official publication of the Barbershop Harmony Society (US).

Help with Monotone Singing from the Sam Houston State University includes advice, exercises and techniques for the music therapist or singing teacher with pupils who speak and/or sing in monotone. (all open in a new window)

see also pitching exercises


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