What is Pitch?

If you are a musician, or you’ve dealt with music theory before, you’ve probably heard of musical pitch.

Pitch is one of the most fundamental concepts of music theory. Everything else in music– melody, harmony, chords, scales, tones, and semitones– all depend on the proper pitch.

Most people think that musical pitch means if a note is higher or lower than another note. However, the word “pitch” means a little bit more than that. In today’s post, we’re going to take a closer look the definition and use of musical pitch.

Let’s start by diving into the definition.

Pitch Definition and Meaning

The meaning of pitch in music is how the human ear understands the frequency of different sound waves.

Let’s say that you pluck a string on a guitar. That guitar string vibrates and sends off a sound wave into the air.

Sound waves happen when the molecules in the air move back and forth fast enough to create a pressure wave that flows from the instrument (or other source of the noise) to our ears. This wave of pressure creates a noise, which can be detected by humans or other living creatures.

The main thing we use to measure sound waves is their frequency. This means how fast the wave is moving through the air.

And since pitch is how the human ear understands frequencies, the frequency of a music note determines its pitch.

Sound waves with a faster frequency are high-pitched, and sounds with a slower frequency are lower-pitched. For example, a middle C has a much lower frequency (and slower sound waves) than an A5 note, which is much higher.

I know this all sounds a little bit science-y and technical, but really all that means is that pitch is a measurement of how fast the sound waves travel.

When it comes to music, the notes that sound “higher” have a higher frequency, and the notes that sound “lower” have a lower frequency.

We use the music staff to show differences in pitch between different notes. The higher notes go on the top of the staff, and the lower notes go on the bottom. Here’s an example of some notes that start at a low pitch and go progressively higher:

ascending minor scale on music staff

And here’s an example of notes that start at a higher frequency and go progressively lower in pitch:

descending scale on music staff

If a note is written higher on the music staff, it has a higher frequency and pitch. If the note is lower on the staff, it’s a lower pitch.

Now that we know the meaning and definition of pitch, let’s go over how pitch is measured in music.

How is Pitch Measured in Music?

We measure frequencies using a unit of measurement called Hertz (Hz for short).

Depending on if you have finished school, you may remember learning about Hertz in your math or science classes. Basically, Hertz is the number of times a sound wave can repeat in one second.

For instance, a middle C is around 256 Hz. That means the sound wave of the middle C can repeat 256 times in one second. The A above middle C is 440 Hz, so that sound wave can repeat 440 times in one second.

Almost all of the music you can play is somewhere between 50 Hz and 8,000 Hz, but humans can actually hear most noises between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz.

The keys on a standard piano range from 27.5 Hz, all the way up to 4186 Hz.

What is a Music Note?

Of course, anything can produce a pitch, even if it’s not music. You could clap, and that would create a pitch. Or you might talk with your friend over the phone, and that creates a pitch. But these pitches are not music notes.

In music, a note is a specific pitch that has a special name and frequency.

Remember, a middle C is around 256 Hz. This pitch has a specific name and frequency that fits on the chromatic scale, so it is a note.

the chromatic scale is a list of 12 named notes that all Western-style music originates from. We use it to determine if a pitch is also a music note, or just a loud noise.

So if a pitch like a car horn doesn’t fit one of the 12 notes on the chromatic scale, it is not a note. It’s just noise.

The Chromatic Scale

All Western music comes from the chromatic scale, which is twelve notes long. These notes are C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, and B.

You can also write these notes as flats instead of sharps: C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, and B.

Here’s a picture of the chromatic scale on the music staff:

Chromatic scale on music staff (by Wikimedia Commons)

These notes continue to repeat in higher (and lower) octaves, so there’s not a set pitch for each note letter. An E might be 329 Hz, or it might be much higher, depending on what octave it’s in.

Here is a list of all the notes in C major, and their frequencies on the piano:

Note in C Major Scale Note Frequency/Pitch (in Hertz)
Middle C261.63 Hz
D293.66 Hz
E329.63 Hz
F349.23 Hz
G392.00 Hz
A440.00 Hz
B493.88 Hz
C (higher)523.25 Hz

Of course, this is assuming that the notes on the piano are all in tune. If your piano’s middle C has a different frequency, it might be because your piano is out of tune.

Pitches of Related Notes: Octaves

Notes that are in the same chord, or in the same scale, are mathematically related because of their frequencies.

For example, let’s look at the middle C and the C one octave above it.

The middle C has a frequency of 261.63 Hz. If we go one octave above that, the next highest C is 523.25 Hz. That’s double the frequency of the middle C, because 261.63 x 2 = 523.25.

In every octave, the higher note is double the frequency/pitch of the lower note.

So if you want to find the frequency of a note that’s an octave above or below another note, remember that the pitch doubles every time you go up an octave.

The next C, two octaves above middle C, is 1046.5 Hz. Then an octave above that is 2093 Hz, then 4186 Hz, and so on.

Relations Between Other Notes and Their Pitches

Perfect fourths and perfect fifths are also closely related by pitch.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by perfect 4ths and 5ths, check out our post on musical intervals HERE.)

The pitch of a perfect 4th is 4:3 the pitch of the main note. So if middle C on a piano is 261.63 Hz, the F above that would be 4/3 x 261.63, which equals 348.84. The F note has a pitch of 348.84 Hz.

The notes of a perfect fifth have a similar relationship. In a perfect 5th, the top note is 3:2 of the main note.

If the bottom note of the perfect 5th is middle C, we multiply 3/2 and 261.63. So the frequency and pitch of the G note is 392.44.

Here is a chart of the ratio between different pitches and intervals in the major and minor scales:

IntervalRatio between the notes
Major 2nd9:8
Minor 3rd6:5
Major 3rd5:4
Minor 6th8:5
Major 6th5:3
Minor 7th9:5
Major 7th15:8

You probably don’t need to memorize this table, but it’s helpful to know that the reason why chords and scales sound so harmonious is because of the mathematics behind them.

When two pitches are mathematically related, they often sound much better together than a random smash of notes that have no relation to each other.

Summing Up Pitch

Remember, pitch is another word for frequency, or the way we measure the sound waves of a certain noise.

In general terms, the word “pitch” means how high or low a note sounds, when compared to other music notes. We use Hertz to measure the pitch of a music note.

We can also show the specific pitch using the music staff. Notes with higher frequencies sit at the top of the staff, while notes with lower pitches go towards the bottom of the staff.

Hopefully this post helps you understand pitch and how it works in music! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and let me know, and I’ll do my best to help you out!

Jessica Roberts
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