The fundamentals of music can be broken down into a sequence of notes. We can define these notes by identifying the pitch or perceived frequency rate of each individual sound wave, but what does that really mean? Pitch is used to describe many aspects of the craft, which can make it challenging to decode what exactly this important term encompasses.
Below, we'll explain everything you need to know about pitch in music and break down how it compares to tone, intervals, and other similar terms. We'll also detail several types of pitches including perfect pitch, absolute pitch, relative pitch, and reference pitch to help you navigate this music theory concept.
What is a Pitch in Music?
In short, a pitch is the perceived frequency of a sound. We can assign different note values based on the frequency of a pitch. You'll find that pitches are most often organized into series of note names, scales, and melodies, though they can be replicated to a T by aligning with the sound wave's specific Hertz (Hz) value.
How is Pitch Created
Whenever something is put in motion to vibrate against air molecules, it creates sound. These sound waves vibrate at a particular frequency which determines the pitch or specific note of that vibration. We perceive a sound as a high pitch or low pitch depending on the speed of the particular sound wave.
How is Pitch Measured?
Pitch is measured by frequency, which is represented by Hertz or Hz. Faster frequencies have higher pitches while lower frequencies have lower pitches. This measurement showcases how many sound wave vibrations pass through given a certain period of time.
High Pitch vs. Low Pitch
Higher pitches are faster sound waves, usually anything above 800 Hz. By contrast, low pitches are much slower and hold Hz measurements of 500 and lower. The lowest our ears can conceivably hear is at 20 Hz, while the upper limit for high pitches is around 20,000 Hz.
Identifying Pitches on the C Major Scale
Pitches in music tend to reside at a specific Hertz level. Here are the main notes of the C major scale, starting from middle C or C4 by Hertz:
C: 261.63 Hz
D: 293.66 Hz
E: 329.63 Hz
F: 349.23 Hz
G: 392.00 Hz
A: 440.00 Hz
B: 493.88 Hz
From there, the scale continues, though note that pitches an octave higher, lower, or further reside at different Hertz levels. For example, C5, which would be the next whole pitch would reside at approximately 523.25 Hz.
Relative Pitch vs. Perfect Pitch
Perfect pitch, or a person's ability to define notes based on sound alone is only estimated to occur naturally with one in 10,000 people. Fortunately, relative pitch, or the ability to identify pitches based on a reference point or song is a skill that can be developed.
Most musicians are able to cultivate their understanding of pitch based on a familiar song like, "Your Song" by Elton John, or anything that's easy for an artist to quickly recall by memory. If you know that your particular relative pitch song starts on a middle C, you can start to identify lower and higher pitches in relation to that reference point.
From there, you can use an understanding of pitch intervals to help you nail down the relative note. You can learn to become more adept at relative pitch through a process called ear training. Fortunately, there are plenty of free exercises via YouTube to help you test your pitch identification skills:
Types of Pitches
There are plenty of different pitches across the musical scale, but there are also some terms relating to pitch that are helpful to understand as a musician that don't necessarily refer to a specific note:
When a pitch is described is sharp, that usually means that it is about a semitone too high than the original note on the chromatic scale. For instance, if the singer was going for A and sang a higher pitch, you could describe that pitch quality as sharp.
A flat pitch occurs whenever the specific pitch performed resides at a lower pitch than the target note. If the singer performed an Fb instead of an F, their pitch could be described as flat.
A diatonic pitch refers to a pitch that is a part of the defined scale. For instance, the diatonic pitches of A minor are A B C D E F G. A# would be a non-diatonic pitch since it falls outside the referenced scale.
Definite pitches are sounds that are easy to define by the tone. A definite pitch refers to sounds with a specific frequency which can be produced with instruments like piano or guitar that create a clear frequency.
Certain instruments like wind instruments can create indefinite pitches. Indefinite pitches do not reside on a clear note in Western music.
A reference pitch is the particular pitch you use to tune yourself relative to your composition. This is a note that you can easily recall and define during the ear training process.
Concert pitch refers to the note or tone used to tune an entire section of instruments, usually in an orchestral or band setting. These instruments are grouped by the tones the instrument produces naturally. For example, there are separate F instruments and B flat instruments.
Musical Pitch FAQs
Do you still find yourself struggling to decode the sound waves? Use these commonly asked questions and answers to help you better understand musical pitch.
What is pitch in music meaning?
Pitch can be defined as the perceived frequency of a sound wave. Pitch helps us determine how a note sounds, letting us know if a note has a low pitch, high pitch, or the same pitch as the prior note. Pitches are organized into a series of notes, but they all reside at a specific Hertz level based on a sound wave's frequency.
What's the difference between tone and pitch?
Tone is a more subjective term that may describe the characteristics of a pitch, with terms such as nasal, airy, or bright. Pitch in contrast references a specific Hertz frequency range, which in turn creates the sound of a specific note. Two singers may be singing the same pitch (like middle C), but a particular pitch may sound different from one person to the next based on the singer's tone.
What are the different pitches in music?
Pitches are organized as notes and scales, so we can consider A, B, C, D, E, F, and G all different pitches in music which all reside at a distinct semitone. There are additional pitches in between some of these main notes to account for sharps and flats.
What is pitch in music examples?
One of the most common pitches in music is A4, which is usually tuned to around 440 Hz. This pitch is often referred to as a reference pitch since it can be used to tune other instruments in a live music setting.
In short, pitch is a helpful tool that helps us understand how low or how high something is by measuring the frequency range of a sound wave. Our ears intuitively pick up these relative differences, but understanding how pitches work can certainly help you across your journey to understanding music. Enjoy practicing and identifying pitches!