Pitch (music)

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In musical notation, the different vertical positions of notes indicate different pitches.
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In musical notation, the different vertical positions of notes indicate different pitches.
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Pitch is a perceptual property that allows sounds to be ordered on a frequency-related scale, [1] or more commonly, pitch is the quality that makes it possible to judge sounds as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies. [2] Pitch is a major auditory attribute of musical tones, along with duration, loudness, and timbre. [3]


Pitch may be quantified as a frequency, but pitch is not a purely objective physical property; it is a subjective psychoacoustical attribute of sound. Historically, the study of pitch and pitch perception has been a central problem in psychoacoustics, and has been instrumental in forming and testing theories of sound representation, processing, and perception in the auditory system. [4]


Pitch and frequency

Pitch is an auditory sensation in which a listener assigns musical tones to relative positions on a musical scale based primarily on their perception of the frequency of vibration (audio frequency). [5] Pitch is closely related to frequency, but the two are not equivalent. Frequency is an objective, scientific attribute which can be measured. Pitch is the subjective perception of a sound wave by the individual person, which cannot be directly measured. However, this does not necessarily mean that people will not agree on which notes are higher and lower.

The oscillations of sound waves can often be characterized in terms of frequency. Pitches are usually associated with, and thus quantified as, frequencies (in cycles per second, or hertz), by comparing the sounds being assessed against sounds with pure tones (ones with periodic, sinusoidal waveforms). Complex and aperiodic sound waves can often be assigned a pitch by this method. [6] [7] [8]

According to the American National Standards Institute, pitch is the auditory attribute of sound allowing those sounds to be ordered on a scale from low to high. Since pitch is such a close proxy for frequency, it is almost entirely determined by how quickly the sound wave is making the air vibrate and has almost nothing to do with the intensity, or amplitude, of the wave. That is, "high" pitch means very rapid oscillation, and "low" pitch corresponds to slower oscillation. Despite that, the idiom relating vertical height to sound pitch is shared by most languages. [9] At least in English, it is just one of many deep conceptual metaphors that involve up/down. The exact etymological history of the musical sense of high and low pitch is still unclear. There is evidence that humans do actually perceive that the source of a sound is slightly higher or lower in vertical space when the sound frequency is increased or reduced. [9]

In most cases, the pitch of complex sounds such as speech and musical notes corresponds very nearly to the repetition rate of periodic or nearly-periodic sounds, or to the reciprocal of the time interval between repeating similar events in the sound waveform. [7] [8]

The pitch of complex tones can be ambiguous, meaning that two or more different pitches can be perceived, depending upon the observer. [4] When the actual fundamental frequency can be precisely determined through physical measurement, it may differ from the perceived pitch because of overtones, also known as upper partials, harmonic or otherwise. A complex tone composed of two sine waves of 1000 and 1200 Hz may sometimes be heard as up to three pitches: two spectral pitches at 1000 and 1200 Hz, derived from the physical frequencies of the pure tones, and the combination tone at 200 Hz, corresponding to the repetition rate of the waveform. In a situation like this, the percept at 200 Hz is commonly referred to as the missing fundamental, which is often the greatest common divisor of the frequencies present. [10]

Pitch depends to a lesser degree on the sound pressure level (loudness, volume) of the tone, especially at frequencies below 1,000 Hz and above 2,000 Hz. The pitch of lower tones gets lower as sound pressure increases. For instance, a tone of 200 Hz that is very loud seems one semitone lower in pitch than if it is just barely audible. Above 2,000 Hz, the pitch gets higher as the sound gets louder. [11] These results were obtained in the pioneering works by S. Stevens [12] and W. Snow. [13] Later investigations, i.e. by A. Cohen, have shown that in most cases the apparent pitch shifts were not significantly different from pitch‐matching errors. When averaged, the remaining shifts followed the directions of Stevens's curves but were small (2% or less by frequency, i.e. not more than a semitone). [14]

Theories of pitch perception

Theories of pitch perception try to explain how the physical sound and specific physiology of the auditory system work together to yield the experience of pitch. In general, pitch perception theories can be divided into place coding and temporal coding. Place theory holds that the perception of pitch is determined by the place of maximum excitation on the basilar membrane.

A place code, taking advantage of the tonotopy in the auditory system, must be in effect for the perception of high frequencies, since neurons have an upper limit on how fast they can phase-lock their action potentials. [5] However, a purely place-based theory cannot account for the accuracy of pitch perception in the low and middle frequency ranges. Moreover, there is some evidence that some non-human primates lack auditory cortex responses to pitch despite having clear tonotopic maps in auditory cortex, showing that tonotopic place codes are not sufficient for pitch responses. [15]

Temporal theories offer an alternative that appeals to the temporal structure of action potentials, mostly the phase-locking and mode-locking of action potentials to frequencies in a stimulus. The precise way this temporal structure helps code for pitch at higher levels is still debated, but the processing seems to be based on an autocorrelation of action potentials in the auditory nerve. [16] However, it has long been noted that a neural mechanism that may accomplish a delay—a necessary operation of a true autocorrelation—has not been found. [5] At least one model shows that a temporal delay is unnecessary to produce an autocorrelation model of pitch perception, appealing to phase shifts between cochlear filters; [17] however, earlier work has shown that certain sounds with a prominent peak in their autocorrelation function do not elicit a corresponding pitch percept, [18] [19] and that certain sounds without a peak in their autocorrelation function nevertheless elicit a pitch. [20] [21] To be a more complete model, autocorrelation must therefore apply to signals that represent the output of the cochlea, as via auditory-nerve interspike-interval histograms. [19] Some theories of pitch perception hold that pitch has inherent octave ambiguities, and therefore is best decomposed into a pitch chroma, a periodic value around the octave, like the note names in Western music—and a pitch height, which may be ambiguous, that indicates the octave the pitch is in. [4]

Just-noticeable difference

The just-noticeable difference (jnd) (the threshold at which a change is perceived) depends on the tone's frequency content. Below 500 Hz, the jnd is about 3 Hz for sine waves, and 1 Hz for complex tones; above 1000 Hz, the jnd for sine waves is about 0.6% (about 10 cents). [22] The jnd is typically tested by playing two tones in quick succession with the listener asked if there was a difference in their pitches. [11] The jnd becomes smaller if the two tones are played simultaneously as the listener is then able to discern beat frequencies. The total number of perceptible pitch steps in the human hearing range is about 1,400; the total number of notes in the equal-tempered scale, from 16 to 16,000 Hz, is 120. [11]

Aural illusions

The relative perception of pitch can be fooled, resulting in aural illusions . There are several of these, such as the tritone paradox, but most notably the Shepard scale, where a continuous or discrete sequence of specially formed tones can be made to sound as if the sequence continues ascending or descending forever.

Definite and indefinite pitch

Not all musical instruments make notes with a clear pitch. The unpitched percussion instruments (a class of percussion instruments) do not produce particular pitches. A sound or note of definite pitch is one where a listener can possibly (or relatively easily) discern the pitch. Sounds with definite pitch have harmonic frequency spectra or close to harmonic spectra. [11]

A sound generated on any instrument produces many modes of vibration that occur simultaneously. A listener hears numerous frequencies at once. The vibration with the lowest frequency is called the fundamental frequency ; the other frequencies are overtones . [23] Harmonics are an important class of overtones with frequencies that are integer multiples of the fundamental. Whether or not the higher frequencies are integer multiples, they are collectively called the partials, referring to the different parts that make up the total spectrum.

A sound or note of indefinite pitch is one that a listener finds impossible or relatively difficult to identify as to pitch. Sounds with indefinite pitch do not have harmonic spectra or have altered harmonic spectra—a characteristic known as inharmonicity.

It is still possible for two sounds of indefinite pitch to clearly be higher or lower than one another. For instance, a snare drum sounds higher pitched than a bass drum though both have indefinite pitch, because its sound contains higher frequencies. In other words, it is possible and often easy to roughly discern the relative pitches of two sounds of indefinite pitch, but sounds of indefinite pitch do not neatly correspond to any specific pitch.

Pitch standards and standard pitch

A pitch standard (also concert pitch) is the conventional pitch reference that musical instruments in a group are tuned to for a performance. Concert pitch may vary from ensemble to ensemble, and has varied widely over musical history.

Labeling pitches

Note frequencies, four-octave C major diatonic scale, starting with C1. Music frequency diatonic scale-3.svg
Note frequencies, four-octave C major diatonic scale, starting with C1.

Pitches are labeled using:

For example, one might refer to the A above middle C as a′, A4, or 440 Hz. In standard Western equal temperament, the notion of pitch is insensitive to "spelling": the description "G4 double sharp" refers to the same pitch as A4; in other temperaments, these may be distinct pitches. Human perception of musical intervals is approximately logarithmic with respect to fundamental frequency: the perceived interval between the pitches "A220" and "A440" is the same as the perceived interval between the pitches A440 and A880. Motivated by this logarithmic perception, music theorists sometimes represent pitches using a numerical scale based on the logarithm of fundamental frequency. For example, one can adopt the widely used MIDI standard to map fundamental frequency, f, to a real number, p, as follows

This creates a linear pitch space in which octaves have size 12, semitones (the distance between adjacent keys on the piano keyboard) have size 1, and A440 is assigned the number 69. (See Frequencies of notes.) Distance in this space corresponds to musical intervals as understood by musicians. An equal-tempered semitone is subdivided into 100 cents. The system is flexible enough to include "microtones" not found on standard piano keyboards. For example, the pitch halfway between C (60) and C (61) can be labeled 60.5.

The following table shows frequencies in Hertz for notes in various octaves, named according to the "German method" of octave nomenclature:



The relative pitches of individual notes in a scale may be determined by one of a number of tuning systems. In the west, the twelve-note chromatic scale is the most common method of organization, with equal temperament now the most widely used method of tuning that scale. In it, the pitch ratio between any two successive notes of the scale is exactly the twelfth root of two (or about 1.05946). In well-tempered systems (as used in the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example), different methods of musical tuning were used.

In almost all of these systems interval of the octave doubles the frequency of a note; for example, an octave above A440 is 880 Hz. If however the first overtone is sharp due to inharmonicity, as in the extremes of the piano, tuners resort to octave stretching.

Other musical meanings of pitch

In atonal, twelve tone, or musical set theory, a "pitch" is a specific frequency while a pitch class is all the octaves of a frequency. In many analytic discussions of atonal and post-tonal music, pitches are named with integers because of octave and enharmonic equivalency (for example, in a serial system, C and D are considered the same pitch, while C4 and C5 are functionally the same, one octave apart).

Discrete pitches, rather than continuously variable pitches, are virtually universal, with exceptions including "tumbling strains" [26] and "indeterminate-pitch chants". [27] Gliding pitches are used in most cultures, but are related to the discrete pitches they reference or embellish. [28]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Equal temperament</span> Musical tuning system with constant ratios between notes

An equal temperament is a musical temperament or tuning system that approximates just intervals by dividing an octave into steps such that the ratio of the frequencies of any adjacent pair of notes is the same. This system yields pitch steps perceived as equal in size, due to the logarithmic changes in pitch frequency.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harmonic series (music)</span> Sequence of frequencies

A harmonic series is the sequence of harmonics, musical tones, or pure tones whose frequency is an integer multiple of a fundamental frequency.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Musical tuning</span> Terms for tuning an instrument and a systems of pitches

In music, there are two common meanings for tuning:

In music, notes are distinct and isolatable sounds that act as the most basic building blocks for nearly all of music. This discretization facilitates performance, comprehension, and analysis. Notes may be visually communicated by writing them in musical notation.

In music, an octave or perfect octave is a series of eight notes occupying the interval between two notes, one having twice the frequency of vibration of the other. The octave relationship is a natural phenomenon that has been referred to as the "basic miracle of music", the use of which is "common in most musical systems". The interval between the first and second harmonics of the harmonic series is an octave. In Western music notation, notes separated by an octave have the same name and are of the same pitch class.

In music theory, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale ordered by increasing pitch is an ascending scale, and a scale ordered by decreasing pitch is a descending scale.

In music theory, an interval is a difference in pitch between two sounds. An interval may be described as horizontal, linear, or melodic if it refers to successively sounding tones, such as two adjacent pitches in a melody, and vertical or harmonic if it pertains to simultaneously sounding tones, such as in a chord.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Transposing instrument</span> Musical instrument for which notated pitch differs from sounding pitch

A transposing instrument is a musical instrument for which music notation is not written at concert pitch. For example, playing a written middle C on a transposing instrument produces a pitch other than middle C; that sounding pitch identifies the interval of transposition when describing the instrument. Playing a written C on clarinet or soprano saxophone produces a concert B, so these are referred to as B instruments. Providing transposed music for these instruments is a convention of musical notation. The instruments do not transpose the music; rather, their music is written at a transposed pitch. Where chords are indicated for improvisation they are also written in the appropriate transposed form.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Timbre</span> Quality of a musical note or sound or tone

In music, timbre, also known as tone color or tone quality, is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish different instruments in the same category.

The cent is a logarithmic unit of measure used for musical intervals. Twelve-tone equal temperament divides the octave into 12 semitones of 100 cents each. Typically, cents are used to express small intervals, to check intonation, or to compare the sizes of comparable intervals in different tuning systems. For humans, a single cent is too small to be perceived between successive notes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Missing fundamental</span>

The pitch being perceived with the first harmonic being absent in the waveform is called the missing fundamental phenomenon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tritone paradox</span> An auditory illusion perceived by some people to be rising in pich and by others to be falling

The tritone paradox is an auditory illusion in which a sequentially played pair of Shepard tones separated by an interval of a tritone, or half octave, is heard as ascending by some people and as descending by others. Different populations tend to favor one of a limited set of different spots around the chromatic circle as central to the set of "higher" tones. Roger Shepard in 1963 had argued that such tone pairs would be heard ambiguously as either ascending or descending. However, psychology of music researcher Diana Deutsch in 1986 discovered that when the judgments of individual listeners were considered separately, their judgments depended on the positions of the tones along the chromatic circle. For example, one listener would hear the tone pair C–F as ascending and the tone pair G–C as descending. Yet another listener would hear the tone pair C–F as descending and the tone pair G–C as ascending. Furthermore, the way these tone pairs were perceived varied depending on the listener's language or dialect.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piano tuning</span> Profession

Piano tuning is the act of adjusting the tension of the strings of an acoustic piano so that the musical intervals between strings are in tune. The meaning of the term 'in tune', in the context of piano tuning, is not simply a particular fixed set of pitches. Fine piano tuning requires an assessment of the vibration interaction among notes, which is different for every piano, thus in practice requiring slightly different pitches from any theoretical standard. Pianos are usually tuned to a modified version of the system called equal temperament.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scientific pitch notation</span> Musical notation system to describe pitch and relative frequency

Scientific pitch notation (SPN), also known as American standard pitch notation (ASPN) and international pitch notation (IPN), is a method of specifying musical pitch by combining a musical note name and a number identifying the pitch's octave.

Musical acoustics or music acoustics is a multidisciplinary field that combines knowledge from physics, psychophysics, organology, physiology, music theory, ethnomusicology, signal processing and instrument building, among other disciplines. As a branch of acoustics, it is concerned with researching and describing the physics of music – how sounds are employed to make music. Examples of areas of study are the function of musical instruments, the human voice, computer analysis of melody, and in the clinical use of music in music therapy.

12 equal temperament (12-ET) is the musical system that divides the octave into 12 parts, all of which are equally tempered on a logarithmic scale, with a ratio equal to the 12th root of 2. That resulting smallest interval, 112 the width of an octave, is called a semitone or half step.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Septimal minor third</span> Musical interval

In music, the septimal minor third, also called the subminor third or septimal subminor third, is the musical interval exactly or approximately equal to a 7/6 ratio of frequencies. In terms of cents, it is 267 cents, a quartertone of size 36/35 flatter than a just minor third of 6/5. In 24-tone equal temperament five quarter tones approximate the septimal minor third at 250 cents. A septimal minor third is almost exactly two-ninths of an octave, and thus all divisions of the octave into multiples of nine have an almost perfect match to this interval. The septimal major sixth, 12/7, is the inverse of this interval.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Music and mathematics</span> Relationships between music and mathematics

Music theory analyzes the pitch, timing, and structure of music. It uses mathematics to study elements of music such as tempo, chord progression, form, and meter. The attempt to structure and communicate new ways of composing and hearing music has led to musical applications of set theory, abstract algebra and number theory.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Five-limit tuning</span>

Five-limit tuning, 5-limit tuning, or 5-prime-limit tuning (not to be confused with 5-odd-limit tuning), is any system for tuning a musical instrument that obtains the frequency of each note by multiplying the frequency of a given reference note (the base note) by products of integer powers of 2, 3, or 5 (prime numbers limited to 5 or lower), such as 2−3·31·51 = 15/8.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pitch circularity</span> Fixed series of tones that appear to ascend or descend endlessly in pitch

Pitch circularity is a fixed series of tones that are perceived to ascend or descend endlessly in pitch. It's an example of an auditory illusion.


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Further reading