Pitches

No relation, not even an enharmonic one.

No relation, not even an enharmonic one.

Sound is a giant pitch. Not just one, but lots of pitches. Big pitches, small pitches, pitches you can pick out in a crowd, and pitches that don’t sound like a pitch but actually are pitchy, if you look closely enough.

Double entendre’s aside, every sound you hear is a note: music just organizes all those sounds into something kind of like this. Identifying these discrete things we call pitch and manipulating them allows us to make what most people call music.

Traditional western harmony organizes pitch into 12 distinct “notes.” They’re labeled from A-G, some with a “#” sign and some with a “b” sign. Those two signs are called sharp and flat, respectively. Something that is a bit higher than a letter is a sharp, and one a little bit lower is called a flat. It kind of looks like this, in ascending order:

C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C

These notes sound¹ like this:

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So music is just these 12 notes. These notes keep repeating themselves higher or lower until humans can’t hear them anymore. If you hum the note “E”, then when you whistle it you probably can imitate the same note, just in a different octave. Octaves help distinguish how high or low a particular note sounds. Vin Diesel sings an F in a different octave-a much lower octave- than Alvin the Chipmunk. A modern piano spans about seven octaves, from very low notes to very high notes. We’re talking 88 different pitches here!

To give us a way for nailing these pitches to a chart, we bring in our friends the clef and staff. Don’t know them? Flip back to where I go into more detail here. The chart, which is basic music notation, can be considered the written alphabet for music.

When the staff has a clef on it, we can lay out notes. The bass clef shows us where “F” falls (right between the two dots) and the treble clef shows us where “G” falls (the place where the curl and swoop meet). Here is a master chart, showing where notes fall:

Courtesy Christopher Wingert, we can see how notes on a staff and notes on a piano match up.

Courtesy Christopher Wingert, we can see how notes on a staff and notes on a piano match up.

As you can see on the picture of the piano, there are black keys as well as white keys. The white keys play the notes A-G, while the black keys play the notes that are either sharp or flat. There is a pattern for sharps and flats, which delves into some cool mathematics of sound called acoustics, but isn’t that important for what we’re doing right now.

Everything has pitch, even if it can’t be mapped onto this chart. Drums make a pitch, airplane engines make a pitch, even refrigerators make a pitch (often a Bflat). Once you realize EVERYTHING is pitched, you’ll start to realize that your speaking voice is a very melodic music, and that’s pretty cool.

So yeah, life’s a pitch.

¹ Before there was music notation, these “notes” just wandered around. What we commonly hear and identify as the note “G” was a little bit lower in the past, before pitches were standardized by science. Some music snobs compare what Mozart knew as “A” with today’s “A” and make ensembles that reflect the “tuning” from past eras. Dorks.

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Of note, my voice teacher also asserts that the human body resonates at a Bb- by which he means that if you take a person and put them in a completely silent room with noise-cancelling headphones on, then the sound they hear (blood pumping, nerves firing, etc) tends to “ring” around a Bb. Woo!

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Written By Steven Lumpkin on February 16th, 2010 @ 11:07 am

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