The Elements of Music: 1 of 7, Pitch

I might ask Teacher about a music theory book.  Most of my musical ambition has to do with playing songs for myself in my living room, but some of it has to do with expanding my horizons by learning about a discipline that, to date, I have not learned much about.  In reading for and writing a recent post on music and the brain, I found author Richard Restak, MD identifying “seven different attributes, or dimensions, of music.”  They are: pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness, and spatial location.

I did a little digging online to see if the seven are universally recognized as the building blocks of music.  It appears that they are absolutely not. Like many fields, I don’t think music lends itself well to a fly-by introduction of the major concepts.  I’m able to find myriad lists, and seven or five or four attributes in them.  But I’m going to stick with Restak’s list for this project; seven is the largest number I’m finding, so why not start broadly and see what happens as I explore?  I’ll make a post for each of Restak’s seven dimensions.

Pitch is the first concept in the list – how high or low does the note sound?  But right away it gets complicated.  I hinted at it with my phrasing of the question – savvy readers will wonder, “to whom?”  Indeed, there’s the fun.  Wikipedia gets into the fun by explaining that “Pitch may be quantified as a frequency, but pitch is not a purely objective physical property; it is a subjective psychoacoustical attribute of sound.”

Pitch is a way to determine whether a tone is relatively higher or lower than another tone.  It’s also the tone itself, and it’s understood that in order to be talking about a tone we have to be talking about someone hearing that tone.  The human aural processing system is complicated, and it involves parts of the brain that are not fully understood.  Interference from various parts of the brain can impact the perception of pitch.  Therefore, perceptions of pitch can vary quite dramatically from person to person.

But the subjective nature of pitch does not mean that all is lost for those of us who like our orchestras to have some baseline agreement on the subject of, say, what A above middle C should sound like.  There are some properties of vibration that enable us to have something like standards in this discussion.  Consider, for example, that a string vibrating under tension produces a certain tone.  A string half the length and under the same tension will produce a tone one octave higher.  These types of regularities form the basis for the patterns that we know as musical scales.

The vast majority of us experience pitch in a relative way – we are not experiencing the very real vibrations by appreciating their exact frequency, rather we are approximating the frequency that sounds closest to what we expect to hear, and assigning it that tone in our heads.  But some people are natural sound processors – they have what is referred to as “perfect pitch,” and do not need other sounds to appreciate the frequency of a tone.  They hear a tone and can identify it in isolation, or can produce a tone of the exact frequency ideally associated with a pitch.

Another interesting idea regarding pitch that illustrates its subjective nature is the fact that there are well known aural illusions that can wreak havoc on our perceptions of tones.  Further, we can be trained to get better in our appreciation of pitch.  Finally, the human ear is capable of discerning about 1400 steps in pitch – far more than any musical scale would require of us.

My own pitch is far from perfect, but it’s getting better day by day, I think.  Of course I start every violin practice session by testing myself as I tune the instrument, and  I can tell that the more I engage with playing music, the more I’m able to hear diminishing differences in pitch.

Thanks for reading.


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