Grandma Moon Speaks: Pitch and Tone

Topics Covered:

  • Pitch
  • Tone

You can actually have a pitch button, you know, to get people on pitch – Helena Bonham Carter

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Are some frequencies more important than others? That’s the question one needs to ask if one wants to understand Pitch.

Pitch is a sensation. Different frequencies affect us differently, and we assign them a pitch so we can ‘keep track of them’. Whereby frequency is an objective, measurable and scientific concept, pitch is purely subjective. Without humans there is no pitch.

This is classically demonstrated by asking many listeners to listen to a complex set of tones, like speech, music, etc. Depending on the observer, different pitches are experienced. Not all humans can equally distinguish frequencies, but luckily most of us can enjoy music!

Pitch also depends to a lesser degree on the sound pressure level of the tone. This basically means that for a similar frequency, by raising or lowering the volume (sound pressure, loudness) the pitch might be ‘mis-perceived’. Sometimes, that is. Not everything about pitch is understood.

As you might have guessed, pitch is more of a musical concept, and is selected based on how frequencies fall on a musical scale.

The total number of perceptible pitch steps in the range of human hearing is about 1,400; and the total number of notes in the equal-tempered scale, from 16 to 16,000 Hz, is 120.

So we have a method in which sounds can be ordered on a scale from low to high (in addition to volume). When the frequency is low, we get a deeper, more manly sound – that’s called a low pitch. When the frequency gets higher, we get a lighter, or shriller sound – that’s called a high pitch.

There is evidence that humans perceive the source that a sound is coming from to be located slightly higher or lower in vertical space when the sound frequency is increased or decreased. That’s weird. Imagine that the lower an object is to the ground, the lower its pitch, and the higher it is above ground, the higher its pitch.

Examples – Earthquakes, rumbles, animals, etc are low to moderate pitched. Birds are high pitched. Humans are all over the place. Very strange, and definitely not scientifically proven.

Pitch is one of the features that make a Musical Tone. When we say tone, we actually mean a complex set of sounds. E.g., the human voice is not just one frequency, it’s a mixture of frequencies. So when somebody says: “Don’t take that tone with me!” that person is referring to the entire spectrum of sounds coming out of a person’s mouth.

Pitch is just one of the things that contribute to tone. Therefore, tone is what we hear, subjectively, as a whole. However, there are simple tones and compound tones. Simple tones can be one frequency only, while compound tones comprise of many frequencies.

In traditional music, the tone, or sound, is made up of these four parts:

  • Loudness
  • Pitch
  • Timbre
  • Duration

We have seen loudness and pitch. Let’s take a look at the rest.

Takeaways:

  • Pitch is a subjective sensation attributed to certain frequencies.
  • The total number of perceptible pitch steps in the range of human hearing is about 1,400.
  • Tone is a complex set of sounds, taken or heard as a whole.

Links for further study:

Next: Timbre and Duration
Previous: Frequency Range of the Human Ear