Understanding what pitch is in music is an invaluable and broad skill transferable to numerous tasks in music production. Not every engineer is a musician themselves, but many are. It’s good to have at least some foundational knowledge of music theory, and in particular, pitch.
What Is Pitch in Music?
We can define pitch simply as how high or low a note sounds. When an instrument plays a note, it creates a physical vibration, also known as acoustic energy or a sound wave. The vibration moves a specified number of times per second. Higher pitches vibrate quicker, while lower pitches vibrate slower.
How Is Pitch Measured?
There are two main ways we measure pitch; the first is scientific and the second is musical. The scientific measurement tells us how many times a sound wave vibrates per second, measured in Hertz. In music theory and notation, notes are ascribed an alphabetical letter between A and G. We can identify a pitch by both. For example, A4, which is the A note above middle C on a piano, vibrates at 440 Hz.
The 12 Pitches in Music
There are a total of 12 pitches in Western music. We use the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G to define notes. We fill in the remaining five pitches with accidentals, including A#, C#, D#, F#, and G#. There’s only a semitone (half-step) between B and C and E and F, which is why we don’t have a a B# or E#.
Depending on the key/scale, we name notes differently even though they’re the same pitch. For instance, D♭and C# are the same pitch “spelled” differently. We call those enharmonic notes.
Pitch and Frequency: What’s the Difference?
Frequency tells us how fast a sound wave is vibrating. Human hearing ranges from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, and we know that lower values equal lower pitches, and higher values equal higher pitches. When we use EQ, for example, we’re focused on frequencies and general ranges of low, midrange, and high sounds, versus the specific note content of that instrument or frequency range.
Pitch, by definition, relates to how we perceive a sound overall and is less concerned with the naming the actual frequency emitted. The two are intertwined, however.
How Is Pitch Different from Tone?
Tone describes the quality of a sound as opposed to how high or low it is. Another word for tone is timbre, which describes the character of an instrument: guitars have a unique timbre, a piano has a unique timbre, a trumpet has a unique timbre, and so on. A piano and electric guitar and play the exact same pitch — let’s say middle C — but their tones will be entirely different. Tone is also very subjective, and you can come up with a ton of adjectives to describe what you’re hearing.
How Understanding Pitch Can Help You in the Studio
By now, you’re probably wondering how all of this relates to your work in the studio. Pitch is helpful in communicating with musicians, and it can help you identify the key of a project. Knowing the song’s key can help you emphasize or de-emphasize frequencies in instruments in a key-specific way. For example, boosting the root note’s fundamental frequency on a kick drum to help it stand out — after identifying the key, look up a chart that shows notes and their frequencies!
Creating Interesting Melodies
When writing melodies, pitch in music can help you decide whether to go lower or higher for the next note in the phrase. You have to use your ears to decide where to go, and that’s totally subjective. But if you have good instincts and a good ear, you use pitch to find the next step in a melody — or help suggest moves to musicians.
Using Pitch Correction Can Make Vocals Cleaner
Pitch correction is common in certain genres to get really pristine vocal takes. With this kind of work, you’re dealing specifically with pitches in a key, and making sure out-of-tune notes are fixed to be in tune. As long as you know up and down and the 12 notes in Western music, you’ll have a better understanding of pitch correction.