As mentioned in a previous post, sound has four components: pitch, intensity, timbre, and duration. In this post, I will cover some of the basics of pitch. For a beginning discussion on how sound is generated and how it is interpreted by the ear, I’ll have another post on that later.
Appreciating Music – Pitch
Pitch is the highness or lowness of a sound. Women generally have higher-pitched voices than men; Princess Leia’s vocal range is higher than Darth Vader’s; Beaker’s voice, from The Muppets, is higher than Animal’s voice. Pitch can be scientifically measured, but who cares? (For those who do care, I’ll discuss this in another post).
An octave is the distance from one pitch to another pitch of the same letter designation with six other pitches of a scale in between. For example, in the sequence, “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do”, The two “dos” are an octave apart. The other pitches in this example support the tonality of “C”, which makes “C” the tonic. Mic drop. No? Okay.
Another example of an octave is going from one pitch to another pitch of the same letter designation by ascending or descending twelve half steps (ascending: C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C) or six whole steps (C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C).
Referring to a piano keyboard will make the job easier. For those who are unfamiliar with the piano’s keyboard, it might seem like this:
Never fear; the keyboard is easier to understand than it first appears; it’s important to break it up into smaller parts.
If you spend a moment examining it, you’ll notice that although the white keys seem unending, there is a pattern to how the black keys are laid out; the black keys are what helps organize the white keys. You can see a grouping of two black keys separated by a larger space, then a grouping of three black keys. If you group the pair of black keys with the group of three, you’ll have a group of five pattern that repeats to the right end of the keyboard. You’ll also notice that, except for two instances, while most white keys have a black key between them, there are no adjacent black keys (black keys that are not separated by white keys).
Look at the image below and at a specific white key. Look at the keyboard’s pair of black keys, then look at the white key immediately to its left. That pitch is C. You’ll notice that immediately to its left is another white key with no black key betwixt (heh, heh). This pitch is B. Going to the right a few keys, you’ll see a similar set where there are two adjacent white keys, E and F. This is true throughout the length of the keyboard – there are no exceptions.
In the example below, the red arrows represent octaves on the C pitch:
Each key on the piano has a letter name and, as you can see in the following example, the letters repeat at the octave:
If you count the number of half steps (from a white key to its adjacent black key, or, as in the cases between E-F and B-C) from “C” to “C”, you will have counted twelve half steps. In other words, if you counted the number of times you go from key to the immediate adjacent key, regardless of color, you will have counted twelve half-steps.
Looking only at the white keys, you will see that the pitches within an octave are a combination of whole and half steps. This combination of pitches is the foundation of Western music and the order of the whole and half steps determines which scale is used.
For example, if you start on C (again counting only the white keys), you will have whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step, or W-W-H-W-W-W-H. This combination is called a major scale. If you start on A, you will get W-H-W-W-W-H-W-W, also known as a minor scale. Likewise, you can start on any pitch and go through the octave to create different sounding scales, some of them might even sound “wrong” to you. Go ahead, find a piano (preferably with the owner’s permission) and experiment. I’ll wait.
Wasn’t that fun?
Scales have been the basis of music for centuries and we take it for granted; this is called tonality.
Tonality is where a set of pitches are organized into a hierarchy around a “tonic”; the other pitches support the centeredness and dominance of the tonic. Tonic is where a listener hears that one pitch class (“pitch class” means that a “C” is still a “C” regardless of which octave it’s in) is the center of the music. For example, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” begins and ends on the tonic. The descent that begins on the pitch that is associated with the second “little” and ends on the pitches that are associated with the words “what you” all support the tonic, which is linked to the word “are”.
You may have noticed that the last note has a feeling of finality to it. This is because the melody started on the same pitch and because of the descending steps to it.
More on Scales in a later post.
 The Italians called it “scalar”, but they got the word from Latin (also “scalar”). The term for the concept of a scale came into use in music in the 1590s (some pretty important things were happening around this time. Stay tuned).