Musical Pitch and the Piano Keyboard

What is musical pitch?

You’ve probably heard the word before. Singing competition judges like to say that a certain vocal performance was “pitchy”, or that a singer needs to work on their pitch. So what exactly does this mean?

Pitch in music simply means how high or low something sounds.

In the last lesson we learned how to identify the notes on a piano keyboard on sight. Hopefully we’re getting the hang of telling a D note apart from a G just by looking at the keyboard. But being able to name and identify notes is only the first step. We need a better understanding of notes themselves; what they are, and how they function. The concept that will help us achieve this is pitch.

Musical Pitch on the Piano Keyboard

What makes one note on a piano different than the next? The answer is that each note is higher or lower than all the other notes. The entire difference between the notes is their pitch. In fact, notes themselves are often referred to as “pitches”.

We learned earlier that the lowest notes on a piano are all the way on the left, and each note to the right is higher than the one before. This means the lower-pitched notes are on the left, and the higher-pitched notes are on the right.

Every note on the piano has its very own pitch. No two notes have the same “highness” or “lowness” – if they did, they would be the exact same note!

Audio Examples

We can talk all day about music, but it doesn’t mean anything unless we can hear it! Here are a couple of audio examples to help us understand the idea of musical pitch.

First up is a simple demonstration of pitch. You will hear random notes played on the piano, one after the next. Listen closely, and focus on how high or low each note sounds:

Quick tip: Try listening to these musical examples a few times (just like we do with real music). This gives our mind a chance to really get to know what it’s hearing.

In this next example, we can hear the sound of a piano tuned so that there is just a slight difference in pitch between each note:

This example is sort of a demonstration of the whole concept of this lesson! If you can hear the slight variations in highness and lowness between the notes, you are hearing pitch.

From the examples above, we can see that even slight changes in pitch can make a real difference. Pitch is a major aspect of any music we listen to.

A Giant Pitch Computer

The piano is best known for being a beautiful instrument in its own right. But it has another important role in music as well – it is the best and most widely used tool we have for musical pitch. We can think of it as a sort of giant pitch computer or calculator.

As we learned in the introduction to this section, the piano has a huge range. This means that it has a very broad span of pitches, from very low to very high. This range of 88 notes represents the most commonly used range of pitches in music.

For the most part, the piano covers the complete range of pitches we are likely to hear in music. In other words, it’s unusual to hear pitches lower than the lowest note on a piano, or higher than the highest note.

Take a listen to the lowest and highest piano notes to hear why:

If we go beyond the edges of a normal piano, sounds get so low or high that it becomes hard to determine the pitch we’re hearing. Sounds like this are therefore not very musically useful. They are most often reserved for special effects and the like.

At some point, pitches actually get so low or high that we can’t even hear anything at all! The reason is that humans can only hear within a specific pitch range. That’s the reason we can’t hear dog whistles, for instance. They are so high-pitched that they are above our range of hearing. Dogs, however, are still able to hear them since they have a much wider hearing range than we do.

Our hearing range also changes with age. As we get older, our ability to hear high-pitched sounds slowly diminishes. This fact is actually the basis of an app called Annoy-A-Teen Lite, which lets you play extremely high pitches aimed specifically at annoying younger people, while older people usually can’t hear these sounds at all. : )

Practical Uses

One of the most common uses of the piano is to check how pitches will sound, even if one is planning on having the music played by other instruments.

There are tons of musical uses for this – a short list might include learning music theory, ear training, and  harmony (that’s us), songwriting, teaching vocal parts to choir students, as an aid in composing and arranging music, and much more. Basically any musical activity that involves pitches.

So unless we’re planning on spending all our time working on music written for unpitched percussion instruments like snare drum (also known as “noise”, just kidding for all you drummers out there), the piano is a really useful tool we can add to our arsenal!

Practice Quiz

Musical Pitch Quiz

Test your knowledge of this lesson with the following questions:

Image Attribution:
Piano strings by Kevin Dooley ©2011 CC by 2.0
practice makes perfect. by Jukie Bot ©2013 CC by 2.0