Hannemann’s Music Corner: Tone, Pitch, Note & Timbre

Los Alamos

In music, there are four fundamental terms you need to know and understand including tone, pitch, note and timbre.

TONE: A musical sound, which repeats at regular intervals, higher or lower.

PITCH: The placement of a tone, high or low, within the range of tones and relative to, high or low, other and all of those tones.

NOTE: The symbolic representation of a given tone, at a specified pitch, with specified time duration.

TIMBRE: The quality and/or character of a note (the sound of a sound).

These four terms are often confused with one another and often thought to be interchangeable – which they are not.

Since tones repeat at regular intervals we can give them distinct names such as “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do” or, more often, the letter designations: “C D E F G A B”. 

Each repeats at a regular interval, called an octave, thusly: C D E F G A B C D E F G A B, etc. 

If we assign numbers to these the repeat of the tone is at position 8 – in this case C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7, and then C repeats at 8. Hence the term octave. No matter where you start your starting tone will repeat at its octave, for instance, F G A B C D E F.

Well, isn’t that the same as notes?  Yes and no. A note and a tone are often mis-confuddled, but here is the difference: A tone repeats at regular intervals of pitch, but a note is specific to its pitch. Thus, each repetition of the tone is a different note.

There are several octaves (a piano has 8, a guitar has 3 and a half (ish).)  This makes the tone by name somewhat indeterminate.

I can say “play the C” but to which C do I refer? A very low C? A very high C? Or a middle C? The letter indicates the tone, but not its pitch. We need a way to indicate pitch.

Sound is created by vibrations moving through a medium and vibrations repeat with regularity. We can measure the speed of this regularity, its frequency, (how fast or slow the vibrations repeat) and we can refer to the pitch of each tone by its frequency.

For instance, when I tune a guitar I use an A-440 tuning fork. The term designates the tone A, which occurs at a specific frequency of 440 cycles per second. The A, an octave lower, has a frequency of 220; the A an octave higher than 440 has a frequency of 880.

That’s all well and good in “modern” times, but the Western musical system, as with most musical systems, was developed centuries before sound frequencies could be measured. So a means to designate notes – specific tones at specific pitches – was required. We do this by defining/labeling octaves. 

Western music is C based and so, for purposes of indicating which octave our note is in, at each repeat of the C tone we start a new octave. Our lowest octave is the great octave, C – B. Next is the small octave, c – b. Then the one-lined octave (or middle octave) c’ to b’ (also written a c1 – b1), then the two-lined octave c” – b” (c2 – b2). These are the octaves considered to be within the range of the human voice. But instruments can play below and above these octaves so we add at the low end CC – BB and at the upper end c”’ – b”’ (c3 – b3) and c”” – b”” (c4 – b4), finishing with c””’ (c5).

The above has been the traditional method, but in the mid 1950’s an alpha-numeric alternative, called “scientific notation” was introduced. The CC – BB octave became C0 – B0; C – B becomes C1 – B1, c – b becomes C3 – B3, c’ – b’ becomes C4 – B4, c” – b” becomes C5 – B5, followed by C6 – B6, C7 – B7, and finishing on C8.

Regardless of which system you use, you now have a way of indicating a specific tone (e.g. A) at a specific pitch by octave (“, 2, or 5) giving you the note a” (or a2 or A5).

Finally, A tone @ and “timbre” are often mis-confuddled and used (or misused) interchangeably.

When you fiddle with the tone-control knob of your stereo, you are not altering the notes nor the tones to which the notes refer – the notes and tones remain the same no matter what you do with the “tone” control.

Or, if you play a specific note on an instrument it would be said, you have a good or bad tone @ depending on how well you play the note. But whether played well or played badly you are still playing a specific tone at a specific pitch and how well you play it is of no consequence to what it is.

In both instances what is being referred to is not the tone or the note, but the “sound of the sound.” That sound of the sound can be more bass or treble, bright or mellow, clear or fuzzy, clean or squeaky. But, in all cases, the sound is the tone or note, and the sound of the tone or note (sound of the sound) is its timbre.