5

It occurred to me recently that the way we refer to the pitch of notes is somewhat arbitrary. We refer to notes with a low frequency as "low" and notes with a high frequency as "high."

This doesn't have to be this way. We could perhaps refer to the relationship as slow/fast, wide/thin, big/small, or even high/low if referencing the period instead of the frequency. Do any cultures or languages use a different mental construct for pitch?

If so, does it have any impact on the way they interact with music? If not, is this from cultural mixing leading to one ubiquitous system, or because there's something inherently compelling about the low/high framing for human minds?

12
  • I have no expertise on this whatsoever, but intuitively I would say that it stems from the experience of singing. When you sing a low note, you feel the vibration deeper in your throat. Oct 9, 2022 at 14:45
  • Looking at the numbers involved when describing the frequency of notes, the 'low' notes have low numbers, and the 'higher' have higher frequencies. So, high/low makes the most sense, surely?
    – Tim
    Oct 9, 2022 at 14:48
  • 5
    @Tim I can't find anything definitive, but I suspect the naming convention of low/high pitch predates the understanding and measurement of sonic waves.
    – Drake P
    Oct 9, 2022 at 15:52
  • 2
    @Tim Looking at the numbers involved when describing the wave length of notes (which is by the way an understanding that is significantly older than frequency) the "low" notes have high number (or long lengths) and the "higher" notes have lower numbers. In this sense high/low suddenly become quite counterintuitive.
    – Lazy
    Oct 9, 2022 at 16:11
  • 1
    See also the Linguistics take on it: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/11872
    – AakashM
    Oct 11, 2022 at 8:14

2 Answers 2

5

Yes, and you don't even need to move far from English. In Norwegian, “høy lyd” (literally “high sound”) denotes a loud noise, and “lav lyd” means soft sound. To describe a high-pitched sound, you'd say “lys lyd” (literally “bright sound”), to describe a low-pitched one you'd say “mørk lyd” (“dark sound”). The same terminology is also found to some level in old-fashioned German (“heller Klang” ≈ bright⇒high-pitched), though in general German use the pitch axis is also labelled like in English (“hoch” vs “tief”).

1
  • Huh, Dungeons & Dragons never told me that tieflings translate to "lowfolk"/"underworld folk" - they just told me they're part demon and left it at that.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 11, 2022 at 13:14
2

Ancient Greek music ordered notes by frequency but in reverse order from what is done now. The best reason I read (but I don't remember where) was that the Greek stringed instruments were strung much like modern guitars; the high-frequency notes were placed near the player's feet and the low-frequencies notes were placed near the head.

When a modern guitar is held in a normal (right-hand stringing) position, the bass strings are higher on the body (of the person) than the soprano strings. This may be the reason that the Greeks called bass notes "high" and soprano notes "low." (Different instruments than the modern ones though.)

Other contrasting words could have been used, (male-female, soft-hard, granite-chalk, tall-short, fat-thin, etc.). (As an aside,) over the years, Western theorists have referred to anacrusis as both "female" or "male" patterns and melodies lacking anacrusis as "male" or "female."

3
  • The Greeks used their word for "low" for what we call "high frequency" and vice versa. Their terms match the way guitars, ukes, and some other stringed instruments are strung. Modern guitars are the same; the "low" notes are gravitationally tighter than the hight notes (but lower frequency wise.)
    – ttw
    Oct 9, 2022 at 23:55
  • This prompts another question: Did the Greeks describe pitches as "high" and "low", or were they just using those words to refer to the placement of the strings?
    – Aaron
    Oct 10, 2022 at 3:15
  • "Oxys, 'Sharp', is standard Greek for 'high-pitched' as well as for 'pointed' or 'keen-edged'; its musical opposite, barys, 'low-pitched', means 'heavy' (not 'blunt') when applied to solid bodies. The metaphor of 'high' and 'low' in pitch is seldom found in Greek sources.... The usual contrast is between 'sharp' and 'heavy', which are not even polar opposites. This suggests a way of conceiving (even or perceiving) pitch that is interestingly different from ours. (Andrew Barker, Greek Musical Writings: II, Harmony and Acoustic Theory [Cambridge University Press, 1989], 69n2).
    – Aaron
    Oct 15, 2022 at 1:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.