I'm struggling with the terminology for all the concepts related to sounds and notes. Most of the texts I read are not very precise in their usage of different terms, which makes it hard for me as a beginner to fully grasp the different concepts and get a clear understanding of their differences.

From a theoretical point of view, I'd like to distinguish the following concepts:

  1. Anything we can hear (i.e. an osciallation of pressure in a compressible media)
  2. The same as #1, but consisting of only a single frequency (e.g. a 440Hz wave, this is a purely theoretical construct)
  3. The same as #2, but including overtones (this one depends on the instrument used and is the "real" counterpart to #2)
  4. One element of a scale (e.g. a C, independent of frequency)
  5. Any concept of the above + information about length/duration

The terms which I've so far encountered in relationship with the concepts above are:

  1. Sound (corresponds to concept 1)
  2. Tone (although I'm not sure whether this is used in standalone form in English)
  3. Note (can correspond to concepts 2, 3, and 4, according to Wikipedia)
  4. Noise (sometimes used for concept 1, as in "I heard a noise")
  5. Pitch (according to Wikipedia, "Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale" and "may be quantified as a frequency")
  6. Timbre (according to Wikipedia, this refers to the collection of properties which distinguish two entities of concept #3 for the same fundamental frequency, i.e. harmonics and envelope)
  7. Amplitude and Loudness

There already exists a similar question and answer, but it distinguishes only pitch, note, timbre, and tone.

My background is mathematics, and hence I'm used to very precise definitions. I had expected that all these terms are defined more or less precisely, especially since music has strong ties to physics and mathematics. If this is not the case, how do musicians and music theorists usually resolve the resulting imprecision?

  • "Anything we can hear" and "an osciallation of pressure in a compressible media" are very different things...
    – jtbandes
    Aug 21, 2011 at 21:15
  • #2 isn't entirely theoretical... while pure sine waves may be the only example of this in nature, we can create mechanically square waves and triangle waves--as well as other inventions that would not be replicable strictly with relative overtones.
    – NReilingh
    Aug 23, 2011 at 3:17
  • @jtbandes: Could you elaborate, please? I'm guessing you're refering to something like bone conduction, but I'm not sure. Aug 24, 2011 at 20:00
  • @NReilingh: I would be surprised if it was possible to generate perfect pure sine waves mechanically, since this basically requires to have a mechanical part vibrate with a single frequency. Aug 24, 2011 at 20:02
  • @Florian Brucker: I'm just pointing out that there are many sounds (oscillations) which are out of the audible range for humans.
    – jtbandes
    Aug 24, 2011 at 20:14

3 Answers 3


Look for a book on "Acoustics" which is a discipline of physics, sometimes also called "the physics of sound".

Some comments (IMHO):

One element of a scale is called a "pitch". A "pitch" is any sound which has a regular waveform oscillating at a stable fundamental frequency that can be clearly discerned. A pitch is quantified in Hz, or Hertz, or cycles per second.

"Noise" is sound which does not have a discernable oscillating, repeating waveform and therefore no dominant, discernable pitches.

However, notes created by musical instruments can contain noise components, such as the "thunk" of the hammer when a piano key is pressed, and many other examples.

A note is a pitch which is produced by a musical instrument and functions in a harmonic or musical context.

"Timbre" refers to the distinctive sound created by individual musical instruments, and involves the fundamental, all the overtones, the noise components, and how they change over time (the envelopes). However, timbre is such a complex phenomenon that it must be appreciated as an inherently subjective quality. How does the timbre of a Stradivarius violin compare to a Guarnieri violin, for example? How does the bouquet of one vintage of Cabernet Sauvignion compare to one of another vintage?

All musical instrument sounds, if examined in granular detail, change drastically over time. The first milliseconds of the strike of a note on the guitar sound very different than the sound being made several milliseconds later, and throughout the duration of the note. This is what we refer to as the envelope of the sound. Noise components, change in fundamental pitch, the change in amplitude of the various harmonic overtones, the overall change in volume or loudness, and the introduction or modulation of vibrato and tremolo are some factors. Yet to the untrained ear a clear single pitch is perceived. Find a reference work that displays three-dimensional graphs of fast Fourier transforms (FFTs) of various pitches played by different kinds of musical instruments to see what I'm referring to.

Unfortunately, while music, sound and acoustics are all forms of physics, musicians themselves usually approach music from a naïve perspective in that they know a lot about musical expression but they don't know anything about mathematics or physics as a formal discipline. Therefore musicians and music educators don't always use consistent, precise nomenclature.

If you look for books about the physics of sound and about audio engineering and acoustics, you will find more information that appeals to your mathematical background.

  • Thank you, that's already a good start. Do I understand you correctly that you would use "pitch" to refer to my concept #1? Or does "pitch" for you include the overtones? I know that I won't get totally precise definitions, but my interest is more in understanding all the different concepts, and a clear terminology helps me a great deal. Aug 24, 2011 at 20:06
  • "Pitch" is the dominant frequency only. If you ask a pianist, flutist, singer, and saxophonist to play/sing A=440Hz, each sound will have totally different overtones and envelopes, but they will all be producing the same pitch. There is no ambiguity about that.
    – user1044
    Aug 24, 2011 at 21:56
  • Furthermore, instruments that do not produce stable, oscillating dominant frequencies which can be used to play a melody are called "non-pitched" instruments. This term is usually used to refer to a class of percussion instruments, such as the rock drum kit and cymbals.
    – user1044
    Aug 24, 2011 at 21:57

The mathematically-thinking musician is going to use these terms significantly differently from what might be common practice. That doesn't necessarily make this less complicated, but we can nail down quite a lot of definitions when given context and verbosity. (That is, a higher incidence of usage of specific terms is going to confine the definitions of those terms that would otherwise be less specific.)

  • "I heard a sound" and "I heard a noise" are functionally indistinguishable, but usually refer to "more pleasant" and "less pleasant" things, respectively, due to social constructs.
  • Note is one of the more liberally used terms, but when put in the context of verbose usage of other more specific terms, usually refers to a pitched sound of definable length. On paper, this would refer to a symbolic representation of that. Sometimes used the same way (although less in the paper context, hence the term notation), is the word "tone."
  • Tone is also used, perhaps moreso, in the context of "quality of sound." In this context, it is synonymous with timbre, although usually used at a more granular level. i.e. Timbre would be used to distinguish between one instrument, synthesizer, percussion instrument or another, whereas tone would be used to compare different types of a single instrument with the same playing technique, or the quality of sound production on any one instrument.
  • Pitch is a more specific way to refer to frequency (and only frequency) than "note". The wikipedia definition you cite is functionally identical to "it's the frequency of oscillation." A strict relationship of "note name" to frequency is dependent on the historical and practical contexts of tuning system. In music, we typically refer to pitch by a note name and then interpret specific frequencies only when necessary to match others not using an equal-tempered A440 basis.
  • Rhythm is important to define, since it refers to specifically quantized points in time marking the beginnings and ends of sounds.

To answer the last part of your question; where the terminology is imprecise, we usually rely on context to a very high degree to understand what is being communicated.

  • Thank you! You're right rhythm is important, too, but further down on my todo-list. Now that I've got 3 answers of similar quality, what's the policy on choosing one as the accepted answer? Aug 24, 2011 at 20:13
  • @Florian Upvoting any and all useful answers is encouraged, and then if there's one in particular that you feel satisfies your question the best to your liking, you can also mark it as the accepted answer.
    – NReilingh
    Aug 25, 2011 at 1:23
  • The upvotes will have to wait until I got enough reputation... Aug 26, 2011 at 14:47
  • @Florian Ah, indeed. Most people make their start on SE sites by answering questions, which can easily yield the 15 rep required for up votes.
    – NReilingh
    Aug 26, 2011 at 16:30

Anything we can hear (i.e. an osciallation of pressure in a compressible media) - This is a "sound". Keep in mind that the media does not have to be compressible; we can hear sounds underwater.

The same as #1, but consisting of only a single frequency (e.g. a 440Hz wave, this is a purely theoretical construct) - This is generally the definition of the countable noun "tone". The noun "tone" is both countable ("three distinct tones") and uncountable ("a bassoon's tone"); the uncountable noun is less concrete.

The same as #2, but including overtones (this one depends on the instrument used and is the "real" counterpart to #2) - This starts to get into the definition of the "uncountable" noun "tone". It can also be described more precisely as "timbre"; the unique collection of fundamentals and overtones produced the "timbre" of an instrument's "tone" which distinguishes that instrument from any other when heard by a listener.

One element of a scale (e.g. a C, independent of frequency) - This may be termed a "note" but is more accurately a "pitch". The fact that the pitch is part of a scale is largely irrelevant; pitches are the calibrated, named semitonal steps in the Western music system.

Any concept of the above + information about length/duration - This is most properly a "note". "A C# quarter-note", given an overarching tempo and meter for the music in which the note is played, defines both the pitch and the space of time it should be played.

  • Oi... water is indeed a compressible medium. Given how we hear sound because there are oscillations of pressure against our eardrum, I would have to say OPs definition is accurate.
    – NReilingh
    Aug 23, 2011 at 3:14
  • Water is defined as an incompressible medium. It can be put under pressure, like anything, but unlike gaseous fluids a set amount of liquid water cannot be made to take up less volume than it does at 1ATM. Air, on the other hand, is highly compressible; every dive shop condenses a large amount of it in a relatively small tank at 6000psi, and even your average mechanic will have a tank of it at about 10ATM of pressure (120-160psi).
    – KeithS
    Aug 23, 2011 at 14:22
  • While water is indeed compressible, that's not really the point :) Aug 24, 2011 at 20:10
  • @KeithS: Thanks, your definitions match those of Wheat Williams pretty closely (probably as close as it gets). Aug 24, 2011 at 20:12

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