There seems to be confusion (certainly with me!) about the relationship between pitch and frequency. Trying to clear it up finds contrasting ideas. Obviously, when a note has a higher frequency than another, it is a 'higher' ( further to the right on a piano) note. Would it be correct to say the pitch of a note is, say, C, without specifying whether it's C4 or C5, for instance?

I'm not referencing the 'same note played on different instruments', but perhaps it's as simple as we call the frequency 440Hz as pitch 'A' (not always, I know), but there are other frequencies also called 'A' - like 220Hz, and 880Hz.

The other question is related (and my answer accepted), but that's all, I think.

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    @user1803551, I don't think the linked question is asking the same thing as this question. The linked question seems to be based on a misconception of how pitches relate to frequencies. So while it might solicit answers with similar info, I don't think the question itself is the same (this question isn't based on a misconception, for example). I also think this one will be more useful to future readers with this same specific question.
    – jdjazz
    Apr 12 '18 at 20:21
  • @jdjazz But my answer there answers the question here, and duplicates are considered by answer, and not by question. Apr 15 '18 at 8:40
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    @user1803551 - surely a question would have a duplicate, rather than any answer to a question?
    – Tim
    Apr 15 '18 at 10:54
  • You'd think so, but no, see here. Otherwise, I can just copy-paste my answer from there to here. Apr 16 '18 at 2:23

Frequency refers to the measurable number of cycles per second (Hz) of a periodic sound wave.

Pitch refers to (subjectively) how low or high that wave sounds to us as a note. The way I see it, pitch is the log-scale way that humans subjectively perceive frequency.

An unfortunate medical condition that highlights the difference between frequency and pitch is Diplacusis - people hearing the same frequency as different pitches in each ear.

Would it be correct to say the pitch of a note is, say, C, without specifying whether it's C4 or C5, for instance?

Out of context, it would be confusing, because C4 and C5 are not the same pitch - one sounds subjectively higher than the other. (It might be OK if it were obvious from context which C you were talking about).

In our musical system, I think it's OK in some contexts to say that C4 and C5 are the same note, as long as we're talking in a context where the idea of octave equivalence is understood.

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    See also loudness (perception) versus intensity (measurable and scientific). Mar 31 '18 at 12:55

Would it be correct to say the pitch of a note is, say, C, without specifying whether it's C4 or C5, for instance?

It might be helpful to consider the distinction between a pitch and a pitch class. A pitch is a specific location on a keyboard: A4, for instance, is a pitch.

But a pitch class is a collection of all pitches related by octave equivalence. In other words, every single A on the keyboard (and every other A out there) belong to the pitch-class A.

Such a distinction is really helpful when understanding post-tonal music that operates on the notion of octave equivalency. Stravinsky's arrangement of Happy Birthday, for instance, is best understood from a standpoint of pitch classes.


To combine it all in one simple answer - No, C4 and C5 are different pitches. They are the same 'pitch class', which might be loosely described in some circumstances as the same 'note'. But they are different pitches.

Frequency is the scientific description of pitch.

  • That might be half an answer - what about frequency?
    – Tim
    Apr 14 '18 at 17:15

In my way of understanding, pitch in musical terms refers to the frequencies associated with musical notes, where as frequency might be associated with tones that are in between notes and not musical in nature at all. Pitch seems to be musical and frequency seems to be associated with Physics. Another way to look at it is pitches are things we can hear and frequencies can include pitches but can extend well below or above the capability of the human ear to perceive.

  • We might refer to a note as being 'off pitch' if its frequency isn't quantised to the currently-established musical framework. But it would still have a 'pitch', albeli a wrong one! Apr 14 '18 at 17:25
  • @Laurence Payne - Off pitch indicates to me that it is indeed off and not on an accepted definition of a pitch. No wonder folks are confused by this, I would say the off pitch tone was out of tune and needed adjustment to become on pitch, but that's just me. And how do you call pitches when they are frequencies above or below the hearing capabilities of the ear, are there pitches associated with broadcast frequencies? Apr 14 '18 at 17:39
  • Frequency is a physical property of sound waves (and of other waves), but pitch is a perceptual property (or a psychoacoustic property) of sound waves. See this. Our sense of pitch allows us to rank pitches on a musical scale, but which scale? The western 12-tone scale? The 17-tone or 22-tone scales associated with Persian music? What about other microtonal scales? I think that we have to grant that pitch is continuous, and we use our sense of pitch to organize pitches in whatever scales are convenient or familiar.
    – ex nihilo
    Apr 14 '18 at 19:07
  • @DavidBowling - It is my understanding that a pitch is a designated frequency, where as a frequency is not necessarily a designated pitch. Am I wrong? I think that pitch is designated as opposed to continuous. Apr 14 '18 at 19:16
  • How many microtonal scales are there? The 12-tone scale is somewhat arbitrary, so how do we arrive at which pitches are defined? What about different pitch standards (e.g., 440 Hz vs 432 Hz). The way I understand it, we use pitch to organize sounds on a scale, we don't use scales to define what is and what is not a pitch. Frequency is the physical property of sound waves that gives rise to the perceptual phenomenon of pitch. Since frequency is continuous, so is pitch (more or less).
    – ex nihilo
    Apr 14 '18 at 19:23

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