In his lecture Understanding the Fundamentals of Music from 2006, Robert Greenberg introduces these two definitions (on pages 114-115 in this transcript):


A pitch is a discrete sound, that is, a sound characterized by a fundamental frequency, with the attribute of timbre.


A note is a discrete sound, that is, a sound characterized by a fundamental frequency, with the attributes of timbre and duration. In other words, a note is a pitch that can be notated, one that is sustained for a certain specified amount of time.

The author goes on to claim (on pages 116-117):

It is incorrect then, to say, "I'm going to play a note on the piano" unless that pitch has a given duration.

But isn't it obvious that humans must play only a pitch of FINITE duration on the piano? A human must release his finger from the key at some time, even if he manages to press it until his death! Thus every pitch played on the piano by a human must have "given duration".

  • 4
    Please don't post text as an image; it can't be searched, copy/pasted into answers or read by screen-readers for the visually impaired. – Your Uncle Bob Jun 29 '19 at 2:59
  • 3
    It’s so obvious that the duration of a note must be finite that there’s no need to clarify that when saying, “play a note”. – Todd Wilcox Jun 29 '19 at 4:50
  • 3
    please copy out the relevant passages as quoted text rather than simply posting a screenshot of a book (which, apart from anything, is a pain to read). – Some_Guy Jun 29 '19 at 22:57
  • 2
    @Rusi that's not a particularly constructive way of looking at it. – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 2:05
  • 4
    Surely someone with "B.Mus." in their username is being disingenuous when they fail to understand what Greenberg is getting at here. His point is pedantic, you don't have to agree with it, and it doesn't make much difference anyway, but surely the idea of "a note has pitch and duration and dynamics" and "a pitch is just a pitch" isn't rocket science? – Your Uncle Bob Jul 1 '19 at 1:34

It is not incorrect to say “I'm going to play a note on the piano”.

Later in the second image, the author states that a note is a "notated pitch". Of course a notated pitch would have an given duration, but he's incorrect in inferring that a note must be notated. If that were true, activities like playing by ear, and composing music without a score, couldn't be said to involve "notes", which would be absurd.

Based on this and your other question, this author seems to have a problem with the fact that different words can mean different things in different contexts. In fact, in music, they very often do.

  • 2
    If we hold to the etymological fallacy, only notated music had notes because that's where the word note comes from. But it's a fallacy, after all. If someone composes a song at the piano, does the song have no notes in it? Of course not. The last paragraph in this answer is key. (Or maybe I shouldn't call it that because I cannot use it to open a lock?) – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 2:30
  • @phoog This attempt at absolute disambiguation is absolutely impossible. See this answer of mine – Rusi Jun 30 '19 at 3:02
  • @Rusi of course absolute disambiguation is impossible. But we mostly manage most of the time. – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 14:51

You have a paper making an argument that it's wrong to say "I'm playing a note on a piano" in whatever context the author is talking about, using a narrow, technical definition of note. The context isn't specified in the excerpt you've given. And that's a problem, because even by the narrow technical definition a note can be played on a piano if it's a notated note.

Basically, you're asking about a paper making a weak argument about a narrow technical issue, not a generally accepted fact. Go ahead and say "I'm playing a note on a piano," in any context where you aren't trying to impress this author.

  • It's possible that the context is specified in a part of the discussion that was not reproduced in the question. I'm giving this answer a big upvote for the clever logical argument. In a sense, it really goes to the heart of the philosophical relationship between music notation (which some will argue isn't music at all) and performed music. – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 2:27
  • @Phoog, good point. I updated my answer to reflect that we don't have the whole text. – Karen Jul 1 '19 at 1:19
  • " in the excerpt you've given". Did you look at the scans? Someone removed them, but they're linked now. – Lai M.Mus. Jul 2 '19 at 2:01
  • @JenniYueB.Mus, yes, I read the scanned excerpt you posted. It's a few pages of a much longer book. If the author gave context in a section of the book that you didn't post, I didn't read it. – Karen Jul 7 '19 at 21:02

If someone says "I'm going to play a note on the piano" it would make sense if there is a sheet music on the notestand and he or she is going to play one of the notes printed on the sheet.

But if the situation is that someone just wants to strike a key on the piano then "I'm going to play a note on the piano" is not really the right words. But "I'm going to play a pitch on the piano" would sound odd. Instead "I'm going to play a tone on the piano" would make sense.

But if someone actually says one of those 3 options and the meaning is clear I doubt I would bother how it is phrased.

EDIT: Elaboration 30th of June:

This topic was put on hold and the original poster was asked to edit his post in order to clarify. He has done that. The question is the same as it appears in the headline:

Why's it incorrect to say “I'm going to play a note on the piano”, ...

If you look at the comments to this answer and you look at the other answers you can see that several people regard the sentence “I'm going to play a note on the piano” as just fine. I think you can conclude that the subject is an opinion-based subject which doesn't have an objective answer.

  • 1
    "Play a tone on the piano" sounds rather more unnatural to me (as a native speaker of US English) than "play a pitch on the piano." – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 2:09
  • @phoog I just asked an English speaking person who said definitely not "pitch". She prefers "note" since "tone" makes her think of a discussion of the quality or timbre of the sound. – Lars Peter Schultz Jun 30 '19 at 9:35
  • "Definitely not pitch" seems a bit strong, since one could establish by context a need to differentiate between pitch and other parameters. But I agree in principle, and I also agree with the assessment of "tone." I also note (pun semi-intended) that we don't say "note stand" but "music stand" since the word for notated music is usually "music" (or "sheet music" if necessary to distinguish from sounding music). – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 14:37
  • I asked another English speaking friend. "Pitch" is out according to him, it sounds weird. He prefers "note". Regarding "pitch" he said: "You play on a pitch (for example a football pitch). " – Lars Peter Schultz Jun 30 '19 at 19:40
  • In the US, we play sports on a "field." But again, it's not too difficult to conceive of a context in which playing a pitch would make sense, as odd as it might seem out of context. For example, before beginning a choral piece, one might say "I forgot the pitch pipe, so I will play the pitch on the piano." – phoog Jun 30 '19 at 20:15

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