I'm trying to find out whether my knowledge of the theory is correct, so this question might look a bit silly.

There's the term pitch. Pitch allows objectively tell whether two sounds are equal, and which one is higher (if not). This can be expressed using two approaches:

  • using frequency of the sound (e.g., 440Hz is objectively lower than 441Hz, and objectively equal to 440Hz); this allows arbitrary precision, and easy to operate with for a computer.
  • using human terms (for example, F4 is higher than C♯4, and lower than A♭4); this is precise up to the difference between two adjacent alterations.

The problem I'm facing at this moment is related to the second approach. It is obvious for me, that there are three entities needed to fully define a pitch:

  • octave (exact portion of pitch space, from C to the next H),
  • tone (C, D, E, F, G, A, or H), and
  • alteration (♯, ♭, ♮, etc.).

My concerns is that I wasn't able to find usages of the word "tone" in that sense. So my question is whether this is the correct term for this entity. If it is not, which one is?

In this question the OP calls this entity using the term principal note, but I think it is even more confusing, since notes have pitch, not the opposite. Also, there are no other usages of this term in this sense.

The closest thing I was able to find is pitch class, but it is still different: for example, D♭ is not a separate tone (it is one of the possible alterations of D), but it forms its own pitch class, along with all the other D♭'s (see the link for a better definition).

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    I don't see how this could actually be a useful notion. I think the term you may really be looking for is scale degree, but that would be Ⅰ Ⅱ Ⅲ Ⅳ Ⅴ Ⅵ Ⅶ rather than C D E F G A B. (Side note: many languages use “H” for the note between A and C, but in English it's B.) Nov 7, 2019 at 23:41
  • When I see H in musical note names, I immediately think German Notation and the BACH motif, where B = Bb and H = B.
    – Caters
    Nov 8, 2019 at 6:35
  • To clarify: are you trying to classify absolute pitches, with no relation to any particular key, mode or scale? If so, then why do you not accept "pitch class"? Your system divides "pitch class" into "tone" and "alteration" but no such division is sensible. In your system, going up by, say, a major 3rd from a "tone" gives a "tone" A, E or B (H if you prefer) if you start from the "tone" F, C or G, but a pitch which is not a "tone" if you start from another "tone". Don't privilege certain pitches. Instead, use a line of fifths ...,A♭,E♭,B♭,F,C,G,D,A,E,B,F♯,C♯,G♯,D♯,...
    – Rosie F
    Nov 8, 2019 at 16:12
  • Aren't you just talking about letters? It's the letter or letter name of the pitch.
    – John Wu
    Nov 9, 2019 at 9:47
  • @JohnWu: I'm trying to define this attribute of pitch Nov 9, 2019 at 9:57

5 Answers 5


I agree that there is a lack of a good term. Note is a poor choice, not only because, as you say, "notes have pitch, not the opposite," but notes also have duration. If asked, "what are the notes?" You could just as easily answer, "whole notes, half notes, quarter notes..." as "A, B, C..."

I don't think there is a formal term, though "note letters", "white keys", or "the naturals" would probably be well understood (in English). You can get the meaning from context in the question you linked, where the OP calls it "principal tone". But tone can also mean other things (whole step, timbre, e.g.).

The class of C, D, E, F, G, A, H/B is a useful notion in software that models music, and I would argue generally as well. A class (in the computer science sense) called ScientificPitch (to distinguish it from other meanings of "pitch" such as frequency, which you mention) might have properties like MidiNote, NoteLetter, PitchClass, Accidental (or Alteration), StatedOctave, and AbsoluteOctave. The notes shown below:

Treble clef staff showing B♯3, C4, and D♭♭

...share the same pitch class, MIDI note, and absolute octave, but they do not share note letters, stated octaves, or scientific pitches. Given MIDI note 60 or the-white-key-called-middle-C, how does software—or indeed a person—know whether to render the pitch as B♯3 (H♯3?), C4, or D♭♭4? You can only do so if you're given context or told something like, "in this case, use note letter C."

For what it's worth, "Note Letter" is the term I've used in my own software.


Historically, the idea to identify pitch with a letter or solfege name is part of an idea called: gamut. But I think that meaning is really a reference to the whole set in connection with diatonic pitches.

The modern term for a pitch and it's related higher and lower octaves is: pitch class.

D♭ is not a separate tone (it is one of the possible alterations of D)

Certainly Db and D are separate tones. The question is just what labels to use in the nomenclature you have made.

From the wiki article:

  • Important to musical set theory, a pitch class is, "all pitches related to each other by octave, enharmonic equivalence, or both."
  • Note that in standard Western equal temperament, distinct spellings can refer to the same sounding object: B♯3, C4, and Ddouble flat4 all refer to the same pitch, hence share the same chroma, and therefore belong to the same pitch class; a phenomenon called enharmonic equivalence.

I think the point then is D and Db are different pitches and it doesn't matter how you spell them to classify them in a pitch class. According to the points above Db and C# belong to the same pitch class. Your "tone" concept says C# is a different "tone" from D, but Db is not a different "tone" from D. That runs contrary to the meaning of pitch class.

My suggestion is to just use established terms or plain English labels:

  • octave has a clear, established meaning in scientific pitch notation and is just a number.
  • the gamut A B C D E F G are just letters, call that attribute letter. I have also seen the terms "name" and "letter name" used in music theory writing.
  • ♯ ♭ ♮, etc. are called accidentals, just call that attribute accidental.

I kind of suspect this is about a computer program. Is so, you could have a "tone" object with attributes: octave, letter, accidental. The reading of those labels would be perfectly clear with no misuse of terms.

  • 1
    If this is indeed about a computer program, and if we may assume a mean-tone temperament, then specifying pitch needs 2 (not 3) attributes: octave and pitch class. Pitch class denotes position x on a line of fifths .,A♭,E♭,B♭,F,C,G,D,A,E,B,F♯,C♯,G♯,D♯,.. Anything else means that transposing a piece of music will not be straightforward. From x you can obtain the letter name (from x mod 7) and the alteration (from x/7 or something similar) but the letter name and alteration are not fundamental; pitch class is.
    – Rosie F
    Nov 8, 2019 at 16:16
  • @Rosie, yes you could have just octave and pitch class. But I don't see why a tone object couldn't have a 'pitch_class' method to use when transposing along a line of fifths. Ex. $tone->pitch_class() would return Eb, etc. Nov 8, 2019 at 16:53
  • I've only made one such program. It made chords or scales of various types on a given tonic. I kept letter and accidental as separate attributes and used methods that counted on either a 7 step diatonic series (the letters) or 12 step chromatic series. But the purpose wasn't transposing. It took a tonic and then intervals like M2,M3,P4, etc. as input. Nov 8, 2019 at 17:06
  • I'd say that working out the name of the pitch which is a particular interval above a specified pitch (the tonic) is transposing -- it's transposing the tonic. OK, delete the words "a piece of music" from my earlier comment -- here, it's just transposing one pitch.
    – Rosie F
    Nov 8, 2019 at 17:14
  • It seems to matter if the transposing is diatonic or chromatic. If it's diatonic, it seems easier to work with 7 steps and 12 for chromatic. In my code I handled things with numeric values and the spellings were for final printing. Anyway, the question wasn't about how to program, it was simply what to call A B C D E F G. Nov 8, 2019 at 17:22

The vernacular term is Note. Regardless of technical nuances, all musicians know what "note" means in the context you are referring to. IMO nothing more is necessary.

Another term, not particularly technical, that you'll find in the introduction to every theory book, is Musical Alphabet, when referring to the group at large.

However Musical Alphabet includes only C-D-E-F-G-A-H, while Note also includes accidentals - Eb is a different note than E.

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    Some - like me - consider note to be some written or notated thing. Basically, a pitch with a rhythm value. Tone would be just the pitch or scale degree info. Nov 8, 2019 at 18:50
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    I speak with commonly understood terms like: leading tone, tendancy tone, or tone deaf, etc. Tone is used to mean pitch all the time as discussed here: music.stackexchange.com/questions/3262. Using your vocabulary isn't arcane. Nov 8, 2019 at 19:56
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    At a gig, I wouldn’t fuss over the nuance between C, the letter used to name notes, and C (natural), the note. But, if communication is key, it can’t hurt to ask about how to refer to these separate concepts unambiguously. Sometimes it does matter.
    – trw
    Nov 8, 2019 at 22:14
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    @trw - Agreed. But reading way too much into this- What I said was very simple: When you talk, you call it a note. Say you're working something out - pianist plays a lick, you want to nail it on guitar but one note you're not sure of. Ordinarily, you'll play out as much as you've got and when you get to the dubious note, you say and what's that note? I can't quite hear it... Pretty simple IMO.
    – Stinkfoot
    Nov 8, 2019 at 22:57
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    @Stinkfoot, when the OP brings pitch class into the question, I expect to use technical terms, and use them correctly. This isn't a gig, it's a music theory forum! Nov 8, 2019 at 23:19

Well, if you are really talking about the set (in strict mathematical sense) which the entities C, D, E, F, G, A and H belong, the answer will be the scale - because it's a set of notes (in your case it will be C major, as well as A minor, H Locrian etc.).

But you probably have meant the other thing — speaking in the language of computer science, the class of objects like C or D. Yes, you're likely right that this has no standard notion, since the separation of notes and keys into "white" and "black" ones has mostly historical reasons (since in the early days of notation, namely in the Middle Ages, the diatonic scale was the only used one, and the only difference was in the now-7th degree "B", which can be either "soft"/"round" (♭) or "hard"/"squared" (♮) — so, that's the reason for writing B and H respectively). Now, in the days of equal temperament, chromaticity and scales based on different notes, notes like E and E♭ "have equal rights", so E♭ is now not just E with a flat attached to it, but a note on its own; we can invent an own letter to it, for example writing S (from the syllabic Eastern European notation Es), so there would be no more illusion that this is not the note on its own.

So, likely the best notion for this (i.e. a note letter without the accidental) will be just "letter" (if you use C-D-E-F-G-A-H) or "syllable" (if you use do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si).

  • In another case of the letter S being used for E Flat, there's the DSCH motif (D-E flat-C-B), which is reasonably common in Dmitri Shostakovich's works and rising in popularity elsewhere.
    – Dekkadeci
    Nov 8, 2019 at 11:32
  • @Dekkadeci yes, it's actually very common to use E-flat as S in such "musical signatures"
    – trolley813
    Nov 8, 2019 at 11:36
  • @trolley813 Yes, class is what I really mean. Good catch! Nov 8, 2019 at 13:15
  • @trolley813: Does your answer mean, that in order for me to refer to a tone (in the common sense of this word), I would have to do it in the context of a tonality ("the third step of C major" would be "E"; and "the fifth step of A♭ major" would be "E♭")? This would make pitch a compound entity of note and octave, — 2 entities, instead of 3. And without tonalities, I'd have to use terms like "letter", "character", or "symbol", which are not musical terms, but rather from linguistics. Am I going in the right direction with these thoughts? Nov 8, 2019 at 13:39
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    @DmitryParzhitsky Yes, it's quite useless to split the note name (pitch class) into a letter and an accidental (outside the context of a scale and/or a key).
    – trolley813
    Nov 9, 2019 at 7:06

The term for the meaning of the 7 alphabetical letters used for the notes and their pitch respectively for the steps of the key scales is "absolute note names" corresponding to the fixed do in opposite to the "relative note names" corresponding to the movable do, (the alterations marked by sharps and flats for the 5 halftones used for the 12 keys and the 12 tone scale.) The absolute note names stand for a scale tone (which pitch is indicated: the octava by the letters of the alphabet A,B,C... and a,b,c... or by adding an Arabic number like an C1, C2, C3 ... or the sign c', c'', c'''.



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