Pitch on the Piano

The modern piano has eighty-eight keys, and each one of those keys represents a different pitch. Another word often used interchangeably for pitch is note. Pitch is simply a measurement of the number of vibrations per second (frequency) of the sound waves being produced. The low strings on the left hand side of the piano vibrate slower than the higher notes on the right hand side, and therefore have a lower pitch. The high strings on the right hand side of the keyboard vibrate very fast, and have a high pitch.

Pitch (frequency) is measured in Hertz (Hz), named after the German scientist Heinrich Hertz who worked with electromagnetic waves in the late 1800s. The international reference pitch that most of the world's orchestras use to tune defines the pitch vibrating at 440 times a second as the note A, and is abbreviated A=440 Hz.

The letters from A through G represent the different pitches of music. The sequence from A through G repeats over and over for the entire length of the piano keyboard. Interestingly, the reason that all the A notes sound similar to the ears, (and likewise all the Bs, Cs, etc.) is that their frequencies are multiples of each other. You could play all of the A notes together and the sound would still be pleasant to the ears, as if only a single note was playing. The lowest note A on the piano vibrates at 27.50 Hz. An octave higher the A note vibrates at exactly double that frequency: 55 Hz. Another octave and the A vibrates at 110 Hz. You can continue the sequence: A=220 Hz, 440 Hz, 880 Hz and so on. With each doubling of frequency, you repeat the letter name of the note because not only would it be impossible to have a different letter for all eighty-eight notes on the piano, but because the mathematical relationship of their frequencies is interpreted by your ears and brain as being closely related pitches. Luckily, you do not have to memorize the vibrations per second for each key on the piano in order to play and read music: the letters A through G are all you need!

FIGURE 5-1: Piano pitches A through G

Pitches on the Page

To translate the musical notes from the piano to the written page, a shorthand notation identifies which piano key to press for a specific pitch. Pitch is represented in notation by the round notehead symbol. Although notes come in many different shapes, it is always the location of the round notehead that determines the pitch (and therefore which key to press). Noteheads that appear lower on the page are lower in pitch. Noteheads appearing higher up would represent higher pitched notes.

To illustrate this concept, your first song from Chapter 4 is written below with just noteheads to indicate the relative pitch of the keys. Try playing it in C position just by using the position of the noteheads to tell you which notes to play rather than finger numbers.

FIGURE 5-2: Noteheads determine pitch

Lines and Spaces

To make it easier to see exactly how far apart the noteheads are from one another, a grid of five equally spaced lines called a staff (or stave) is employed. The notehead can appear directly on the line, or completely in between the lines in the spaces.

FIGURE 5-3: Lines and spaces of the staff

Here is another exercise from the previous chapter, but this time the notes are placed on the staff. Going from a line to a space would represent a step on the keyboard—two adjacent notes. Going from a line to a line (or space to a space) would represent a skip of a third on the keyboard.

FIGURE 5-4: Steps and skips on the staff

There are more notes on the piano than can fit on the staff. Won't you run out of lines and spaces?

If the music requires more notes than can fit on the staff, you can add extra lines at any time. These small extra lines (called ledger lines) are placed directly above or below the staff to provide the range of pitches needed.

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