Chapter 39. Musical Pitches
A musician will call the frequency of a sound its
pitch. When the frequencies of two pitches differ
by a factor of two, we say they harmonize. This perception of harmony
happens because the two sounds reinforce each other completely. Indeed,
some people have trouble telling two notes apart when they differ by an
Classical European music divided that perfectly harmonious
“factor of two” interval into eight asymetric steps; for this
historical reason, it is called an octave. Other cultures divide this same
interval into different numbers of steps with different intervals.
More modern European music further subdivides the octave, creating a
12-step system. The modern system has 12 equally spaced intervals, a net
simplification over the older 8-step system. The pitches are assigned
names using flats (♭) and
sharps (♯), leading to each pitch having several
names. We'll simplify this system slightly, and use the following 12 names
for the pitches within a single octave: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#.
The eight undecorated names (A through G and the next A) form our
basic octave; the additional notes highlight the interesting asymetries.
For example, the interval from A to B is called a whole step or a second,
with A♯ being half-way between. The interval from B to C, however is only
a half step to begin with. Also, it is common to number the various
octaves as though the octaves begin with the C, not the A. So, some
musicians consider the basic scale to be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and the C is
in the next higher octave. The higher C is twice the frequency of the
The tuning of an instrument to play these pitches is called its
temperament. A check on the web for reference
material on tuning and temperament will reveal some interesting ways to
arrive at the tuning of a musical instrument. It is suprising to learn
that there are many other ways to arrive at the 12 steps of the scale.
This demonstrates that our ear is either remarkably inaccurate or
remarkably forgiving of errors in tuning. We'll explore a number of
alternate systems for deriving the 12 pitches of a scale. We'll use the
simple equal-temperament rules, plus we'll derive the pitches from the
overtones we hear, plus a more musical rule called the circle
of fifths, as well as a system called Pythagorean
Interesting side topics are the questions of how accurate the human
ear really is, and can we really hear the differences? Clearly,
professional musicians will spend time on ear training to spot fine
gradations of pitch. However, even non-musicians have remarkably accurate
hearing and are easily bothered by small discrepencies in tuning. The
musicians will divide the octave into 1200 cents. Errors on the order of
50 cents, 1/24 of the octave, are noticable even to people who claim they
are “tone deaf”. When two tunings produce pitches with a
ratio larger than 1.0293, it is easily recognized as out of tune.
These exercises will make extensive use of loops and the list data
The equal temperament tuning divides the octave into twelve
equally sized steps. Moving up the scale is done by multiplying the base
frequency by some amount between 1 and 2. If we multiply a base
frequency by 2 or more, we have jumped to another octave. If we multiply
a base frequency by a value between 0 and 0.5, we have jumped into a
lower octave. When we multiply a frequency by values between 0.5 and 1,
we are computing lower pitches in the same octave. Similarly,
multiplying a frequency by values between 1 and 2 computes a higher
pitch in the same octave.
We want to divide the octave into twelve steps: when we do a
sequence of twelve multiplies by this step, we should arrive at an exact
doubling of the base frequency. The steps of the octave, then, would be
... up to
. This step value, therefore is the following
If we multiply this 12 times for each of the 12 steps, we find the
For a given pitch,
, from 0 to 88, the
following formula gives us the frequency. We can plug in a base
of 27.5 Hz for the low A on a piano
and get the individual pitches for each of the 88 keys.
Equation 39.1. Musical Pitches
Equal Temperament Pitches. Develop a loop to generate these pitches and their names. If you
create a simple tuple of the twelve names shown above (from "A" to
"G#"), you can pick out the proper name from the tuple for a given
int( s % 12 ).
Check Your Results. You should find that an "A" has a pitch of 440, and the "G" ten
steps above it will be 783.99 Hz. This 440 Hz "A" is the most widely
used reference pitch for tuning musical instruments.