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A Journey into Sound, Part VI - Pitch (with videos)

by rg Sat Apr 26th, 2008 at 04:02:31 AM EST

For your listening pleasure! Promoted by In Wales


Pitch is the height of a note; a low pitch sounds....low, and a high pitch sounds high.

Bach: Endlessly Rising Modulation Canon (with score!) (8:17)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsgdZFIdmeo

We have a range, from 20hz to 20,000 hz in which we can hear vibrations as sound.  Above and below those numbers we may be affected by the vibrations but we can no longer hear them as sound.

Tuning Up

In the indian system, the octave is divided into seven basic pitches.  The root pitch is called SA, then there is RE, followed by GA, MA, PA, DHA, NI, and then we're back to SA.  You pick up an instrument, choose a starting point, maybe an open string.  That can be "SA"--then all the other pitches exist as relations to that starting pitch.

In the european system we use Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Si (or Ti), Do.  These are also know as A (La), B(Si), C (Do), D (Re), E (Mi), F (Fa) and G (So)

Do (C), Re (D), Mi (E), etc. are attached to specific frequencies.  You can't choose a starting point, it's already set, sort of...

Pitch (music) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Until the 19th century there was no concerted effort to standardize musical pitch, and the levels across Europe varied widely. Pitches did not just vary from place to place, or over time--pitch levels could vary even within the same city. The pitch used for an English cathedral organ in the 17th century for example, could be as much as five semitones lower than that used for a domestic keyboard instrument in the same city.

On a piano, a semitone is the smallest step you can take, up or down.  There are twelves semitones in an octave.  If you played them one after the other you would be playing a chromatic scale.


On most fretted instruments a semitone is the size of the step between one fret and the next.


Changing Pitch

Pitch (music) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

During historical periods when instrumental music rose in prominence (relative to the voice), there was a continuous tendency for pitch levels to rise. This "pitch inflation" seemed largely due to instrumentalists competing with each other, each attempting to produce a brighter, more "brilliant", sound than that of their rivals. (In string instruments, this is not all acoustic illusion: when tuned up, they actually sound objectively brighter because the higher string tension results in larger amplitudes for the harmonics.) This tendency was also prevalent with wind instrument manufacturers, who crafted their instruments to generally play at a higher pitch than those made by the same craftsmen years earlier.

The singers complained, as did the luteists (their strings kept snapping) and in the twentieth century it was agreed that a certain frequency (440hz) would "be" A ("La" in the Do, Re, Mi, series.)  However, at least for orchestras

as orchestras still tune to a note given out by the oboe, rather than to an electronic tuning device (which would be more reliable), and as the oboist may not have used such a device to tune in the first place, there is still some variance in the exact pitch used. Solo instruments such as the piano (which an orchestra may tune to if they are playing together) are also not universally tuned to A = 440 Hz. Overall, it is thought that the general trend since the middle of the 20th century has been for standard pitch to rise, though it has been rising far more slowly than it has in the past.


Right, notes going up and down.  Just to give you some context, here's two seconds of 440hz.

and here's ten seconds of 220hz, which is twice the wave length and therefore an octave lower (to our ears it sounds like the same note played lower)



First up, most people's idea of pitch--singers singing in tune, a perfect melody (described by someone as "The music they play in films when the cars crash or when the mafia guys start shooting everything up--and everything goes into slow motion.")  The singing starts at 00:55.

Andreas Scholl · Barbara Bonney · Stabat Mater · Pergolesi (4:07)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2zc0wTORSI

Going the opposite way, there's the semi-sung semi-spoken style--note that the spoken voice also contains pitches--a person who never changes up or down as they speak is said to speak in a monotone--hence monotonous--

Anyway, talking and singing--

Lou Reed & John Cale - Small Town (2:16)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2zc0wTORSI

And how about a singer who just sings the one pitch (the one note) while the band do things around him?  (In fact it's four notes in this song--total.  Note how he moves around the 'discrete pitch'--but very close to just the one.)

Red Right Hand (4:47)



Putting pitches together

In the following piece I'd like you to look out for:

--the pleasure the pianist is taking in the playing of the piece
--the repetition of the Bb (or A#--see the picture of the keyboard above) starting at 01:26.  Notice how Debussy uses the same pitch, but varies the notes that move to and from it such that the entire soundworld changes.
--Note that he uses whole tone scales

Debussy "Cloches à travers les feuilles" - Gülsin Onay (5:04)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fON4EddElU

What tuned Debussy's ears to these intriguing new pitch combinations was hearing a gamelan orchestra at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889.  To our western ears, a gamelan orchestra sounds strange, different, sort of out of tune--or tuneless: there's no obvious melody.  That brings us to the idea that our ears are tuned by the acoustic environment they grow up in.  They say that by the age of ten your sound world is fixed to the extent that a western ten-year-old will find the simple tonalities of pop music 'normal' and everything else strange.  But how about if you grow up listening to different tonalities?

Fuchun Primary School Gamelan (1:57)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xULP6emfz8


Playing around the Discrete Pitch

There are pitched instruments (any instrument where, when you play a note you have to play a specific note--with pianos you hit a specific key, with a guitar  you play at a certain fret (though you can bend strings), with a flute you open and close specific holes in the body of the instrument (with a bassoon, which is the same principle, you can modulate the sound somewhat by how you vibrate the reed)....and then there are un-pitched instruments, ones where you can play any pitch you like--instruments such as the violin, the cello, or the double bass

where you have to learn where to hold down the string to produce specific pitches, and where you can slide your finger up and down to produce rising and falling modulations that aren't necessarily attached to specific tones (though, as stated above, the movement is usually used to embellish the--sometimes implicit--discrete pitch that the movement is away from or towards.)

And then you can take an instrument that is supposed to produce discrete pitches, grab yourself something round (like the top end of a beer bottle, but smooth off the ends first!), slip it over a finger--and do something like this:

Roy Rogers (2:34)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvVOgn4RYKw



With computers you can produce any pitch you like, just tell the machine to produce X frequency--and it will, as exact as you like.  All kinds of things are being done with this these days, and there are all manner of theories about how certain frequencies have specific effects on the body/brain, like subliminal advertising--you don't know it's happening but that doesn't mean it isn't.

Back in the day, though, they were just amazed that you could make musical sounds out of electrical frequencies.  A russian inventor, Lev Theremin, built an instrument which worked by placing your hands into the space where electrical signals were passing--it looks like waving your hands in the air but--as if by magic--musical sounds appear as the hands modulate the frequencies.  It takes a lot of practice to modulate the frequencies in a way that produces what we understand as music--here's Masami Takeuchi pitching his theremin with piano accompaniment--note the leap at 00:36--ah, beautiful!

Theremin by Masami Takeuchi (3:13)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwqLyeq9OJI


Classical Finale

A close cousin of the theremin is the Ondes Martenot, which Olivier Messiaen used in several of his works, in particular his Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Here's Jean Laurendeau from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra explaining how it works.

Introduction to the Ondes Martenot (6:58)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybYIhomm5KM

And here is the opening of Turangalila--but first, an introduction to the piece.

Turangalîla-Symphonie - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The title of the work, and those of its movements [...] were first described by Messiaen in a diary entry in early 1948.[3] He derived the title from two Sanskrit words, turanga and lîla, which roughly translate into English as "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death"[4], and described the joy of Turangalîla as "superhuman, overflowing, dazzling and abandoned".

We're going to hear the first movement, which is described as follows:

Introduction. Modéré, un peu vif: A "curtain raiser" introducing the "statue theme" and the "flower theme", followed by the body of the movement, which superimposes two ostinato groups with rhythmic punctuations. A reprise of the "statue" theme closes the introduction.

The statue theme, "[i]ntroduced by trombones and tuba [...] has the oppressive, terrible brutality of ancient Mexican monuments, and has always invoked dread. It is played in a slow tempo, pesante."

Here's the part for tubas and trombones:

Also note the following:

1:11 - slides on the strings
1:15 - introduction of the statue theme
1:23 - you can hear the Ondes Martenot
1:44 - many many french horns! (the piece calls for a huge orchestra)
2:11 - birdsong on the piano

Bonus track and also useful as an introduction to the piece...

A talk about Messiaen's abiding love of, interest in, and use of birdsong.

Olivier Messiaen - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Messiaen found birdsong fascinating; he believed birds to be the greatest musicians and considered himself as much an ornithologist as a composer. He notated birdsongs worldwide, and he incorporated birdsong transcriptions into a majority of his music.

Birdsong in Messiaen (6:16)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MgLXeaf3zc

Back to Turangalila

More to look out for:

2:25 - flutes
2:56 - stravinskian effects (according to my ears)
3:40 - 4:20 piano solo
5:14 - a tiny trumpet-like instrument
6:25 - repeat of the statue theme

Okay, here's the piece.

Messiaen - Turangalîla Symphonie - 1st Movt - Aimard, Davis (7:03)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=170VZGFoTKg


As always, these diaries are experiments in collective production.  Your videos are part of the diary experience, so please post them.  Instructions on how to post a video into a comment can be found here, post one or two videos per comment with a few words to say how the piece relates to the diary's theme, no words needed, though, if the piece speaks for itself.


Previous diaries:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

...with a spoon.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 01:32:47 PM EST
I wanted to add this video to the diary but couldn't find a place--synthesisers playing octaves and the voice hovering around, rising and falling into the pitches--very subtle--great song!

(The song starts at 00:09 and lasts 5:54)

I Feel Love - Donna Summer

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 01:44:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That would have been one of my planned contributions...

When I was a very small kid in end-of-seventies Zadar/then-Yugoslavia, this song played like six times every day for a full six-month Mediterranean summer, but radio listeners were apparenlty not getting enough (as far as I can remember including me). So this hovering voice + simplest synthetizer tune is very strongly associated with my earliest memories.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Apr 28th, 2008 at 03:50:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
e gah!

Here it is:


Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 02:50:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Have some more theremin, (although disapointingly it didn't have as much in this as I remembered) in the style of Kraftwerk. ;-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 01:51:56 PM EST
I forgot that there's also a theremin in Red Right Hand, starting at 1:51

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 02:10:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Love these diaries, rg, sorry for not commenting till now.

Theremin... yay.  My ex built one from a kit, it was so much fun to play around with.

Re: scales and pitch, as you know, the Western scales are not universal... they use different systems, for example, to compose Indian ragas and Arabic maqamat.  The maqam scales are best taught (and many would say can only be taught) in real life, by listening and playing, but as good an explanation as I've found is here:

Maqam World

The Arabic scales which maqamat are built from are not even-tempered, unlike the chromatic scale used in Western classical music. Instead, 5th notes are tuned based on the 3rd harmonic. The tuning of the remaining notes entirely depends on the maqam. The reasons for this tuning are probably historically based on string instruments like the oud. A side effect of not having even-tempered tuning is that the same note (by name) may have a slightly different pitch depending on which maqam it is played in.

How can maqamat be broken down ?

The building blocks for maqamat are sets of 3, 4 or 5 notes, called trichords, tetrachords and pentachords, respectively. The Arabic word for these sets is jins (plural ajnas). The word jins means the gender, type or nature of something. In general each maqam is made up two main ajnas (sets) called lower and upper jins. These can be joined at the same note, at two adjacent notes, or can overlap each other. A maqam may also include other secondary ajnas which are very useful for modulation. Instead of thinking of a maqam as a collection of 8 or more individual notes, it's often useful to think of it as a group of two or more ajnas (sets).

And for your listening pleasure, an oud taqsim (improvisation) on the maqam Al-Rast.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7xvagoJOvQ (2:36)

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 02:26:37 PM EST
I'm not a fan of reincarnation, but there' s something about this music that opens up a hole in my soul....

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 02:35:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Did I tell you about my friend who grew up near Cairo, who talks about the various different birdsongs, that the Nile is the stopping off point (I'm sure I've told you this--and you know!), so each morning he'd wake up on his balcony to the sound of twenty two different songs, all sung at the same time, and his theory was that arabic music grew out of that sound--but there's also a sadness to arabic music, a release of sadness through music (as my ears hear it)--and all the microtones connecting to India, so I think you'll like this--

(I think--I think!--that sometimes the video goes out of sync with the music, music to listen to, the video is just--an accompaniment.  5:01)


Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 07:57:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
have some mixed European and Egyptian

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 08:22:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A very comprehensive discussion!

Since I commented last time on temperament I thought another tidbit on the subject might be of interest. When using tuning systems before equal temperament some notes were very out of tune when playing is certain keys. This was a big problem on instruments having fixed pitches like the harpsichord.

There were several approaches taken to get out of this difficulty. The most common was not to write music in the "bad" keys.

A second was to retune the instrument when changing keys, but this was slow and annoying.

The most creative approach was to squeeze in extra keys to handle the worst notes. I haven't been able to find a photo of an actual instrument, but this diagram from Wikipedia gives the idea:

The illustration shows what is called a short octave, which was used to save creating a few notes at the bottom of the scale which would never be played as the lowest note in a chord, but the use of the accidentals split in th a front and back half is the technique I'm referring to.

The most common notes to be split were D#/Eb and G#/Ab. These notes have the same pitch under modern tuning but where noticeably different under older systems like meantone.

There is still some discussion as to whether modern violinists and singers adjust the pitch as they perform so as to be closer to the natural harmonic series.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Apr 23rd, 2008 at 05:09:59 PM EST
Isn't one of the points of using vibrato when singing or playing, to make sure to hit the harmonic pitch along the others ?

Also, pitch adjustment is very important when playing in an orchestra. Reed and string instrument players constantly adjust their pitch while playing, to make sure all the pitches are the same, and to make the harmonies sound good.

Indeed, pitch adjustment is also important harmonically, especially if the instrument is tuned with an equal temperament : when playing A on a guitar, you don't get a pure 440 Hz vibration, but also bits of 439 Hz and 441 Hz, etc..., so that when playing a chord, there will be perfect harmonies between the various notes...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 04:41:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Isn't one of the points of using vibrato when singing or playing, to make sure to hit the harmonic pitch along the others ?

No, it's more because vibrato sounds nice. I suppose it could work as a disguise for not-quite-in tune sounds, but almost every culture seems to have invented it, including the ones that are harmonically exotic. (By Western standards.)


Indeed, pitch adjustment is also important harmonically, especially if the instrument is tuned with an equal temperament : when playing A on a guitar, you don't get a pure 440 Hz vibration, but also bits of 439 Hz and 441 Hz, etc..., so that when playing a chord, there will be perfect harmonies between the various notes...

Not quite. Open strings play a fixed pitch - if there elements of pitches either side of the fundamental, you'd get obvious beat effects.

What guitars do is kind of complicated, and depends on the kind of guitar and how it's being played. But usually the pluck starts very slightly sharp because the string has to be stretched to make the note. There's a wide mix of overtones in the pluck, and they're not all harmonic.

During the sustain part the overtones become harmonic, with some phase cancellation created by sympathetic resonances in the other strings, which are never perfectly in tune. So you get a moving overtone structure even from a single string. Pianos do this even more. Play a chord and hold it and the sound keeps changing.

But what you don't get on fretted instruments is perfect harmonies. Guitars have to be detuned slightly to sound their best, which is why you can use a digital tuner and still find the sound is not right.

I have a fretted dulcimer which can't be tuned perfectly. You have a choice between a good fifth on on open strings, or a good unison when the middle string is fretted. So the middle string has to be tuned between those extremes, and it never quite sounds right.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 05:41:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Following last weeks discussion of pegboard synths

someone at the BBC today put up a clip of sound effects at the radiophonic workshop including film of the synths we were mentioning in use to make Dalek voices.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 03:49:22 PM EST
The original VCS3 was there AND the exact modern flight case version that I tried out - the Vostok from Analogue Solutions.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 04:23:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, nice video--links in to this weeks theme too, with the rising and falling pitches.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.
by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Apr 26th, 2008 at 04:22:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Eighties pop - low-pitched monotone rap overlaid with high-pitched melody sung by the same singer (in concert, she started with the monotone, then switched to the melody, with playback continuing the monotone):

T'Pau: Heart and Soul (03:56)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Apr 28th, 2008 at 04:17:52 AM EST
Diva Dance - opera singer Inva Mula-Çako's artifically extended octave range from the Luc Besson movie The Fifth Element (05:00), watch out for the changeover from 03:25:

Inva Mula - Wikipedia

In the film The Fifth Element (released 1997) she performed an aria from Donnizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (the mad scene), and "The Diva Dance" song. Director Luc Besson adored Maria Callas, but her 1950s recording of "Lucia" wasn't clear enough to use on a film soundtrack, so the producer who had just helped Mula record La Rondine introduced her to Besson. Plavalaguna's vocalizations seem beyond physical possibility and, according to Patrice Ledoux (Producer) in the special feature "An Audience with Diva Plavalaguna", it was altered in a sound studio to open the octave range from two to four-and-a-half.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Apr 28th, 2008 at 04:38:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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