What is pitch?

When Gillyanne and I were writing our book This Is A Voice, this question appeared in an email from our (non-musician) editor. And it got me thinking. What is pitch and how do we think of it?

In the acoustic/scientific sense pitch is defined as something creating noise that has a regular number of vibrations per second. Anything that can vibrate regularly can create pitch – the ruler on the end of a desk, a guitar string, a vocal fold. So far so peachy.

WHERE is pitch?

No, I’m not referring to a badly sung parody of that song from Oliver… As a singer you have to create pitch inside your body so that the sound that emerges is recognisable as a note. So how do you think of pitch, what makes it and where does it “live” in your experience of singing?

When I ask singers to show me where pitch is, they usually indicate in front of their body a line that goes up for higher pitches and down for lower pitches. This reflects the way music is written – further towards the top of the page for high notes, further towards the bottom of the page for lower notes. We even use the words “higher” and “lower”.

How instrumentalists find pitch

Think about this for a second. If you look at a piano keyboard, pitch is experienced as on the left for lower notes and on the right for higher notes. If you watch a trombonist creating pitch, on the whole the slide handle gets further away for low notes and closer to the mouth for high notes. Same for woodwind players (more fingers covering holes further away from the mouth for low notes, less fingers for high notes). And on a violin the closer the left-hand finger on the fingerboard gets to the head, the higher the note.

So the position in space for pitches is relative, depending on the instrument’s makeup.

Things are different again for a singer. The vocal folds themselves create pitch and to create a higher pitch the folds need to vibrate faster. For a lower pitch they vibrate slower. Pitch is therefore not defined by their positioning in space but by their speed of movement.

Do the following pitch experiment:
  1. Choose two notes an octave apart. Stick with a comfortable range as you’re going to be doing this interval several times.
  2. Slide between the notes up and down using your favourite vowel (the sliding is important, no jumping!).
  3. Now repeat the octave slide up and down and use the following hand gestures:
    • up and down – the higher is above your head and the lower note is around waist level
    • up and down – the higher note is level with your eyes and the lower note is around chin level
    • left to right – like a piano keyboard
    • right to left – the opposite of a piano keyboard
    • far to near – like a trombone slide
    • near to far – reverse trombone
    • from in front of your body to behind your body (over your shoulder) – like a horizontal line that runs past your ear
    • rotating on a dial – rotating anticlockwise is lower, rotating clockwise is higher
    • rotating on a reverse dial – clockwise is lower, anticlockwise is higher

I guarantee that the notes will feel different to sing, and that you will discover at least one that feels more comfortable than the others.

Congratulations, you just discovered the best way for YOU to think about pitch when you sing. And your singing just got a whole lot easier.

If you want to find out more about your pitch perception, where pitch “lives” for you and how to improve your pitching, book a 1-1 consultation with Jeremy online or in person.