Reading Pitch

Contributor: Morgan Haney. Lesson ID: 13341

Pitch is an essential part of the musical language. Once you can identify pitches as well as rhythms, you can read entire songs right off the page!


Musical Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Pitch makes up a large piece of the musical language. Combinations of pitches can evoke various emotions; some have become iconic and easily recognizable.

Think about the Jaws theme or the 'ding-dong' of a common doorbell tone. In just two pitches, both of these are unmistakable.

With sets of pitches, composers create melodies on which they build entire songs and even symphonies. By mastering pitch literacy, you will move one step closer to fluency in the language of music.

You need the staff introduced in the Related Lesson in the right-hand sidebar to read the pitch. If you have not completed this lesson on rhythm, please do so first.

To read rhythm, you focused on the shape of the notes on the staff. For pitch, you will concentrate on the five lines and four spaces of the staff and where each note is placed within those lines and spaces,

Retake a look at the alphabet song you saw in the rhythm lesson.

Alphabet song lyrics

Sing the alphabet song as you follow along with the written music. You'll notice that as your voice goes higher and lower, the placement of the note on the staff mirrors that. The higher the note on the staff, the higher the pitch will sound.

Some pitches are so high that extra lines, called ledger lines, must be added above the staff.

Watch a portion of the video below of Adam Lopez as he breaks the world record for the highest note ever sung in front of a live audience. You must add nine ledger lines above the staff to notate a C sharp in the 8th octave!

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To understand how to read pitches on the staff, you first need to understand the language used for naming pitches.

Pitches are named with the letters A through G. That's only seven letters, with more than seven pitches. So, when you get to G, the next pitch starts over at A again.

If you start at the lowest note on a piano and play all the white keys, you will play A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, and so on. In total, a piano contains eight different A's.

The section of pitches from one letter to the next time that same letter is used (A to A, C to C, etc.) is called an octave. The staff holds just over one octave of pitches, so ledger lines are utilized to notate pitches that don't fit on the staff.

Now, look at the staff below. It has all the lines and spaces labeled with their pitch names.

treble clef notes

Notice that the staff does not start with A. Instead, the lowest note is E. This is because the staff is meant to hold the most commonly used pitches.

The staff's low E to the high F encapsulates the middle range of many instruments, including the human voice, making this the most commonly noted range.

A couple of helpful memory tricks are often used to remember the lines and spaces on the staff. Many students use the acronym Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge for the lines, and the spaces from bottom to top spell FACE.

Take a moment to think of your own acronyms or other memory tricks for the lines and spaces. You can either use those or the commonly used ones listed.

Now that you have familiarized yourself with those pitches, it's time to add another layer to your understanding of pitch. Every staff example used so far has been in treble clef, notated by this symbol on the far left of each staff.

treble clef

This symbol signals how to read the pitches on the staff. Earlier, we noted that the pitches written on the staff represent the most commonly used pitches because they are in the middle range of many instruments.

  • But what if a composer writes music for a bass, tuba, or another instrument with a low range?

To write music for those instruments on the treble clef staff, they would have to write almost entirely below the staff, using many ledger lines and confusing the music.

To avoid this problem, another staff notates lower pitches. It is marked by a different symbol on the far left, called the bass clef, and the lines and spaces indicate different pitches than they do in the treble clef.

Look at the labeled staff in the bass clef below and notice the difference between this and the staff you just practiced.

bass clef notes

You can use different memory tricks to remember the lines and spaces in the bass clef. Many students use Good Boys Do Fine Always for the lines and All Cows Eat Grass for the spaces.

As you did with the treble clef, invent your own acronyms for the lines and spaces in the bass clef. Then, decide whether you want to use the traditional ones or your originals.

To clarify, the bass clef is notating a different octave of pitches. So, the A you see in the bass clef is not the same A from the treble clef but is an octave lower.

If the high A on this bass clef staff were notated on the treble clef, it would look like this.

low A

Move to the Got It? section to test your pitch identification skills when ready!

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