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!

categories

Musical Arts

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

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Pitch makes up a large piece of the musical language. Combinations of pitches can evoke a variety of emotions, and 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.

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

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

Take a look again 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 up a note is placed on the staff, the higher that pitch will sound.

Some pitches are so high that extra lines, called ledger lines, have to be added above the staff. Watch the video below of Adam Lopez as he breaks the world record for the highest note ever sung in front of a live audience. To notate a C sharp in the 8th octave, you have to add 9 ledger lines above the staff!

Adam Lopez - Highest Vocal Note - Guinness World Record from Adam Lopez:

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

Pitches are named with the letters A through G. That's only seven letters, and there are more than seven pitches. So, when we 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 we use that same letter (A to A, C to C, etc.) is called an octave. The staff holds just over one octave of pitches, which is why we utilize ledger lines 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 low E to the high F on the staff encapsulates the middle range of many instruments, including the human voice, making this the most commonly notated range.

There are a couple of helpful memory tricks 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 is writing music for a bass, or a 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 making the music confusing to read.

To avoid this problem, there is another staff used to notate 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

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

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

To clarify, the bass clef is actually 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 actually 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

When you're ready, move on to the Got It? section to test your pitch identification skills!

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