Giving a music student a deeper understanding of what a note actually is can often unlock their curiosity and motivate them to learn more. Pitch and pitch range (also called compass) are key concepts in music theory closely related to musical notes and intervals (octaves). Pitch identifies whether a sound is relatively high, relatively low, or somewhere in the middle (like Middle C).
Pitch is created by the frequency of sound wave vibrations (or oscillations) and is measured in hertz (or Hz for short). A musical tone with a frequency of 440Hz means the sound wave produced by the note will repeat 440 times in one second. Kilohertz (KHz) equals 1,000 hertz.
Understanding pitch and pitch range of musical instruments (and the related concepts of notes, tones, and octaves) is an essential part of your musical journey. This guide examines the relationship between pitch range and other fundamental musical concepts, and how pitch varies across instrument groups: piano, guitar, bass, ukulele, strings, woodwinds, and brass.
Measuring Pitch and Pitch Ranges of Musical Instruments
The universal tuning standard of 440Hz represents the musical note of A (above Middle C), enabling musicians to tune their instruments consistently. A piano tuned to 440Hz in China, therefore, produces the same sound as one in Boston tuned to the same frequency.
Understanding pitch will help you learn how to play a musical scale. The pitch range of a musical instrument describes the distance between the lowest to the highest tones it can accurately reproduce. A piano and its 88 keys, for example, has the broadest pitch range of all instruments. Its highest note vibrates at 4,186Hz (4.1KHz) and its lowest at 27.5Hz.
The Relationship Between Pitch, Musical Notes, Tones and Octaves
Pitch, tones, musical notes, and octaves all work together to help music students make sense of the sounds their instruments make. Learning to read music means understanding notes and tones as they appear on the musical staff, indicating how the pitch rises and falls to produce a tune.
Pitch and Tones
Pitches are also called tones, and they are measured in musical notes (which can be naturals, sharps, or flats). Your music teacher may refer to semitones or half steps, which are the smallest musical intervals between notes. This could be where you play a note from C natural (♮) to C sharp (C#) to C flat (C♭).
A musical note identifies a specific pitch, and there are 12 tones (or pitches) based on seven letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The remaining five notes are created by adding symbols to the letters which either raise or lower the pitch of the natural note. An A natural (written simply as A) can increase in pitch to become an A sharp (written as A# on the musical staff) or decrease to an A flat (written as A♭).
Sharps, Flats, and Natural Notes
The sharp (♯), flat (♭), and natural (♮) symbols identify the pitch of a specific note. A sharp note increases the pitch, making the note slightly higher. A flat symbol (♭) lowers the sound slightly, and the natural (♮) symbol returns the note to its natural state.
This is the difference in pitch between two notes, where one note has twice the frequency (measured in hertz) of the next. Two versions of the same note that are an octave apart will sound similar but also lower or higher, depending on the pitch. Octaves are logically divided into 12 definite pitches (or notes) of the same distance.
Pitch and pitch range are represented on a musical staff as a musical note that’s either natural, sharp, or flat. Pitch range can differ significantly across instruments, with some having a greater range than others.
The Various Pitch Range for Musical Instruments
You can consider the piano, with its extensive pitch range, as the benchmark used to measure the pitch range of instruments such as guitar, bass, and ukulele, as well as string and woodwind instruments.
Guitar, Bass, and Ukulele Pitch Ranges
A standard guitar has six strings: E, A, D, G, B, and E (an octave higher). The pitch range for a guitar tuned normally is from 82.41Hz on the lowest E string up to 329.63Hz on the highest E string. The guitar has a medium pitch range compared with the piano.
The pitch range of a bass guitar depends on the instrument, the tuning, and the number of strings. Standard four-string bass ranges in pitch from 40Hz to 400Hz. Basses might also have five or six strings, which increases the instrument’s range.
The pitch range of a ukulele can vary because there are several variations in tuning. The most common tuning goes from 264Hz to 440Hz. The most common types of ukulele are soprano (standard), concert, tenor, and baritone.
Stringed Instruments Pitch Range
The violin has the highest pitch range of the string instrument family. Violins have four strings that are tuned in perfect fifths, with the notes G (196Hz), D (293Hz), A (440Hz), and E (659.3Hz). The violin is considered a soprano (high-pitched) instrument.
The viola has four strings (all tuned in fifths), with the lowest string being C (one octave lower than Middle C), then G, D, and A. The pitch range of the viola is one-fifth lower than the violin and one octave higher than the cello. It sits neatly in the middle of the string family, ranging from 125Hz to 1KHz.
The cello has four strings: C, G, D, and A, tuned in equal fifths. The cello has the lowest pitch range of the string section, from 63Hz to 630Hz.
Woodwind Instruments Pitch Range
These include the piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. They range in pitch from the highest (the piccolo) to the lowest (the bassoon). The instrument with the largest pitch range in the woodwind family is the clarinet (from E3 to C7, 125Hz to 2KHz).
Brass Family Pitch Range
These include the trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba. The trumpet has the highest pitch range in the brass family, similar to that of a violin. The tuba has the lowest pitch range, and it compares with the cello in terms of pitch range. The trumpet has the broadest pitch range in the brass family, similar to the clarinet.
Pitch range is one factor to think about when choosing an instrument to learn. Higher pitches often deliver more excitement, whereas lower pitches convey more drama. The best idea might be to listen to various kinds of music and think about which types of sounds appeal to you. A top-notch music teacher can be a terrific asset to help with this.
Talk to a Musical Specialist Today
Learning to read music and understanding how pitch works in music – whether you’re playing piano, strings, woodwind, or brass instruments – can start you on the road to a wonderful life of making music. Sloan School of Music has a staff of passionate teachers and musicians who can help you find an instrument that suits your style.
Our school has two convenient locations in Hagerstown and Urbana, Maryland, and we also offer online lessons. Contact our school today to schedule a session or get help choosing your first instrument.