High and Low: The widespread metaphor for pitch

I previously discussed what we can do to prepare children to sing and how to help children sing confidently, but we also need to understand what pitch actually is!  Do you have any embedded misconceptions about it?

Whether you’re a classroom teacher, visiting music teacher or 1:1 instrumental teacher, this blog will give you points to consider for preparing pitch in a Kodály inspired way.

This blog post will discuss the things we need to know for teaching our students the beginnings of pitch:

  • What is pitch?
  • Why do we use the terms “high” and “low”?
  • Why does it matter that we use the words “high” and “low”?

What is pitch?

Most of us will answer that pitch is how high or low a sound is BUT the spatial elevation between notes, describing notes as high and low, is a widespread metaphor!  High notes do not really go high up in the air for example.  This metaphor, although widespread, is not universal.  For example, in pitch is described as “thick” or “thin” in Turkey and “high” and “low” is used for amplitude.

So, when I think of high, I’m thinking about high frequency vibrations and low pitch is low frequency vibrations.

Why do we use the terms “high” and “low”?

Does it feel high and low?  It’s difficult when it’s so integrated into your body and mind that pitch is “high” and “low”.  Why did somebody start to associate pitch with high and low?

We had a Doremi Connect member masterclass about pitch and brainstormed ideas.  We discussed that we might reach high in our body to sing high notes and sink into ourselves for low sounds.

There are certainly a lot of things to think about here!  Our larynx goes up and down with high and low voices.  Also notice where you feel the vibrations; you feel low sounds in your chest and high sounds in your head.   This links to the terms chest and head voice used by singers.

high and low pitch brainstorm

Thinking about it scientifically, we can talk about high and low frequency vibrations but it’s unlikely that this is where is originated from.  In the 17th Century Galileo investigated the physics of the relationship between pitch and frequency, but notation existed before this so the terms “high and low” must have existed before!

Could it be to do with how wind instruments work?   If you cover the high holes a high-pitched sound is created and covering the low holes creates low sounds.  I wondered how long wind instruments have existed, so I looked it up!  The oldest instrument IN THE WORLD is a 60,000 year old Neanderthal flute with finger holes, so the terms high and low might even have existed from this point!

On the other hand, there are a lot more harmonics within a low sound, so it could be described as a much thicker sound.  We also use thicker vocal folds when we create a lower sound and we stretch out vocal folds very thin for high sounds.  This translates to thick and thin strings of a piano or guitar.

Perhaps it could have gone the other way and we’d also be talking about thick and thin with our students like in Turkey!

The history of notation

Why does it matter that we have the words high and low?  We can relate it to written notation: where the notes are in notation maps directly to high and low. 

BUT the earliest notation did not use spatial elevation; it just used symbols as shown by this Babylonian tablet from 1400BCE and Delphic Hymn to Apollo from Ancient Greece, 600 BCE.  The Delphic Hymn to Apollo uses text with symbols above, a bit like solfa!

it appears that the methods of notation from 1400 BCE and 600 BCE had been lost in the west because Isidore of Seville c.600 AD said,

 “Unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down.”

Later, neumes developed in the 9th Century, possibly in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Neumes started representing pitch with spatial elevation in the 11th century.  Symbols are still used, like on the Babylonian tablet and Delphic hymn to Apollo but pitch is represented up and down on the page.  Exactly how high or low the pitches should be is not shown, so it serves as an aide memoire therefore still needing aural transmission. 

Then who came along?  Guido d’Arezzo created stave notation in 1000AD, using moveable solfa!!!

You can see intervals and it’s beginning to look like music!

Solfa hand signs DEFINTELY utilise spatial elevation!  So before we get into THAT…. Where do we start?

I’ll set this out in my next blog post but in the meantime, comment below to let me know what you think.

What next?

Hopefully in reading this blog post, you have thought about what “pitch” means to you and how embedded the metaphor of high and low is.  In describing pitch as “high” and “low” we are asking our students to accept an abstract idea.  Some will understand it immediately, but for the students who take longer to grasp the concept we will be equipped with understanding that high and low is a metaphor and they need time to associate it with the sounds they are hearing. 

Want more advice and ideas?

If you found this blog useful.  Please comment below if you did or if there is anything you would like to say to me about it.  If you’d like to find out more about preparing your students to learn about pitch and much more, including over a year’s worth of lesson plans for teaching all the important musical skills with Helen’s clear microsteps, why not try out Doremi Membership for 14 days for just £1

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Empowering children to sing: achieving success with the cornerstone of the Kodály approach

In the last blog post (catch-up here), we talked about the qualities of speaking and singing and what the differences are. To help our students learn the difference between their speaking and singing voices they need to feel free and able to experiment with their voices. So how do we give them confidence and encouragement to experience their voice types?

Whether you’re a classroom teacher, visiting music teacher or 1:1 instrumental teacher, this blog will give you tips and ideas for experiencing voice types in a Kodály inspired way.


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