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Tone, Pitches, and Notes in Singing

Whether you sing just for fun or you dream of performing professionally, you can count on frequently encountering three terms: pitch, note, and tone. These three terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably, but understanding their true relationship to one another may make your journey through the world of singing less confusing.

  • Pitch is the high or low frequency of a sound. When you sing, you create pitch because your vocal cords vibrate at a certain speed. As an example, a foghorn emits a low frequency or pitch, whereas the sound your smoke detector emits when you press the test button is a high frequency or pitch.

    In singing, when your vocal cords vibrate at a faster speed, you sing a higher pitch than when they vibrate more slowly. The A just above Middle C vibrates at 440 cycles per second — your vocal cords open and close 440 times per second.

  • Notes are musical symbols that indicate the location of a pitch.

  • Tone is the color or timbre of pitch. Tone can be described by many different words, including warm, dark, brilliant, ringing, rich, lush, shrill, and strident. An example of a singer with a warm tone is Karen Carpenter; someone with a strident tone is Eddie Murphy playing the role of the Donkey in the Shrek movies.

Based on these definitions, it makes more sense to say that someone is pitch deaf rather than tone deaf. You may also hear singers say that they’re afraid to sing high notes when they should say that they’re afraid to sing high pitches. Although knowing the exact definition of these terms is good, noone will correct you if you mix up the words tone and pitch.

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