The Knowledge: Pitch Vocabulary

The devolved nations of the UK each have their own music curricula, which have to be interpreted and taught by non-specialists at primary level. In this blog series, we aim to support teachers’ knowledge of the key musical terminology which appears in these curricula. In this edition of The Knowledge, we look at terminology associated with pitch.


Pitch is often referred to as ‘high and low’, which is broadly correct, but we shouldn’t forget that there are notes in between the low ones and the high ones too! The pitch of a note is, in scientific terms, its ‘frequency.’ Each pitch has a different frequency which is what makes it sound high or low or somewhere in between.


A melody is a ‘string’ or ‘line’ of pitches that make a pattern. It is also known as ‘the tune’. We can use the term ‘melodic’ to describe a piece of music that is tuneful.


Unlike a melody, where the pitches happen one-by-one, with a harmony the pitches happen at the same time. Two or more different notes sounding at the same time make up a harmony. Generally we use the term ‘harmony’ to describe notes which make a pleasant sound when played together. When notes sounded at the same time sound unpleasant we call it ‘discordant’.


Intonation describes whether you are ‘in tune’ or not. If you play or sing flat (under the note) or sharp (over the note), this is an intonation problem. This is different from just playing the wrong note entirely, it is about aiming for the right note but not getting its frequency quite correct. Being ‘in tune’ or having correct ‘intonation’ is also referred to as ‘pitch matching.’


Tonality is the organisation of a piece of music around a certain set of notes. Usually a piece is in a particular ‘key’ in which the pitches have a hierarchical structure. So in ‘D major’ the most important note is D, which is called the ‘tonic’ note, and the music will always be trying to ultimately come back to this note to sound ‘finished’ or ‘resolved.’ Tonality is linked to the idea of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ which we often describe as being ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ sounding. There are lots of different variations of minor keys, but usually we start by saying that a basic minor key has a flattened 3rd note, which means that it sounds darker and more mysterious than a major key. In D Major, the first three notes would be D, E, F#, whereas in D minor they would be D E F.