What’s The Difference Between Pitch And Tone?

listening to understand the difference between pitch and tone

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If you’re new to music, maybe you’ve been confused when people used terms like tone and pitch. 

Pitch is the frequency of a sound, which is determined by the number of vibrations per second the sound produces, while tone, also called timbre, refers to the quality of a sound, which can be influenced by a range of things including the specific instrument and playing style along with several other factors. 

Sometimes people use “pitch” and “tone” almost interchangeably, which doesn’t help with the confusion. 

And pitch and tone do have some relation. Changing the tone can almost fool a listener into thinking the pitch has changed, even when it hasn’t. Generally speaking, higher pitches have a sharper tone than lower ones, but there can be a lot of variation there.

Let’s take a look at what goes into making up both the pitch of a sound and its tone.

What Is Pitch?

The most basic definition of pitch is the frequency of a sound — the number of vibrations in the air that sound causes. 

That can be written out a number of different ways, from simply the name of a musical note to a number in hertz or megahertz — that measures the number of vibrations per second — to a combination of the two.

If you’ve ever heard about an orchestra using A 440Hz to tune, that refers to a pitch that corresponds to the musical note A that’s just above Middle C on a piano keyboard and resonates at 440 Hertz.

Another way that can be written down is A4, using what’s called scientific pitch notation. In that system, the scale starts at C0, or 16 Hz, and moves up.

To give you a demonstration of what changing pitch sounds like, this video plays a range of sounds of different pitches throughout the range of human hearing.

While frequency is the main determining factor of pitch, they aren’t exactly equivalent. 

Frequency is a physical property — it’s something that can be measured.

Pitch, on the other hand, is the subjective perception of a sound. It has to do with how you hear that sound in relation to others.

One reason pitch isn’t just frequency is that most instruments don’t make just one frequency when you play a note.

Instead, the vibrations of the instrument produce multiple frequencies. The slowest of these is called the fundamental frequency, with the others called overtones.

Some overtones are louder than others, and that interplay is part of how we can determine the pitch of a sound.

How Many Pitches Are There?

Here’s another way pitch is different from just the frequency of a sound — there are an infinite possible number of frequencies, but some sounds are so close to each other that humans can’t tell the difference.

The average human range of hearing is 16Hz to 16,000Hz, and experiments have shown that people can detect about 1,400 pitch steps between those frequencies. Compare that to 120 notes in that same range, using a normal musical scale.

The fact humans are sensitive to small changes in pitch can lead to some interesting aural illusions — the sound equivalent of the much more well-known phenomena of optical illusions.

The Shepard tone, for example, uses two sounds, one octave apart, and creates the illusion of a constantly rising pitch, even though the notes never change. 

This video explains how it works and how movie director Christopher Nolan used it to build tension in 2017’s Dunkirk.


What Is Tone?

If frequency is the main thing that determines the pitch of a sound, there is a wide range of things that can determine a sound’s tone. 

Also called timbre or tone quality, tone refers to the subjective way a sound is perceived. 

Things that can affect the tone include the pitch, the instrument used to make the note, the way the note is sounded, and a lot more.

Let’s look at a few of them.

How An Instrument Affects Tone

Just about every part of an instrument has some impact on the tone it produces. 

This video looks at some of the scientific reasons behind different tones and timbres from different instruments and show you exactly what they sound like: 

Take a horn like a trumpet. The metal, the shape of the body, and the flare of the bell all give it that distinctive brassy sound. The fact you blow into a horn also gives it a very human-like phrasing — the length, sound and speed of groups of notes are related to how much breath they take.

Now think about different types of guitars and closely related instruments. A steel-string acoustic guitar usually has a large, resonant body, and it produces a loud, resonant sound. A nylon-string classical guitar has a softer sound because of the different compositions of the strings and the way the body of the guitar is put together.

The shape and construction of a guitar create its tone, and this video shows how different acoustic guitar body shapes and styles can affect tone along with letting you listen to different examples of tone: 

How Playing Style Affects Tone

Even things like where and how you pluck the strings of a guitar can change the tone.

Try this quick experiment. Take an acoustic guitar and play a single note. 

Use just your thumb and play the string just over the guitar’s soundhole, listening to the sound it makes. Now move your thumb to just above the bridge and play the same note.

Do you notice the difference? The note played closer to the bridge should sound more percussive and should ring out for a shorter time than the one played over the soundhole.

If you try the same experiment using a pick you’ll see a different set of sounds, showing how very simple things can change tone.

Other Things That Affect Tone

So far we’ve really only looked at acoustic instruments, but electric instruments offer even more ways to change tone including the use of effect pedals

If you’ve ever played an unplugged electric guitar, you’ll know they don’t make very much noise that way. That’s because instead of using the vibrations of a hollow body to produce sound, like an acoustic guitar, the vibrations of the strings interfere with the magnetic field created by the pickups. 

The electrical impulses those vibrations create are sent through a cord to an amplifier, which turns them back into sound.

How the pickups are made has a huge effect on a guitar’s tone. Things like the kind of magnet, number of coils, and amount of wire used to create the pickup all create distinctively different sounds.

Generally speaking, more wire means more resistance and a louder pickup. Because magnetic pickups can make a background humming noise caused by electrical interference, engineers came up with “humbucker” pickups that use phased magnets to eliminate hum.

Again, generally speaking, double-coil, humbucker pickups are louder than single coil pickups. 

Often referred to as “dark,” they usually emphasize lower frequencies, while single coils are described as “bright” and emphasize higher frequencies.

How A Tone Control Knob Works

Nearly every electric guitar has at least one knob marked “Tone,” and while all of them aren’t exactly the same, they work on the same general principle.

Tone control circuits use a potentiometer and a capacitor to change the frequencies that are allowed to pass through.

When the potentiometer is closed, the entire signal passes through. As it opens up, more of the higher frequencies are sent to the capacitor, removing them from the signal and changing the tone.

The size and type of the capacitor change the frequency response. The type of pickup and the desired response curve from the tone control are the deciding factors for which capacitor to choose.

Closing Thoughts

When people talk about someone who can’t match a pitch as being “tone-deaf” it’s pretty easy to understand how confusion between the concepts of pitch and tone can creep in. Just as the difference between BPM and tempo confuses people, pitch and tone are often mixed up. 

And even just the word “tone” can have a whole range of meanings, from the frequency response of an instrument, pickup or amplifier to the relative percussiveness or resonance of a note.

Pitch, on the other hand, almost always refers to the way we hear a particular frequency, which is why we can recognize the same pitch, even when the way it’s played produces very different tones.