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EE + music theory = confusion

-August 23, 2013

I've enjoyed listening to music all of my life, but never really understood how it "worked." For example, what did it mean when a piece of music was composed in the key of G minor? The concepts of scales, chords, intervals and progressions etc., were mostly a mystery to me.

So, after deciding it would be fun to better understand music theory, I quickly amassed several tutorials and books, including a recommended "Idiot's Guide" volume, and dived in. But I immediately encountered an unexpected stumbling block - a language barrier. In this case one between musicians and engineers, where terms such as "tone," "pitch," and "note" can and do have different meanings.

As an engineer working in audio, I would view these terms interchangeably. Any specific "tone" or "note" or "pitch" represents a particular frequency, and I would naturally think of sounds in that way.

One of the first things I had to come to grips with as I began reading through the material was the standard musical scale, represented as a repetition of the same seven notes - C, D, E, F, G, A, B - over and over on a piano keyboard. Obviously each of the different notes on a keyboard must have a unique frequency, so why weren't they designated by unique identifiers?

As I quickly learned, the "middle" C note is also designated as C4 (at least when using scientific pitch notation), identifying it as the fourth "C" note on a standard full-sized keyboard, with a frequency of 261.63 Hz. Now we were getting somewhere.

But I just as quickly became confused again upon reading that "pitch describes the specific frequency of a tone." This had me doing a double-take, as I had never differentiated the two terms - I had always assumed pitch = tone = specific frequency. In this case, however, I had to consciously make note that "tone" was referring to musical notes. (Later I learned that "tone" also refers to the distance between notes, to further confuse the issue!)

Perhaps the most perplexing statement I came across, however, was the following:

"...two notes with the same name have the same sound, even if they're pitched an octave or more higher or lower."

My immediate thought was, "how can two different notes have the same "sound?" Clearly, to me, C3 and C4, for example, sound different! But of course I think of "sound" in terms of frequencies.

I understood at this point the concept of octaves etc., so my issue here was again one of terminology, and wording - that is, how to best describe the similar perceived tone/sound of notes an octave or octaves apart? I guess saying they "sound similar" is an improvement over "sound the same," but that still doesn't really convey much to the non-musician. After all, two notes that are close together in frequency might also be said to sound "similar."

It's easy to describe the relationship technically, in terms of frequencies and harmonics, which might help clear up some confusion. But again, this doesn't really convey what is being perceived, which is that such notes are "of a kind" - that is, lower/higher-pitched versions of the "same" note.

I suppose it's no wonder that the octave relationship is hard to describe, since it is itself considered a natural phenomenon that has been referred to as the "basic miracle of music." And a bit of further investigation reveals that this topic is the subject of much research and discussion, including on biophysics and math forums.

In any case, at this point in my study of music theory I think I'm at least past the terminological hurdles and can concentrate on better understanding the theory. Now on to "Harmony" ...

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