Music Primer

Pitch and the Tonic-sol-fa.

What is music? I suppose, at its most basic, music could be said to be an organised rhythmic or pulsating sound, which may, or may not, vary in pitch (frequency). This definition however, is not nearly complete because using it would suggest that a dripping tap is music! A dripping tap does meet the one of the requirements of our basic definition in that it is usually regular and may even vary in pitch, depending on what it is dripping on to! Early man would almost certainly have considered the regular beating of sticks on say, a hollow tree trunk, to be musical - indeed this may well have been the first musical instrument of any substance. It is rhythmic and meets our first basic requirement, although it may or may not vary in pitch. What about birdsong? Is that musical? Well it meets our second requirement in that it varies in pitch, but no matter how sweet the sound, it is not necessarily rhythmic or indeed organised. So how do we then define music to meet both standards?

Lets take a fairly simple familiar tune that is well known throughout the modern world - Frere Jaques. The first eight notes of this tune are of the same duration and, if the rhythm were tapped out, most people would not recognise it as anything other than eight equally spaced taps. As soon as the proper notes are introduced however, almost anyone would instantly recognise the melody. These notes have a definite relationship to each other and that relationship is called pitch. When we sing the Tonic Sol fa (do, re mi etc.) we are singing eight notes of an octave (see definition further down the page) known as a music scale. Each of the notes have a distinct mathematical relationship to the bottom, or root note, do (pronounced doh) - as well as to each other.

The tonic-sol-fa is made up of seven notes and they are "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti." These notes are often represented by just the initial letter of the notes, thus: "d, r, m, f, s, l, t." The note "d" is then repeated to make a music scale of eight notes, however, when written it is given an apostrophe (d') to denote that it is a higher note than the first. This gives us a scale of eight notes and the interval between the two "d's" is known as an octave.If you now press the play button on the audio tracks below you will hear the tonic-so-fa:

Now listen to track two:

Hear the difference? This is a good example of pitch, where the tracks are of different frequencies - in this case track two is higher in frequency than track one. Okay! Now listen to them played together:

Notice I cut that short as it sounded awful! The two voices clash and rasp against each other. This is called dissonance and we shall come across dissonance again when we learn about chords. Dissonance can happen when we don't all sing in the same pitch. It does not always sound so horrible though, when arranged properly we can get some beautiful harmonies, but more on this later.

Concert Pitch.
However, this relationship on its own is not enough to create a true musical scale. Not everyone would necessarily start at the exact same frequency when singing this scale without some form of standard against which to measure the frequency of the notes. Listen to tracks one and two again - They are both tonic-sol-fa, but in different pitches. The internationally recognised standard concert pitch is note A which has a frequency of 440Hz (44Hz = 440 cycles per second). Lets listen to that note now by left-clicking the play button on the audio player below.

This pitch can be found on a regular piano. It is the sixth white note above middle C (counting middle C as the first note). Knowing this allows us to tune our instruments and/or our voices to a recognised standard and we will therefore play or sing the same pitched notes when we play or sing the tonic-sol-fa in any standard key (keys will be discussed in lesson 7). There are other factors to consider for this statement to be 100% accurate, but for benefit of this lesson we will take the statement as true. To go beyond this at this stage would be going deep into musical theory far beyond the scope of this tutorial.Music Scales.

Okay. So now we know that the note A above middle C is the international Concert Pitch standard, where does that take us? Well, in order for everyone to unify their music and sing or play at the same pitch, there exists a standard set of seven notes (known as an octave when the first note of the scale is repeated at the end of the scale), each usually represented by a letter of the alphabet from A through G. It would seem logical then for a musical scale to consist of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G.This is the A natural minor scale, a generally mellow and dark sounding scale used early music, many pop songs and jazz. For a brighter sound though we’ll start on C, producing the C Major scale, this is: C, D, E, F, G, A, B and, to complete the octave, C again (note that this C is double the frequency, or twice the pitch of the first C in the octave). When we all start singing or playing the scale of C Major following these standards, we sing and play in scales derived from that standard pitch. Click on the audio player below to listen to the single note C:

When we all start singing or playing the scale of C Major following these standards, we sing and play in scales derived from that standard pitch. Middle C has a frequency of 261.25 Hz (cycles per second).

Other styles of music notation
There are otherstyles of music notation, but I will not discuss these here - except for numerical notation where the notes are represented by the numbers 1 to 7. it is often used by singers in preference to the tonic-sol-fa. This is particularly useful when finding intervals as each number represents the interval of any of the notes relative to the bottom note (known as the root or tonic) of the scale. We will cover more of this notation and intervals later in another tutorial.

Okay! We've learned about pitch and now know some basic music theory about the Tonic-sol-fa , but this not nearly enough knowledge to understand music theory, so let us bigin to have a look at the notation that is most commonly in use today - 'Western Music Notation'.

Next lesson: Notes and the Staff.