When learning how to play the guitar or learning any musical instrument or singing, you’ll be aware of 3 elements that are part of musical sound. They are the quality of sound or timbre, the volume or amplitude and what we are discussing here, the pitch or frequency of the sound. In the context of playing or listening to music, pitch is the conventional term but in the more scientific context of sound waves as opposed to musical notes, we would use the term, frequency.
When learning the guitar you’ll know the top E guitar string has the highest pitch and the bottom E, the thickest string, has the lowest pitch but this, it must be remembered, is nothing to do with the volume.
A certain note is a sound made by the guitar at an exact frequency and the system of notes is now a standard recognized around the world so that all guitarists, musicians and singers use the A above middle C as the reference for tuning instruments. It became a standard in 1939 for this note A4 to be 440Hz. The Hertz measurement of sound wave vibrations created by the movement of the guitar string for instance.
Remember our reference is 44Hz or 440 vibrations a second and that is A4; it follows that A5 is twice the frequency or 880Hz and going the other way, A3 is half A4 at 220Hz, A2 half again at 110Hz and A1 is 55Hz.
Between each of these references there are 7 additional sections which means there are 8 notes per section and these make up an octave.
On your guitar the thickest and thinnest strings at the top and bottom are both tuned to E but they are, in fact, 2 octaves apart.
The vibration frequency of a guitar string and therefore the pitch is affected by the string’s mass, tension and length so you us the placement of fingers on the frets to reduce the length of the guitar string, reducing it’s mass.
This is the very essence of note production and it’s useful to understand when you are first learning the guitar.
Do you have perfect pitch?
When watching your favourite guitar player the skills she incorporates will include agility around the guitar neck and body but also two aspects which are less easy to identify by looking and they are a sense of rhythm and of pitch. Both senses are qualities that normally evolve with time and experience and vary a lot between guitarists.
Someone who has perfect pitch, often called ‘absolute pitch’ can flawlessly identify notes and play or sing them back without any point of tuning reference – a rare quality even for those guitar players, singers etc. who we most admire.
Consensus has it that there are genetic markers that some people are lucky to have enabling them to more easily learn the guitar because they understand ‘relative pitch’ even with limited musical tuition. Relative pitch is, as the name implies, understand the relationship between musical notes.
That’s the bad news regarding perfect, absolute and relative pitch. The good news is that being tone deaf, as a lot of us where accused of being back at school, is as rare as being born with perfect pitch, so if you enjoy listening to music you’ll not be tone deaf.
By learning to play the guitar, tuning your guitar and generally getting fully involved in guitar playing stuff your understanding of pitch will get better. My favourite online guitar lessons provider has a “game” which challenges you to identify the distance between notes helping to improve your ability to hear like a musician – check out the review here.