Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Musical Pitch

Musical pitch is a qualitative attribute of auditory sensation which indicates the highness or lowness of a musical note, in terms of its position in a musical scale (Seashore, 1938/1967).  Musical pitch is primarily related to the frequency of a sound wave; higher pitch is associated with higher frequencies.  However, it is important to separate pitch (the psychological) from frequency (the physical): “We can never be directly aware of the rate of vibration as such, for we hear it as musical pitch.  This is one of the wondrous transformations ‘from matter to mind’” (p. 53).  Psychophysical experiments have been conducted to measure pitch discrimination, in order to determine the smallest difference in sound wave frequency that produce notable differences in musical pitch.  Average human results can detect differences on the basis of a difference of 3 hz, which is about 1/17 of a tone in a scale from western music.  Professional musicians have finer distinctions; Seashore reports discriminations due to a difference of 0.1 hz, equivalent to 1/540 of a tone!


  1. Seashore, C. E. (1938/1967). Psychology of Music. New York,: Dover Publications.

(Added November 2010)