Notes Are NOT Pitches: Why G# And Ab Are Different

Notes Are NOT Pitches: Why G# And Ab Are Different [Even If They Have The Same Frequency]

Tommaso Zillio

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notes vs pitches

One of the most common doubts that my beginner students have is this:

“If G# and Ab are the same note, why do they have two different names? And why should we think of them as two different things?”

Come to think of it, this is also one of the most common doubts of advanced guitar players! So don’t feel bad if you don’t know the answer.

It’s not your fault - it’s simply because nobody on the ’net explains this clearly.

(And indeed I’ve heard several guitar teachers getting this one completely wrong… I’m not making names because that’s not how I roll, but it makes me wonder sometimes…)

Anyway, let’s unravel this mystery.

First of all, I wrote the above sentence in a misguided way so that I could trick you because that’s the way most people ask this question (and they don’t realize that the error is in the question itself)

See, G# and Ab are NOT the same note. Simply because one is an altered G note and the other is an altered A note.

This is usually the moment when my audience explodes with indignation… so let me clarify that YES these two notes have the same pitch.

The problem is that you thought that note and pitch were the same thing… but they aren’t :-)

The difference is incredibly important for every musician… and until you ‘get it’ you will be confused by theory (and music in general).

I explain this difference clearly in my new video:

You know what is the best way to learn your guitar fretboard and make sense of the theory? Get the Complete Chord Mastery guitar course. All the theory is done straight on the fretboard and you can apply it immediately to your music!

And now… in case you’re wondering: “Why didn’t you write the explanation directly in this article?”

Sure, here we go:

Hello, internets, so nice to see you. Let’s read a few more of your comments and question

I love your videos, but this one doesn’t make sense. You’ve already said in the opening of the video that in equal temperament, G sharp and A flat had the same pitch/frequency. They’re different notes, if we have more than 12 chromatic notes available, which we don’t as long as we’re talking about our contemporary 12 Tone Music System. The name of the node might change based on the context. But that’s just it: a context. It’s still the same pitch.

I see what you mean.

But the problem here is that a note is not a pitch, okay?

A pitch is a physical frequency. We agree that G sharp and A flat have exactly the same pitch.

If I play this in isolation with nothing around, they sound absolutely the same. The frequency of vibration is exactly the same. Good. But the problem is that a note is not a pitch.

A note is how your brain interprets this pitch.

Because let’s face it, music does not exist without listeners. Music is the effect that those sounds make on your brain and your brain has a number of idiosyncrasies when you perceive stuff.

We know, for instance, that we can create optical illusions so that people can draw something or show you something and you see things that don’t exist. We need to take this into account when we make art, for instance, because your perception of color, for instance, is completely screwed up, depending on what color you put in the background and all this kind of thing. Good.

In music, your perception of notes has the exact same thing, okay, this very same pitch will sound different, depending on the context around. And the problem is complex, okay? But it’s already been solved by this kind of strange notation that we have with sharps and flats.

Whenever formally you would write an A flat this note sounds in a specific way to your brain. And whenever we write formally, G sharp, it’s because the note sounds differently to your brain, when you perceive the sound. The pitch is the same.

A computer will probably perceive it the same way. Maybe, maybe not. Okay, but if I play only that thing, I record it on a microphone, I put it on my computer, and I measure the frequency, it’s the same, the pitch is the same, but my brain gives it a different meaning, gives it a different emotion.

The sharp note feels raised, the flat note feels lowered. And you will notice that, if you go to that video again and listen to the examples, okay?

And yes, you will recognize it’s the same pitch, but you will recognize this pitch is “colored” in a slightly different way. Context does matter.

And that’s why we have two different words: “pitch” and “note”, precisely to recognize this difference.

“Pitch” is the measurable thing. “Note” is what’s happening in your brain.

And tell you what, people are not there to measure the frequency: people are there enjoying it. So what matters is the emotional impact of that note, and that’s covered by this difference between sharps and flats.

It is absolutely useful to rearrange the notes of a simple lick to hear with a bit of permutation there are so very many possibilities one can choose to make their way of using those notes. It also can feel very much like an algorithm exercise which could though I don’t mean that it should feel for some that it’s yet another rote mechanical way of expression. Again, I say this one not subscribing to the perspective, it was just something that struck me Cheers, and thanks so much for all you do.

In two words, the comment says that: if some people think that music theory takes away from their creative spark, it’s because they think music theory is just an algorithm to churn out music.

And tell you what, this is not even wrong. It’s true.

We have a series of algorithms to churn out music and part of it ends up in music theory, and this is part of music theory.

But so what?

Let’s say you are a chef, okay, let’s say you are a cook. Okay, you have a book of recipes. And what is that? It’s a book of algorithms to create food, okay, but nobody will ever say that any kind of Chef does everything mechanically.

Or that having a book of recipes will kill your creative spark.

You can change it, you can choose the one you want. Having a book of recipes does not mean that you have to make beef bourguignon today at all cost, okay, you can make something else!

Having a book of recipes in music theory does not mean that you have to compose in key or you have to compose classical music or counterpoint or anything else.

You can do whatever you want!

If we already have a recipe for what you want to do, this saves you time and then you can always change the recipe. So yeah, it’s completely true. It is completely true: music theory is a collection of algorithms, but you pick the algorithm.

Because rather than thinking about the single notes every time or the single chords every time, you can work with higher-level ideas, like composing in key or out of key or composing using different kinds of chords, or all these kinds of things.

I think it’s great. And if you don’t agree, I think you’re on the wrong channel. Okay. But that’s what music theory is, and some people will like it, and some people will not like it, and that’s okay.


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