“Up” and “Down” the Scale

Originally posted July 15, 2005.

What makes us speak and think of musical notes in terms of their vertical alignment? Middle C is “lower” than the C one octave above it on the musical staff, though nothing is truly lower about it at all. When we sing an “ascending” scale, the notes go “higher.” In fact, it is nearly impossible to even relate pitches to one another without using these kinds of spatial metaphors. The question is why. Below are some of the available theories arranged roughly according to their plausibility. (Pages could be devoted to analyzing each one, but of course, I don’t have the space or the patience now.)

1. Convention. The use of spatial metaphors “high” and “low” was established simply through convention—we are taught to think about music in this way. After all, certain very young children have an inability to determine “higher” or “lower” pitches. However, this theory does not explain the universality of this phenomenon. Conventional use, no doubt, reinforces the phenomenon, but it can hardly explain why we all do this.

2. Notation. Our spatial nomenclature matches our Western notation system. Robin Maconie, for example, believes that we think of music in spatial terms only because it possesses a notation. If we had no notation, we might refer pitches to each other in different ways. This theory seems implausible to me because it also ignores the universality of the phenomenon. Our spatial metaphors seem much less arbitrary than is suggested here. It is far more likely that our notation matches our spatial metaphors, rather than the other way around.

3. Pitch Frequency. Our spatial metaphors match the frequency continuum of pitches, so the scientist might say. The C one octave above middle C has a frequency that is twice that of middle C. Therefore, the greater the frequency, the “higher” the pitch. Here are terminology is no longer metaphorical. The C one octave above middle really is higher than middle C. This also is less than convincing to me, since I find it hard to believe that one would have to learn of this acoustical fact before configuring his or her spatial metaphors. Also, the zeroing in on frequency seems arbitrary. (The wavelength of a pitch lowers as the pitches get higher.) Furthermore, it sounds a bit silly to suggest that the color violet is any higher than red, since it has a much greater frequency than red.

4. Associations. We employ spatial metaphors “high” and “low” due to real life associations through which differences of pitch remind people of differences of height. One of the more interesting versions of this theory comes from Trevor Wishart: “Clearly… the associations of high pitch with physical height is not unequivocal. We might ask why things are perceived this way round rather than the other… I am not certain that anyone has proposed a solution to this quandary, but I would suggest that there would be an environmental metaphor involved. Any creature which wishes to take to the air, with one or two exceptions, needs to have a small body weight and therefore tends to have a small sound-producing organ and produce high frequency vocalizations. Conversely, any large and heavy creature is essentially confined to the surface of the earth.” As strange as Wishart’s version of the theory might sound, it brings us closer to the truth of the matter, particularly in its implied reference to gravity, for there seems to be some kind of correlation with the gravitational pull in melody. Put very crudely, the “higher” the notes go, the greater the pull downward. And the melody must ultimately seek to resolve downward to a final resting place.

5. Phenomenological explanation. According to some, particularly psychologists, each tone has, prior to the building of associations, “an intrinsic spatial characteristic.” Of course no two tones are really “higher” or “lower” than one another, yet they are phenomenologically heard as if they are. This theory, however, does very little to satisfy my desire for an explanation. In a sense, it merely states the facts. True, no pitches are truly higher or lower than each other. True, we do hear them as if they are. But that is exactly what we are trying to explain! And to say that they have “an intrinsic spatial character” seems an easy way out—a default response. This theory, thus, seems bankrupt to me, although in the end, perhaps it stops where we all should stop in trying to explain the phenomenon.

6. Physiological. We think of pitches as “high” and “low” through associations with physiological movements and activities—particularly those relating to speech and song. In order to produce and sustain pitches high in our own voice range, the chest, throat and head must take an elevated position. Conversely, in order to produce low notes, the throat and head in particular take a more sunken posture. Being the creatures of language and communication that we humans are, it makes sense that these associations with physiological movements would be important to us and how we relate to the outside world.

It is perhaps difficult to expect any one of the theories to do all the explaining, though I believe that this final explanation, combined with the related fourth one, does a great deal of the explaining. Anyway, it is something fun to ponder when you have absolutely nothing productive to do. And I apologize for the complete lack of applicability this blog has to everyday life.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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4 Responses to “Up” and “Down” the Scale

  1. George says:

    There’s a good book that helps explain how we perceive music. It’s by David Huron and it’s called “Sweet Anticipation.” You might like it because it makes syntheses such as these.

  2. lukedahn says:

    Thanks, George. I’ll definitely check that out.

  3. It might be that high notes give an “elevated” association. High pitches are often more readily audible among other pitches in the way that a spatially elevated object is more readily visible. Case in point: Choral arrangements usually put the main melody in the soprano voice.

  4. Rodrigo says:

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    in writing this blog. I am hoping to view the same high-grade content from you in the future as well.
    In fact, your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own site now 😉

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