pitch, in music, the position of a tone in the musical scale, today designated by a letter name and determined by the frequency of vibration of the source of the tone. Pitch is an attribute of every musical tone; the fundamental, or first harmonic, of any tone is perceived as its pitch. The earliest successful attempt to standardize pitch was made in 1858, when a commission of musicians and scientists appointed by the French government settled upon an A of 435 cycles per second; this standard was adopted by an international conference at Vienna in 1889. In the United States, however, the prevailing standard is an A of 440 cycles per second. Before the middle of the 19th cent., pitch varied according to time, place, and medium of musical performance; since the classical period the trend has been gradually upward. The relative pitch of a tone, in contrast to absolute pitch, is an expression of its pitch in relation to the pitch of some other tone taken as a standard.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.