Musical sounds are distinguished from noises in that they are composed of regular, uniform vibrations, while noises are irregular and disordered vibrations. Composers, however, frequently use noises as well as musical sounds. One musical tone is distinguished from another on the basis of pitch, intensity, or loudness, and quality, or timbre. Pitch describes how high or low a tone is and depends upon the rapidity with which a sounding body vibrates, i.e., upon the frequency of vibration. The higher the frequency of vibration, the higher the tone; the pitch of a siren gets higher and higher as the frequency of vibration increases. The apparent change in the pitch of a sound as a source approaches or moves away from an observer is described by the Doppler effect. The intensity or loudness of a sound depends upon the extent to which the sounding body vibrates, i.e., the amplitude of vibration. A sound is louder as the amplitude of vibration is greater, and the intensity decreases as the distance from the source increases. Loudness is measured in units called decibels. The sound waves given off by different vibrating bodies differ in quality, or timbre. A note from a saxophone, for instance, differs from a note of the same pitch and intensity produced by a violin or a xylophone; similarly vibrating reeds, columns of air, and strings all differ. Quality is dependent on the number and relative intensity of overtones produced by the vibrating body (see harmonic), and these in turn depend upon the nature of the vibrating body.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.