At the time of writing this article, I’m creating a document for beginning guitarists, and find myself a little confused about what I thought was a simple concept. As with many musicians I’ve met, I tend to throw the term ‘note’ around rather loosely concerning anything music related. I’ve known for some time the term ‘note’ is only a label given to a musical sound via an alphabetical letter, and in the case of standard notation a value of duration (rhythm), but what threw the spanner in the works for me was the terms ‘pitch’ and ‘tone’. In this article, I’ll explain what I thought I knew and what I’ve discovered in the last couple of days about this subject.

The Initial Revelation

When I started learning about music everything was regarded as a note, and I assume this was because music theory is the language we communicate with when speaking to one another. For instance, if I tell someone how to play something I would do so using note names i.e play C at the 3rd fret on the A string; and it’s these labels we come to understand as being notes.

Quite some time ago now, I read a good book by Ron Gorow called ‘Hearing and Writing Music’, which goes into great depth about the science of sound and how music’s derived from nature via the harmonic series. Ron differentiates the terms tone and note by saying:

“Think of a tone as perceived through the sense of hearing and a note as perceived through the sense of sight. A tone lives in the air and defines a sense of musical space; a note lives on the music staff and serves to communicate musical thought. Musicians too often casually interchange the two terms.”

Ron Gorow ‘Hearing and Writing Music’

Although I’m still guilty of the last part of his sentence, it made perfect sense and was the basis of my understanding until a few days ago.

The Dilemma

As stated in the opening paragraph, I’m currently working on a document for beginning guitarists, and I based my explanation of terminology from what I learnt from Ron Gorow. There’s no confusion regarding the explanation of ‘note’, however, the shit hit the fan a few days ago when reading ‘Fretboard Mastery’ by Troy Stetina. Troy defines the term ‘pitch’ as the highness, or lowness of a sound and differentiates the terms tone and pitch by saying:

“People new to music, or with an otherwise undeveloped ear, sometimes get tone and pitch confused. They are, however, totally separate issues. Just plug in your electric guitar to demonstrate this: play the same note with the bass control up and the treble down, then play the same note again with the bass control down and treble up. Different tone, same pitch.”

Troy Stetina ‘Fretboard Mastery’

Troy’s explanation seemed logical, and I’m always happy having my initial beliefs destroyed, but then I started thinking; if a pitch is air pressure vibrating at a particular frequency and if the purest pitch is a ‘sine wave’, then why do we call it a ‘pure tone’. You can’t add bass or treble to a pure tone as Troy describes because it’s the simplest sound of all consisting of one sine wave (think of a tuning fork). It’s not until you add ‘overtones’ (that word again) to a pure tone that you get the complex sounds defining an instrument’s sound (timbre).


To say the least, my brain was fried, but I started looking on the Internet and discovered the same confusion everywhere. I found (what I believe to be) the best description on a Wikipedia page dedicated to the topic, where it states:

“A note is written on a page, or understood in a larger musical context, including a rhythmic value; a tone is a pitch, typically in relation to a scale and without rhythmic specification; a pitch is an auditory frequency; a frequency is an acoustic phenomenon, for example, with respect to harmonics. Sound can be pitched or unpitched (such as a clap).”


I’m not giving an answer here, but in my opinion the Wikipedia example gives the best definition to our problem. However, I don’t think a note necessarily has to include a rhythmic value; just think of the guitar fretboard or piano keyboard, we label every position with a note name yet there is no way to include rhythmic value as it doesn’t apply.

The Verdict

To be honest, my world has been turned upside down, but whatever. I’m not going to dwell on the topic as I’d rather jam, and I’m still going to use and interchange the word note and tone to describe musical concepts depending on how I feel. The purpose of this article wasn’t to give a definitive answer but instead explain my journey over the last few days.

If you want to dig deeper and find the truth, please keep me informed of your discovery, and if you have your own opinions, please leave a comment.


Jonny Mac

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