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"High" and "Low" in Music

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours
SC Public Radio

In music, the terms “high” and “low,” as in “high notes” and “low notes,” “high pitched” and “low pitched,” are metaphors. High and low may be used to describe frequencies, or the relative position of printed notes on a musical staff, but printed notes are themselves merely symbols, not sounds, and frequencies and their measurements don’t actually have height. In reality, high notes are not physically higher, not farther from the surface of the earth, than low notes. But in English, high and low are the best terms we’ve been able to come up with to give us mental images of pitch. We forget that high and low are just metaphors, but we all agree on what they mean, so they’ve become indispensable. And since that’s the case, let’s keep hoping that when the soprano sings her highest notes and reaches the heights of passion at the high point of the opera—we won’t be let down.

This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.