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Notes or Pitches?

I’ve been teaching for 9 years and only recently realized how confusing learning music can be for someone who doesn’t know anything about it. Here is my dilemma: notes on the staff – what do we call them? Notes or pitches? Both? You might be wondering why this is a dilemma at all but in North America, rhythms are called quarter NOTES, half NOTES, whole NOTES but pitches are also called NOTES. When I ask my grade 4 and 5 students, who are just learning the proper rhythm names for the  first time, “what note is that?” I get a range of answers from “half note” to “C.” And really, can you blame them? Outside of North America, rhythm names have a completely different nomenclature than the pitches on the staff so when someone asks what note that is, they get letter names or solfege syllables depending on where they are in the world. In the UK, a half note rhythm is called a minim, in Quebec and France, a half note is called a blanche (white). It all makes much more sense than how we name rhythms in North America. There is no confusion between the two.

Further, our system for naming rhythms assumes everything is in 4/4 time. Yes this is an extremely common time signature but many are in ¾ as well, not to mention a plethora of other time signatures. What I mean by this is that a whole note is only a whole note in 4/4 time. The quarter note is only a quarter note in 4/4 time. Yes, it is still one beat long in ¾ time but no longer a “quarter note” per se, it is more of a “third note” at that point. In the French system, a quarter note is called a noir (black) so in ¾ time, it never loses meaning, it is still a noir.

Unfortunately there is not a lot I can do about this confusion. However, after noticing this confusion happening more and more, I started using both “note” and “pitch” to describe notes on the staff but have been trying to use the word “pitch” when I mean “pitch” more than “note.”  In the real world of music making, musicians ask “what are the notes?” all the time, but they also ask “what are the pitches?” too, so teaching your students that note can refer to both a rhythm name and a pitch is important. This means that they need to understand the context in which the word is being used so they can interpret the difference.

Happy Musicking!

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