The words "high" and "low" generally refer to magnitude or vertical distance. How did these words come to be associated with pitch?

We can draw comparison to high ("large") or low ("small") frequency, but it would seem to me that the terminology of music should rather predate the terminology of wave physics by some hundreds of years. (The terminology for, say, choral music was well-developed as at least as far back as the 15th century and one should imagine that the fundamentals of pitch terminology are a good deal older, while wave physics was in its infancy as late as the 18th century?)

In fact, the closest synonyms for both vertical distance ("tall", "short") and magnitude ("big", "small") to me intuitively represent pitches in the opposite direction from "high/low" - i.e. a "short" or "small" note would be a "high" one because of e.g. the length of the string or size of the pipe, bar, or drum producing the pitch.

To make matters even more confusing, the latin bassus (the derivative of the English "base" - meaning e.g. "foundation", or "of low value" and obviously "bass" meaning "low-pitched") also means "short", and the latin altus meaning "high" (which I assume is the source of "high" meaning "high-pitched" in English) also means "deep"!

Is there an accepted etymology for how "high" and "low" came to be used for pitch rather than "big/small", "long/short", "shallow/deep", etc?

Is there a fundamental connection between high pitches and "up" (and between low pitches and "down")?

Perhaps more relevantly (and certainly more answerably!), is this consistent outside of English and the romance languages?

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    Excellent question. There might not be one widely accepted answer in the linguistic community (like many etymology questions). One thing that comes to mind is where you feel things on your body when singing. Since your chest cavity is larger it resonates more at lower notes compared to your sinus which resonate at higher notes, and of course our sinuses are phyiscally higher than our chests.
    – Todd Wilcox
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 18:24
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    There is little cross-linguistic consistency: different languages use different oppositional pairs (though I’m not aware of any language that reverses the pair, i.e., uses high for low-pitched notes and low for high-pitched notes). Some languages use high/low, some use long/short, some use tense/loose—and some languages just have specific words that just mean ‘high-pitched’ and ‘low-pitched’. I think your intuition is misled, though: it is based on a physical description of an instrument. The opposition was there long before instruments were (bird cries, human voice). [cont’d-->] Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 19:06
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    [-->cont’d] And at least for the human voice, the distinction that exists makes sense: the natural movement to make a high-pitched sound with your voice is to raise your head up high; while to make a deep (oops, another option!) sound, you naturally lower your chin down towards your chest. But overall, this is a very basic use of abstraction in language, and it is so basic and old that there is not likely to be any explanation for it available: we can only describe how the abstraction goes, not why it goes like that. Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 19:07
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    @Janus: Metaphors also correlate annoyingly. It's one of their most prominent features. Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 19:13
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    Just found an article that deals quite specifically with this: The Thickness of Pitch: Crossmodal Metaphors in Farsi, Turkish, and Zapotec. Definitely worth a read! Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 9:10

2 Answers 2


There may be a psychoacoustic reason for why notes of a high frequency are called high and notes of a low frequency are called low.

First, perception. When high-frequency notes are sounded (from, say, a piccolo or a violin), the notes will resonate in the smaller cavities in your body (such as your head).

When low-frequency notes are sounded (say, from a double bass), the notes will resonate in the larger cavities in your body (such as your chest). So the higher and lower pitches are felt not just in the ears, but in the higher and lower parts of your body. This perception may have given rise to the terms.

Second, production. In the vocal production of music, singers will shift between head voice and chest voice. Head voice is used for, you guessed it, higher notes. (Think the Bee Gees if you have a leisure suit in the back of your closet. Or your favorite coloratura soprano if you saw Lucia di Lammamore or The Magic Flute recently.) Chest voice, produced lower in the body, produces lower notes.

Third, there may also be historical reasons, dating back well before oscilloscopes. Research into musical pitches extends at least back to Pythagoras (sixth century BC).

The word gamut come from Medieval Latin, with the root coming from gamma ut, where gamma referred to the bass G and ut referred to the first note in the lowest of the hexachords. (See Etymology online.) As the lowest note, it also has the lowest number (1).

Today, the middle A is called A4 (440Hz for many orchestras). It’s about the middle of the standard 88-key piano keyboard. The A to the left of it (an octave below) is called A3 and has half the frequency (220 Hz).

Could the numbers assigned to octaves from Pythagoras (sixth century BC) and adopted by Guido d’Arrezzo (sixteenth century) have naturally conferred the sense of low to a note? A gamut or G1 is lower in pitch than a G2, corresponding to its lower notation (a 1 versus a 2).

I don’t have enough breadth to know if high and low pitches work in language systems other than those derived from Proto-Indo-European. I seem to recall from Women Fire and Dangerous things that the word anger is widely associated with heat, in part because of the physiological response when one is angered, namely, that the body temperature actually rises. Lakoff’s book may give you some more insight into other linguistic universals.

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    I don't think this answer is bad, but I think you may have been downvoted for not specifically addressing the origin of this use of high/low with anything but a conjectured physicial relationship. Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 21:37

Altus and bassus originally referred to relative positions of voices with respect to tenor, which was the fundamental voice in early mediaeval polyphony. At that stage (of polyphony development), there would have been written scores, so the terms would refer to the relative position of voices as written in the score: altus (upper voice); tenor (fundamental voice); bassus (lower voice). In vocal mediaeval music, all of these were male voices. (Furthermore, the voice above alto is superius).

It seems perfectly natural then (at least to me) that musical terms 'high' and 'low' are (a) relative, and (b) opposite to each other. Even terms such as 'high C' in music are relative; it is the desirable top of a soprano range, and consequently relatively very high for what humans can sing, but actually two octaves short of the highest C on a piano keyboard!

I believe (but cannot prove) that at least since the beginning of scoring, people would connect pitch in music with altitude, and the terminology would follow.

  • Yes, scoring was the first thing that came to mind.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 9:13
  • This doesn't provide any evidence that written scores preceded the use of the terms "altus" and "bassus". Even if it did, then it would still beg the question of why that particular ordering of position on a staff was chosen. Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 2:40

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