The Metaphor of "High and "Low" in Pitch
Notes by David Huron
Why are the terms "high" and "low" used to describe pitch?
"There is ample evidence that our characterization of musical pitches in terms of "high" and "low" is basically metaphorical. Consider "high" and "low" on the piano: how can D4 be "above" C4 on the piano when they are both on the same horizontal plane? Think of playing the two notes on the 'cello -- to play the "higher" D4, we have to move our left hand down, so that it is closer to the ground. Behind these linguistic expressions in the conceptual metaphor PITCH RELATIONSHIPS ARE RELATIONSHIPS IN VERTICAL SPACE, which maps spatial orientations such as up-down onto the pitch continuum.
"Although Scruton argued that it was virtually inconceivable to construe pitch in any way other than an up-down spatial relationship, evidence to the contrary comes from a variety of sources. Greek music theorists of antiquity spoke not of "high" and "low" but of "sharpness" and "heaviness"; in Bali and Java pitches are not "high" and "low" but "small" and "large"; and among the Suyá of the Amazon basin, pitches are not "high" and "low" but "young" and "old."[Cites as follows: On the matter of the characterization of pitch by Greek music theorists of antiquity see Andrew Barker (ed.), Greek Musical Writings, Volume II: Harmonic and Acoustic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), n. 43, p. 134. For information about the characterization of pitch in Bali and Java I am indebted to Benjamin Brinner, personal communication. Regarding the characterization of musical pitch by the Suyá, see Anthony Seeger, Why Suyá Sing; A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
Although Scruton's (and, by extension, Cook's) assertion about the metaphoricity of musical understanding occurs as part of a larger rationalistic argument about musical ontology, there is a body of recent empirical work by cognitive scientists that supports this assertion. This research suggests that metaphor is not simply an anomalous use of language or a mark of the way we conceive intentional objects but is in fact central to human understanding as a whole. This research is also distinct from other discussions of the importance of metaphor to musical understanding, whether from a philosophical or music-analytical perspective, in that it offers a way to explain why correlations of the sort noted by Scruton -- between musical pitch and physical space, or between successions of pitches and motion through physical space -- are possible in the first place, and how such correlations are constrained."