Nomenclature: The Difference between Note and Pitch
Important to be clear on important basics.
What is a Note?
The term note refers to a name of a note. As in, the note A. That could be any A… high, low, in the middle… An A is an A. If the chord chart says A, and you hit an A somewhere, you are good.
Also see: What is a Note Name?
What is Pitch?
Pitch, on the other hand, is a very specific note (played in a certain octave). This is sometimes specified with numbers: C4 is the famous middle C of the piano for example. If you are reading sheet music and the E in the sheet music is E1 (for us bassists written on a ledger line below the staff), then that specific E is asked for: Hit the open E on your four string!
This is one reason string instruments can be confusing…
An instrument such as the piano contains each pitch only once.
The bass? It depends. Take the low E for example. If you have a four string you have it only once. If you have a five string you could also play that low E on the fifth fret of the B string. It sounds exactly the same (same octave!) but it is played in a different location. The difference is slight. Only string instruments have that “feature” of having the same pitches occur in various locations.
There are also a few wind instruments that allow you to play the same pitch using different fingerings. So we are not alone with this feature. (It actually really comes in handy when you play chords or do some tapping. Very cool for figuring out great fingerings for grooves, fills, solos, too. Hey, we got options!
Now I said the open E and the fifth-fret low B sound exactly the same. That statement does not take into account “timbre”.
The timbre of an open E versus the timbre of an E played on the fifth fret of the B string actually is slightly different, because the B string is a bit thicker and the location on the neck of the bass has an effect of the sound. This difference – same note, same pitch, even, but a different sound quality. Timbre is the sound quality of a pitch. The timbre of the bass is different than that of the piano or the guitar. If the pitch and intensity of two sounds are the same and you hear a difference, then that is timbre you are identifying.
Music Theory for the Bass Player has lots more on the above, including fun quizzes to check if it all clicked for you. And, we are test driving it on the bass fretboard!