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We use "low" and "high" in everyday speech when talking about sound, pitch or even frequency. However, if you think of it, the sound of a bassoon is no way closer to the ground ("lower") than the sound a flute.

I guess that most European languages (my native Hungarian included) use the same exact terms so there must be something into it.

Why are different sound frequencies associated with degrees of elevation? Are there languages which use a different abstraction (wide and narrow for example)?

Edit: Hungarian actually uses "deep" and "high" so I was not precise above.

  • 1
    If you played the bassoon, you wouldn't say that. The lowest notes require the lowest sound holes to be closed by the fingers of your right hand, which as you play is, in fact, closer to the ground. – Greg Lee Mar 28 '15 at 21:18
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    Not so, @GregLee. A bassoon is folded, so the holes which are closed for the lowest notes are up the top, near the bell. On a Heckel system bassoon, these are all controlled by the left thumb, which is further from the ground than the right hand. (Not that this is relevant to the question) – Colin Fine Mar 28 '15 at 22:27
  • So, @Colin, you're saying that the lowest notes do not require the fingers of your right hand (which is held lowest)? I used to play the bassoon, and my recollection differs. – Greg Lee Mar 28 '15 at 22:42
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    On the Heckel system, the right hand takes you down to F (the lowest note in its natural scale as a woodwind instrument), but the keywork extends it down a full fifth (to Bb), and the thumbs (right for E, and left for all the notes below) are used to get these lower notes. – Colin Fine Mar 28 '15 at 22:44
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    I'd like to note that Malay doesn't use an abstraction/metaphor at all. We actually have a word for high pitch: "nyaring". And it means specifically high pitch (though it implies loudness as well) and does not mean anything else in other context. We do not quite have a word that means low pitch though. The closest we have is "garau" which is the same as the English word "gruff" - rough and low pitch. Typically people would use the word for quiet or silent as the opposite for nyaring but neither actually means low pitch. – slebetman Mar 30 '15 at 3:04
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A web search on "metaphor low pitch" yields, among others, these references: The Metaphor of "High" and "Low" in Pitch

... 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."

and Metaphors for musical pitch ...

... The researchers conclude that the low = thick and high = thin associations might be innate in humans, or could be learned from physical experiences very early in life: Another study revealed that even before children can talk they respond to associations between pitch and height and between pitch and thickness.

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    Wow, thank you @Greg Lee, this is exactly what I wanted. "Metaphor" was the right search term. I find "young" and "old" pitches both amazing and beautiful. – g.kertesz Mar 29 '15 at 9:08
  • This is really interesting – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 29 '15 at 17:27
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    Great answer, but the Greek people must have had some notion of height of pitch, since the accent for rising intonation is an upwards line and for falling intonation a downwards line. – 11684 Mar 29 '15 at 20:58
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    No, sorry, I just remembered all accents were added later on (i.e. by non-Greek folks). My mistake! – 11684 Mar 29 '15 at 20:58
  • In German the adjectives hell and dunkel are used for high- and low-toned human voices; they're also used to distinguish clear beer from dark beer. It's a visual metaphor. – jlawler Jul 12 '16 at 13:14
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When the frequency is expressed in Hertz the number is actually lower for lower pitch sounds. Higher pitched tones have a higher number.

For example middle C is 261Hz and bass C is 130Hz. Bass C is lower than middle C because the number of oscillations per second (Hertz) is lower than middle C.

This may not speak to the history of the use of "low" and "high", but it's certainly consistent with the physical understanding of frequency. Though I imagine this connection was known very early. It doesn't take much to hear that an object moving back-and-forth faster has a "higher" pitch than one moving slower. Just pick up a thick piece of paper and try yourself. The same applies to percussion in a way, the more beats per second you have the "higher" the perceived pitch is.

So now low/high is not just a metaphor, but a physical description of the frequency of the sound, in Hertz.

As a side note, in western musical notation the lower pitches notes are lower on the staff than higher pitched ones. So at least the notation is consistent.

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    This is the correct answer. The frequency of oscillation itself is actually higher for a higher note and lower for a lower one. – reirab Mar 29 '15 at 7:58
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    I really doubt that our ancestors understood sound frequency. How do you move a piece of paper faster than 20 Hz anyway? But let us assume it is correct. Then why 20 is "lower" than 200? One (the Deity) is the highest of all, after all, right? – g.kertesz Mar 29 '15 at 8:50
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    Besides, why do we use frequency, and not oscillation period? And, more interestingly, why do we call a high number high, and not a heavy number? – Sanchises Mar 29 '15 at 9:01
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    The concept of pitch frequency was discovered by Galileo. The use of "high" and "low" to describe pitch is older (though perhaps not very much older). That is the problem with your answer. – fdb Mar 29 '15 at 13:49
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    @J-mster We call the greater frequency 'higher' because we call larger numbers 'higher' and lesser ones 'lower.' This is in no way unique to pitches or frequencies. It applies equally well to any quantity and I don't believe it originated with pitches. If you want to know why we use 'higher' and 'lower' in reference to quantities in general, that's a different question entirely. Also, yes, frequency of pitches has been understood for quite a long time. – reirab Mar 29 '15 at 18:04
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Turkish language uses "Thick" for low frequency pitches and "Thin" for high frequency pitches. Turkish reserves "low" and "high" for amplitude of the sound instead. Like: The sound of the thunder was too thick yet too high (in proper English, that sentence actually says the sound was low in frequency but its amplitude was too high).

  • Thank you, @Karamio, nice to see a counterexample from the European culture. – g.kertesz Mar 30 '15 at 13:29
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It is a metaphor, expressing pitch by reference to SPATIAL ELEVATION, and while it is widespread, it is not universal. Other cultures use "sharp/heavy" or "small/large" for our "high/low". But those two metaphorical frames, at least, still conceive of low pitches as "heavy" or "large", attributes which would tend to line up with "low" rather than "high".

See David Huron's notes on the question.

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I would guess that the physiological basis of this widespread metaphor is the fact that the larynx moves down for uttering a low-pitched sound and up for a high-pitched one.

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    Do you really think that people (other than physiologists, acousticians and singing teachers) are aware of this? – Colin Fine Mar 29 '15 at 16:54
  • I'm not sure metaphors are always based in a conscious awareness of the grounds of the metaphor. But even if so, I'd think it might suffice that some people are aware of it even if not everybody is. – TKR Mar 29 '15 at 21:17
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When singing or speaking, high-pitched sounds tend to resonate more in the head and low-pitched sounds tend to resonate more in the lungs.

Also, many wind instruments such as e.g. flutes are played by blowing air into them from above and controlling pitch by opening a variable number of holes. For the lowest-pitched note, all holes are closed. For higher pitches one opens a number of holes, starting with the lowest one. For the highest pitch all holes are open, including the highest one. (Any musician can see that this is a severe simplification of what's going on, but that's irrelevant for the connection to the metaphor.)

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Well wind instruments are about the only instruments where you are required to close all holes closer to the ground when the sound is low. With a cello it is the opposite. With a keyboard low is left and high is right.

I believe the metaphor is constructed because of our body's tacit understanding of the gravitational impact of the perceived weight or mass of lower sounds where we can hear most overtones above it compared to higher sounds, which, even when loud, resonate in a different part of our body (the upper body). And they have a different quality because we don't hear all the overtones above them some of which are out of our hearing range.

And someone mentioned that you feel low sounds in a lower part of the body than high sounds. I think we have an implicit knowledge of that. Even if you try creating a low sound you can feel the vibrations lower in your stomach, whereas you don't with higher sounds so much unless they're really loud. That's probably because of the frequency of low sounds as much as the mass.

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In a Sound Symbolism sense, "high" contains a high pitch vowel, "low" a low pitch. Therefore, Ger. "hell" (bright) is a better translation than "hoch" (high), and "dunkel" ("dark") fits better than "tief" ("deep") (although, make no mistake, most cognates have o and u vowels - Ain't talking about dub).

The "young" and "alt" voice brought up in a comment is ironic, because Lt. "alto" means "high, deep". Alto is the lowest female register, above tenor (cp. tension) and below soprano (cp. super).

Similar to the flute analogue brought up before, a string instrument produces high pitch when gripping close to the head, and a low pitch when gripping close to the base. Perhaps that's why it's called Bass (Lt. "bassus" - thick, fat, stumpy, short, low, base; Agr. "βᾰ́σῐς", "básis" - step, rhythm, foot, foundation, base), but perhaps, as the Agr. glosses indicate, it related to drums, cp. base-drum (which may explain the etymology of vase; even Ger. "Fass", "Gefäß"; "tonne" is close to "tone", too, but that's only superficial, so far, and besides the point).

"Thick" and "thin" in turn would have to relate to the thickness of the instrument's strings.

The lowest formant of a sound is also called the fundamental frequency. The imagery is quite strong. In musical theory, the baseline is the foundation of a melody.

The analogy to the movement of the larynx up and down is rather obvious, too.

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