“High” and “low” pitch are universal, right? Wrong. Try large and small, thick and thin, and among Zimbabwe’s Shona people, even crocodile and … those who follow crocodile. A newly updated online resource is collecting variants.

The online resource, collected by Jon Silpayamanant, is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the diversity of how people conceptualize music across cultures. It might even lead you to challenge your perceptions or design a new interface.

Musical Pitch is Not “High” or “Low” [the DOI link will get you the latest version, or see also the in-progress Google Doc.

This is a non-exhaustive list, but there are already fascinating examples – and the “high”/”low” binary isn’t all that common, even in more familiar music traditions. For convenience, higher frequency numbers are marked “high” and lower frequencies “low.” See, I just revealed a bias built into the English language – we use that vertical spatial metaphor to describe quantities as high and low, which is also not universal. It matters to design, too, in that it means you don’t have to use high and low visual representation in interfaces.

Even the ancient Greeks used oxys and barys – “sharp” and “heavy.” Large and small, strong and weak, and thick and thin are common metaphors. For instance, Persian music uses “thick” and “thin” in Farsi. If you reflect on those, those are each pretty good reflections of how differently pitched instruments look and feel, and how the wavelengths behave. Many use words related to voice, indicating an association with speech and singing.

And then things can get rather poetic, often in association with context. In the Central African Republic, the Gbaya xylophone is indicated from low frequencies to high as grandmother, mother, father, son, and daughter. (I’ve heard West African drum traditions that use similar terminology.) The indigenous Kreung people of northern Cambodia use “tight” and “loose.” In Southern Liberia, registers of voices are named after low- and high-pitched birds. China has a litany of descriptors: H – qing 清 (“clear”); ruo 弱 (“weak”); qing 輕 (“light”); duan 短 (“short”); “child’s sound”; zhuo 濁 (“muddy”); qiang 強 (“strong”); zhong 重 (“heavy”); chang 長 (“long”); “adult’s sound”.

As for the crocodiles, that comes from Shona mbira music, with various translations/associations: crocodile as low, along with old men’s voices, and the stable person, and high becomes “those who follow crocodile,” a “mad person,” and young men’s voices. That also tells you something about the difference in figuration.

Underlying perception is not universal, either, even in the West. The resource cites, among others, a study of Dutch 5-year-olds who reversed high and low. 4-month-old Dutch infants in this study seem just as likely to prefer thickness-pitch mappings as height-pitch mappings.

Side note: good vocal coaches often try to get students to stop thinking of high and low, since thinking vertically can cause weird, constrained gestures that interfere with sound production. I can vividly see my own vocal coach Wayne Sanders trying to tell people to stop stretching out their necks, which is not how to make vocal cords work. That said, if you hum now, you’ll feel the change of register in your throat; that seems a likely source of this high/low duality. But even for the voice, it’s incomplete; focusing on that can deny the physical support you would give to different registers in your diaphragm. I digress.

It would be amazing to watch this grow, and it’s another reminder of how much our way of describing music and designing interfaces for music is rooted in a perspective with a colonialist perspective. See also Jon’s research blog, which covers plenty of topics around music, technology, colonialism, and race:

Mae Mai

You can also follow Jon on X:

But of course, these should all be places to start, not stop.

It’s amusing to see people argue on Reddit that high and low aren’t metaphors, which is just… well, for lack of a diplomatic way to say this, wrong. That’s not to be critical here, though; I realize many of us are so indoctrinated in this way of thinking that we intuitively assume this to be universal. So it’s good to actually unsettle that view, especially because part of the challenge of music is trying to open our ears to new creative ideas from ourselves and others.

And a good complement to this story:

Anyway, I’m going to do some thinking about crocodiles.

Feature image: Nile crocodile in the Zambezi” by Bernard Gagnon is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.