MIDI note to Hz relation. Can it change? Is it an industry standard?

Hello folks,

I’m analyzing the Score Editor and I have a question. I want to find out if the frequency triggered by a single MIDI event is always the same?

For instance, if I add an E1 event on the key editor: Will this ALWAYS trigger a note with an 82Hz fundamental, no matter the virtual instrument that I load? (please note that Cubase’s middle C is C3, so this means that C3=261Hz)

In other words, is there an industry standard that establishes a direct relationship between each MIDI note and a specific frequency? i.e. E1 = 82Hz

I´m not talking about customized MIDI mapping, or about samplers/synths where you can pretty much assign the MIDI event to whichever frequency you want, or change it with transpose functions. I’m talking about the standard default reaction of virtual instruments to the same MIDI note. Is it always the same reaction? Is it a standard?


A musical note will always have its same fundamental frequency. I wouldn’t say it’s an industry standard. It’s more a fact.

So no matter what synth or sound source, a specific frequency will always relate to a specific note.

I think this is what you are after: MTS- MIDI Tuning Standard - Wikipedia.

But your question seems to come back to what frequency comes out of any given Virtual Instrument or hardware synth. And that may vary to some degree.

If you’re defining an instruments fundamental frequency as the lowest frequency to which other harmonic and overtones sit above, Then, no i don’t think that is the case as instruments/plugins can be voiced differently in regards to which octave range is the default for that preset? I guess put each VST through an analog/audio tuner would reveal the answers.

I just had a quick check with two random Halion presets playing C3:-

And they’re an octave apart for starters

All devices agree that Middle C is midi note 60, but due to the way the industry evolved, some manufacturers call midi note 60 C3, and others call it C4.

There is no direct relation between midi note numbers and frequency. What the MIDI standard dictates is how the commands are sent and what their format should be, e.g., Middle C with velocity 64 in hexadecimal: 90 3C 40, and, that there are 12 pitches per octave. A sophisticated synth/sampler like Halion or to a lesser extent :wink: Kontakt, provide the means to adjust what pitches are played in response to a given command.

Also, many synths follow the custom of transposing instruments vis-a-vis music notation, so guitar, and bass, for instance, might come transposed right out of the box.

Technically speaking, a midi command is sent to a device and the device interprets it. Then the device produces a pitch based on its own parameters. While most music sound generators designed for European and Western markets use Equal Temperament 12 tone tuning, there are many devices that use others. Most devices and software synths supply a variety of tunings, such as mean-tone, Werkmeister, etc., which are part of the history of tempered tuning that evolved in Europe since Pythagoras’ time.

In other parts of the world pitch and modality evolved differently. So instruments, acoustic or electronic, are constructed according to the requirements of a given system. Yamaha, Korg and others have specialized instruments that are region- or culture-specific. Many users making music from those parts of the world participate here on the forums.

Thank you Steve this was the answer I was looking for.

What I meant to say was: How rare is it for MIDI note 60 to trigger anything different than middle C by default in virtual instruments tuned to the standard western equal temperament system?

Because in the end, the octave number doesn’t quite matter, as long as its the same MIDI message triggering the same sample or synthesized frequency.

The confusion may come with transposing instruments. If I load a guitar on Halion Sonic (for instance the preset “gm25 nylon guitar”), E1 will trigger E2-82hz on the instrument. Then, the Score Editor shows this note on the treble clef as E2 (I know, I know, display transpose with a preset is an easy fix, but still, the +12 setting conflicts with the fact that the Key Editor shows this note as E1. E1+12=E3 doesn’t make sense.)

That’s where I find conflicting and confusing that middle C=C3 in Cubase. When you see E1 in the info line but the score shows E2, things start getting confusing. Guitar and bass are easy because they transpose by an octave, but when you start working with trumpets and the like… well I don’t know how complicated might it get. The manual features one page :astonished: on this subject of transposing instruments.

On top off all, there is not a single mention of the “middle C” subject in the whole Score Editor, nor the Operation manual.
Not cool Steinberg, not cool. :unamused:

It hurts me to see the Score Editor’s power disregarded by most users because of minor things like this. But then again, maybe the Score Editor is headed to a glamorous demise (I didn’t say Dorico, ok?) :confused: :laughing: :laughing:

The most common relationship between note and frequency is A440. Many virtual instruments allow you to change the frequency for that note however, so A can correspond to something other than 440 Hz.

The octave is another matter entirely. First, as Steve says, there are two different standards for middle C. C4 is the most common convention, but C3 is often used as well. Second, for complex sounds, the fundamental octave can often be ambiguous. It sounds like you are searching for the single “correct” answer, but there is no definitive right or wrong here.

I understand that there are two standards for middle C (3 or 4). But they both trigger MIDI note #60, so I guess that’s fine.

My question is if there is a standard for the musical frequency that MIDI note 60 should trigger on most orchestral virtual instruments? (let’s leave out those that handle non-tempered 12 tone scales)

I’m just trying to teach my students whether they can trust that the same MIDI note on Cubase will show the same vertical position on the Score Editor’s staff, regardless of the virtual instrument they use.

I know there will be exceptions. However, Can we trust this will be true most of the time? about half the time? whats the general possibility?

Really what it comes down to is the users understanding of the history of music notation, transposing instruments and clefs, and the software or hardware instrument being used to playback your sheet music.

Cubase just puts note 60 where you tell it to, using the parameters in the Score Editor Staff Settings.

As I tried to explain above, there are two parts to the answer to that question. A440 is the frequency standard. The C3/C4 convention in use for the instrument determines the octave. Both of these are adjustable on most instruments. You put those two together to determine the specific frequency for any given midi note.

The (VST) instrument comes AFTER the MIDI/Score data though, so it’s not going to change that data changing plugins - if that’s the question being asked here.

True. The question I answered:

…is a different issue than this:

When working with transposing staves in the Cubase score editor, in my experience, the stuff falls in line as it should. I can instruct it to display staves in concert pitch (shows exactly what it will play), and transposed pitch (shows what the instrument or family of instruments normally see and play when handed a part).

I.E. It knows a trumpet or clarinet are Bb instruments, and it transposes a major 2nd up from the ‘concert pitch’ and it applies the proper key signature. I.E. Concert Bb major scale, with two flats, is the C scale, with no flats for a trumpet. Concert F scale (One flat), is G scale (one sharp) for Bb trumpets and clarinets, etc.

It knows a Tenor Trombone uses the F clef, and that it doesn’t need to be transposed at all to be synonymous with the same ‘concert pitch’.

It knows that F. Horn is typically keyed in F, and does it for me. If for some reason I want my own custom horn transposition stave that isn’t already provided as a preset, I can easily make it.

Cubase Score editor is also very flexible. I can make my own transposition scheme for any track/stave I desire. I.E. Often we like to put tenor trombone parts in tenor or alto clef instead of using the F clef…might not be an included preset, but we can easily make it.

I.E. If I want to make a Uphonium part in Treble G clef (rather than Bass F Clef), transposed down an octave and a 2nd (-14 chromatic steps), as a Bb instrument, and give it to a former trumpet player so s/he doesn’t have to do mental gymnastics with the scales and fingerings). I simply think of it in number of ‘half steps’ from the ‘concert pitch’ that is truly sounded and put the custom transposition into the stave’s parameters.

So, personally, I would just have students think of things in terms of half steps up or down from the concert pitch. Cubase ships with most of the more common stuff already entered, but yes, there might be times when something you want isn’t there, or you have other reasons to want to force a custom stave. You can easily do it in Cubase. Students should know how instruments typically transpose into concert key…or at least they should know how to look it up somewhere when they are not sure.

In short, you can easily toggle a score or part in Cubase Score mode to display concert pitches (exactly what it will send to your virtual or offboard MIDI instruments), and transposed staves (the stuff you’d hand to your orchestra players to play from). It has a lot of presets already done for you, and when those do not jive to your needs, you can easily set up new stave types with the exact transposition and clef parameters you desire.

Personally, I like to compose with a non-transposed score to begin with (all concert pitches…no transpositions at all…what I see is what I hear). Later I’ll toggle the transposition mode on, and double check that things are not going to possibly present range/pedigogy issues (how good/experienced the target player is) and will otherwise print the score and parts as they should be…tweak the things that aren’t transposing as they should, etc.


On microtones and special scales…

Cubase can do it, but you’ll have to build your own scoring framework in these cases, in correspondence to whatever instrument(s) you are using. You will need to understand the micro-tuning capabilities of your instrument(s) that Cubase will be sending messages, and teach your scores how to do it properly.

I.E. If all you want to do is use a different tuning scale, but stick with conventional 12 tone notation, then you might just load a scala map (or something similar) into your virtual instrument. Some synths might not have internal scale mapping, but they might support changing the scale with RPN events over MIDI. In this case, the score itself is dumb in respect to the scale/system it will be triggering. You’d do that in your virtual instrument. I.E. Aria (Garritan) instruments let you load up a ‘scalia map’ to define the fundamental pitches of each note in a scale in a text file. if you want to go from equal temperament 440A, to a Pythagorean 422A JUST tuning system, and so on. Cubase doesn’t know the difference, and doesn’t care. Such tuning schemes are done in your instruments themselves.

Cubase also has an assortment of track inserts where you can micro tune using MIDI commands (provided your instrument supports it). Either via RPN events, or pitch bend commands, (as well as more modern VST/i 3 note-expression commands). With these sorts of Cubase 'MIDI Insert" effects, you can do things like, retune each individual note in a 12 tone scale (again, if the instrument it is connected with understands the RPN or Pitch Bend events it will send to change the scale).

If your score needs more than 12 theoretical notes within an octave through advanced micro-tuning (I.E. Quater tone intervals, perhaps notated using special symbols in conjunction with the traditional lines/staves/sharps/flats), then you will need to build your own system, perhaps through special expression maps attached to your own custom symbols that will instruct your virtual instruments to ‘do the micro-tuning’ in real time as a score plays. I.E. You could make a score symbol that sends an explicit pitch-bend event, or even RPN/NRPN MIDI events as the score is playing. OR, you could just open the track in key-edit, or list-edit, and manually enter the tuning events there.

Another method pretty common for strange or complex scales that involve more than 12 pitches within an octave is to use multiple tracks/staves for playback, and have each track set to different tuning systems. You might have hidden ‘play-back’ staves that look a whole lot different from the ‘printed score’ that you’ll be giving real musicians to interpret and play.

I.E. You could fake a 24 tone scale by having two tracks, one tuned to equal temperament 440A, and another tuned to equal temperament 453.08A, and do your quarter pitches from a different track. Later you could merge the tracks into one if you like, and mark up your quarter tones somehow for display purposes in your score, but ultimately preserve the channels so that the notes are still sending over the respective MIDI channels.

In short…if you can dream it up, Cubase usually has more than one way to tackle the problem. Cubase is pretty dumb on its own, but it is flexible enough to make it do what you want to hear and see, if you’re willing to ‘think it through’ and ‘build the template’ that fits your needs.

There are of course some short commings in working with Cubase Score. Obviously it doesn’t make the best looking printed scores out there. Some of its faults are pretty simple things that could/should have been fixed or added a long time ago, but get ignored in favor of pushing ‘new features’ that we already had hundreds of plugin options for, but alas…it is what it is. A very powerful and flexible editor.

At the end of the day, Cubase Score is still one of, if not THE most flexible scoring system ever devised. I’m amazed to this day at how well it coordinates with the rest of the DAW, and how easy it is to customize and fine tune how it will interpret a score and play it back.

It has been brought to my attention that I have “hijacked” a thread in an attempt to help anyone that might browse this thread wrap his or her head around the relationship between sequencing and scoring with Cubase, and what virtual instruments might end up actually sounding like.

Yes, I read the part of the OP’s post explaining what he is NOT asking, and yes, I went ahead and talked about what he is "NOT ASKING’ anyway.

Why? Because what he is not asking, in my experienced opinion, gets to the heart of the EXISTING STANDARDS.

To the question, “Is there an industry standard?” The short answer is that there are several. Cubase can effectively deal with all of them, but it isn’t very ‘smart’ about it. It simply does what we tell it to do at the higher levels, and the instruments we connect to it take it from there. I ‘hijacked’ the thread to illustrate from the concept of high level part transposition, down to micro-tuning because someone specifically mentioned helping ‘students’ wrap their heads around how all this works. Perhaps the OP already knows all this, but others read the thread as well.

  1. If the instrument is stamped General MIDI, and it does indeed live up to those specs, then you can typically custom tune each of the 12 tones within an octave using RPN or sysex events. Cubase provides some tools to do this. Some are based on RPN events. Some are based on sysex events. Some merely use pitch bend events. Some can even be based on Note Expression events. Many of these come in the form of “MIDI Insert” plugins. Cubase also provides extensive utilities to make your own custom RPN/NRPN or sysex based modules if you have an instrument that needs that (and discover that someone out there hasn’t already made such a module for your specific instrument).

  2. Many instruments will totally ignore the old General MIDI protocols for custom tuning, but still have a way to do it through their own UI, and perhaps by some non-standard remote controlled methods as well. I gave the scala convention supported by Garritan libraries a mention as one example.

  3. Some instruments can deal with scales that divide an octave by more, or fewer than 11 intervals. To my knowledge, this isn’t part of the General MIDI standard. If an instrument can do it it on its own, great. If it cannot, then one must get creative, which is why I included a section on either doing real time manipulation of pitch with custom events, or using multiple tracks/staves to invent scale systems (merely by changing the master tuning for each track/channel so they can stack to make the scales you desire) that need more, or fewer intervals within an octave.

For what it’s worth, I had no intention of terrorizing or offending anyone.

Haha you’ll wake to a horses head next.

Wow thank you, Brian, that was very informative.

It does help to know all these details about functionality and customization. I live in a land where the gospel of Cubase isn’t as widely spread, specially, when it comes to Score creation.

I am glad you hijacked the post, because this useful information will be under my initial thread in case I need it in the future.

Maybe I wasn’t clear on the type of students I was referring to. My students are learning to use Cubase. They are music production students, so most of them do not have the amount of knowledge to understand arrangement or orchestration concepts. I provide them with necessary information about transposing instruments, but that’s about it. My goal is to make it easy for them to record a live band and then transcribe their recording into the Score Editor. I’m not training arrangers, composers or instrumentalists. Just music technologists with a near-to-non musical background, so that they can communicate basic ideas within the rehearsal/recording studio realms.

Regarding the C3 versus C4 standards, the reason actually does relate to C. The C programming language, that is.

If you have an array of 8 things, you’d expect the first element to be 1 and the last to be 8. Unless you’re coding in C (or its many grandchildren). In C, the first element of an array is not 1. It’s 0. Because of course it is.

So, if you have an array of 8 Cs, C0 is the first, and C3 would be the fourth. If, on the other hand, you’re programming in a language where the first element is 1, then C1 is your first and C4 is your fourth. That’s what the programmer sees under the hood.

Of course, even if your app is coded in C / C++, you have a choice when it comes to the user interface. Do you tell the truth, that the first C is C0, or do you translate that into what a human might actually expect to see, i.e. C1? The end result, since there’s more than one MIDI program / DAW / etc. out there and thus more than one set of programmers, is that some developers have chosen one way and others have chosen the alternative.

Think that’s annoying as a user? Try slinging code for a living. No matter which choice you make, there is a thread on Reddit that will explain in great detail why you’re wrong. :slight_smile:

Eh? In programming and MIDI, each note has a direct value associated to it for addressing purposes, the octaves aren’t defined by an array which is built via a for…loop and the programmers are too lazy to add +1 to it or anything daft like that. As DAW Octaves go into the negatives as used for articulations triggers etc. - C-2, C-1, C0, C1, C2 etc. Note 60 (Middle C) is what the MIDI standard declares, so if that is defined as C3 then the lowest root note should be 5 octaves (60/12) down at C-2.

In coding you would take the note value and simply divide it by 12 (Octave) and retrieve the floor integer value minus the starting octave. i.e. note 60 (Middle C) = 60/12 = 5. If the DAW starts at C-2 then that makes Note 60 display as C3 i.e. (60/12)-2.

Most of the naming conventions from different manufacturers are based around size of the keybed in use, i.e. 61 key/88 determines what the first octave is on that keyboard and thus where it lays in relation to Note 60 / middle C. I expect that’s the reason some call it C3, and others C4. i.e. an 88 keyboard will have 3 octaves (C1/C2/C3) before Middle C, whereas 61 key will only have 2 (C1/C2).

i.e. I don’t think you could therefore have Middle C as C4 AND the lowest addressable note going down to C-2 as you’d be in the negative range on the MIDI spec (Of which there are 128 notes), having C4 as Middle C (Note 60) means that Note 0 would have to be C-1.