Pitched musical instruments are often based on an approximate harmonic oscillator such as a string or a column of air, which oscillates at numerous frequencies simultaneously. At these resonant frequencies, waves travel in both directions along the string or air column, reinforcing and canceling each other to form standing waves. Interaction with the surrounding air causes audible sound waves, which travel away from the instrument. Because of the typical spacing of the resonances, these frequencies are mostly limited to integer multiples, or harmonics, of the lowest frequency, and such multiples form the harmonic series.
The musical pitch of a note is usually perceived as the lowest partial present (the fundamental frequency), which may be the one created by vibration over the full length of the string or air column, or a higher harmonic chosen by the player. The musical timbre of a steady tone from such an instrument is determined by the relative strengths of each harmonic.
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Any complex tone "...can be described as a combination of many simple periodic waves (i.e., sine waves) or partials, each with its own frequency of vibration, amplitude, and phase."^{[1]}
A partial is any of the sine waves by which a complex tone is described.
A harmonic (or a harmonic partial) is any of a set of partials that are whole number multiples of a common fundamental frequency.^{[2]} This set includes the fundamental, which is a whole number multiple of itself (1 times itself).
Inharmonicity is a measure of the deviation of a partial from the closest ideal harmonic, typically measured in cents for each partial.^{[3]}
Typical pitched instruments are designed to have partials that are close to being harmonics, with very low inharmonicity; therefore, in music theory, and in instrument tuning, it is convenient to speak of the partials in those instruments' sounds as harmonics, even if they have some inharmonicity. Other pitched instruments, especially certain percussion instruments, such as marimba, vibraphone, tubular bells, and timpani, contain nonharmonic partials, yet give the ear a good sense of pitch. Nonpitched, or indefinitepitched instruments, such as cymbals, gongs, or tamtams make sounds rich in inharmonic partials.
An overtone is any partial except the lowest. Overtone does not imply harmonicity or inharmonicity and has no other special meaning other than to exclude the fundamental. This can lead to numbering confusion when comparing overtones to partials; the first overtone is the second partial.
Some electronic instruments, such as theremins and synthesizers, can play a pure frequency with no overtones, although synthesizers can also combine frequencies into more complex tones, for example to simulate other instruments. Certain flutes and ocarinas are very nearly without overtones.
The simplest case to visualise is a vibrating string, as in the illustration; the string has fixed points ("nodes") at each end, and each harmonic mode divides it into 2, 3, 4, etc., equalsized sections resonating at increasingly higher frequencies.^{[4]} Similar arguments apply to vibrating air columns in wind instruments, although these are complicated by having the possibility of antinodes (that is, the air column is closed at one end and open at the other) or conical as opposed to cylindrical bores.
In most pitched musical instruments, the fundamental (first harmonic) is accompanied by other, higherfrequency harmonics. Thus shorterwavelength, higherfrequency waves occur with varying prominence and give each instrument its characteristic tone quality. The fact that a string is fixed at each end means that the longest allowed wavelength on the string (giving the fundamental frequency) is twice the length of the string (one round trip, with a half cycle fitting between the nodes at the two ends). Other allowed wavelengths are 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, etc. times that of the fundamental.
Theoretically, these shorter wavelengths correspond to vibrations at frequencies that are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc., times the fundamental frequency. Physical characteristics of the vibrating medium and/or the resonator against which it vibrates often alter these frequencies. (See inharmonicity and stretched tuning for alterations specific to wirestringed instruments and certain electric pianos.) However, those alterations are small, and except for precise, highly specialized tuning, it is reasonable to think of the frequencies of the harmonic series as integer multiples of the fundamental frequency.
The harmonic series is an arithmetic series (1×f, 2×f, 3×f, 4×f, 5×f, ...). In terms of frequency (measured in cycles per second, or hertz (Hz) where f is the fundamental frequency), the difference between consecutive harmonics is therefore constant and equal to the fundamental. But because our ears respond to sound nonlinearly, we perceive higher harmonics as "closer together" than lower ones. On the other hand, the octave series is a geometric progression (2×f, 4×f, 8×f, 16×f, ...), and we hear these distances as "the same" in the sense of musical interval. In terms of what we hear, each octave in the harmonic series is divided into increasingly "smaller" and more numerous intervals.
The second harmonic (or first overtone), twice the frequency of the fundamental, sounds an octave higher; the third harmonic, three times the frequency of the fundamental, sounds a perfect fifth above the second. The fourth harmonic vibrates at four times the frequency of the fundamental and sounds a perfect fourth above the third (two octaves above the fundamental). Double the harmonic number means double the frequency (which sounds an octave higher). The combined oscillation of a string with several of its lowest harmonics can be seen clearly in an interactive animation at Edward Zobel's "Zona Land".
For a fundamental of C1, the first 20 harmonics are notated as shown below. You can listen to A2 (110 Hz) and 15 of its partials if you have a media player capable of playing Vorbis files. You can also hear a sweep of the first 20 harmonics of A1 (55 Hz) in QuickTime format by clicking here.
If the harmonics are transposed into the span of one octave, they approximate some of the notes in what the West has adopted as the chromatic scale based on the fundamental tone. The Western chromatic scale has been modified into twelve equal semitones, which is slightly out of tune with many of the harmonics, especially the 7th, 11th, and 13th harmonics. In the late 1930s, composer Paul Hindemith ranked musical intervals according to their relative dissonance based on these and similar harmonic relationships.
Below is a comparison between the first 31 harmonics and the intervals of 12tone equal temperament (12tET), transposed into the span of one octave. Tinted fields highlight differences greater than 5 cents (1/20th of a semitone), which is the human ear's "just noticeable difference" for notes played one after the other. (Smaller differences are noticeable with notes played simultaneously.)
Harmonic  12tET Interval  Note  Variance cents  

1  2  4  8  16  prime (octave)  C  0 
17  minor second  C♯, D♭  +5  
9  18  major second  D  +4  
19  minor third  D♯, E♭  −2  
5  10  20  major third  E  −14  
21  fourth  F  −29  
11  22  tritone  F♯, G♭  −49  
23  +28  
3  6  12  24  fifth  G  +2  
25  minor sixth  G♯, A♭  −27  
13  26  +41  
27  major sixth  A  +6  
7  14  28  minor seventh  A♯, B♭  −31  
29  +30  
15  30  major seventh  B  −12  
31  +45 
The frequencies of the harmonic series, being integer multiples of the fundamental frequency, are naturally related to each other by wholenumbered ratios and small wholenumbered ratios are likely the basis of the consonance of musical intervals. For example, a perfect fifth, say 200 and 300 Hz (cycles per second), produces a combination tone of 100 Hz (the difference between 300 Hz and 200 Hz); that is, an octave below the lower (actual sounding) note. This 100 Hz first order combination tone then interacts with both notes of the interval to produce second order combination tones of 200 (300100) and 100 (200100) Hz and, of course, all further nth order combination tones are all the same, being formed from various subtraction of 100, 200, and 300. When we contrast this with a dissonant interval such as a tritone (not tempered) with a frequency ratio of 7:5 we get, for example, 700500=200 (1st order combination tone)and 500200=300 (2nd order). The rest of the combination tones are octaves of 100 Hz so the 7:5 interval actually contains 4 notes: 100 Hz (and its octaves), 300 Hz, 500 Hz and 700 Hz. It will be noted that the lowest combination tone (100 Hz) is a 17th (2 octaves and a major third) below the lower (actual sounding) note of the tritone. All the intervals succumb to similar analysis as has been demonstrated by Paul Hindemith in his book, The Craft of Musical Composition.
The relative amplitudes (strengths) of the various harmonics primarily determine the timbre of different instruments and sounds, though onset transients, formants, noises, and inharmonicities also play a role. For example, the clarinet and saxophone have similar mouthpieces and reeds, and both produce sound through resonance of air inside a chamber whose mouthpiece end is considered closed. Because the clarinet's resonator is cylindrical, the evennumbered harmonics are suppressed, which produces a purer tone. The saxophone's resonator is conical, which allows the evennumbered harmonics to sound more strongly and thus produces a more complex tone. Of course, the differences in resonance between the wood of the clarinet and the brass of the saxophone also affect their tones. The inharmonic ringing of the instrument's metal resonator is even more prominent in the sounds of brass instruments.
Our ears tend to group harmonicallyrelated frequency components into a single sensation. Rather than perceiving the individual harmonics of a musical tone, we perceive them together as a tone color or timbre, and we hear the overall pitch as the fundamental of the harmonic series being experienced. If we hear a sound that is made up of even just a few simultaneous tones, and if the intervals among those tones form part of a harmonic series, our brains tend to group this input into a sensation of the pitch of the fundamental of that series, even if the fundamental is not sounding. This phenomenon is used to advantage in music recording, especially with low bass tones that cannot be reproduced on small speakers.
Variations in the frequency of harmonics can also affect the perceived fundamental pitch. These variations, most clearly documented in the piano and other stringed instruments but also apparent in brass instruments, are caused by a combination of metal stiffness and the interaction of the vibrating air or string with the resonating body of the instrument. The complex splash of strong, high overtones and metallic ringing sounds from a cymbal almost completely hide its fundamental tone.
David Cope (1997) suggests the concept of interval strength,^{[5]} in which an interval's strength, consonance, or stability (see consonance and dissonance) is determined by its approximation to a lower and stronger, or higher and weaker, position in the harmonic series. See also: Lipps–Meyer law.
Thus, an equal tempered perfect fifth ( play (help·info)) is stronger than an equal tempered minor third( play (help·info)), since they approximate a just perfect fifth ( play (help·info)) and just minor third ( play (help·info)), respectively. The just minor third appears between harmonics 5 and 6 while the just fifth appears lower, between harmonics 2 and 3.
