What Are Overtones In Music? What Do I Need To Know About Them?

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What are Overtones in Music? What do I need to know about them?

Hello. This is Duane with “More Good Stuff, You Really Ought to Know.” What I’d like to cover this month is something called the “Overtone Series.” It’s the sounds that a note makes as its vibrations vibrate through the air, for lack of a better term. This is nothing that you need to do by the way. It’s just helpful as a musician to know how sound works.

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When you play a note or sing a note or whatever, other tones vibrate in sympathy with that note. Those tones are what we call as overtones in music. The note itself is called the fundamental. No matter what note you’re playing, there’s a fundamental. On the card, [Duane playing piano] I printed a low C. Let’s say that that is the note you’re playing. The first thing that will vibrate, or it will vibrate the strongest is an octave up. [Duane playing piano] Then the second strongest vibration is a fifth [Duane playing piano] above that. Then the third strongest is the octave above that, [Duane playing piano] and then the third comes in. [Duane playing piano]

Now we have a whole chord. [Duane playing piano] In case you thought perhaps, wondered why … thought maybe chords were arbitrary that some guy in history just decided, “Well, let’s [Duane playing piano] call these three notes a chord, or a major chord.” They’re not. They’re built into the nature of sound. That’s the way that sound works. Sound vibrates that way and so it’s not [Duane playing piano] like somebody just arbitrarily decided to do it. That’s [Duane playing piano] the way it is. That’s the way God created it. Those are the strongest overtones right there. Then the next one is [Duane playing piano] a duplication of the fifth, and then we come to a seventh. [Duane playing piano] You wouldn’t think that that would occur. I wouldn’t think naturally that it would, but it does. [Duane playing piano] That’s the next one.

Then, [Duane playing piano] the octave again in the second, [Duane playing piano] back to the third. Then up a whole step, [Duane playing piano] then the fifth again, [Duane playing piano] then the sixth, [Duane playing piano] and the seventh [Duane playing piano] again, and then that note which is in contrast with [Duane playing piano] the seventh [Duane playing piano] because it’s like a major seventh. It’s very faint at that point. It’s very, very faint. It’s very unlikely that you’ll ever hear that.

If sometime you’re in a room and I’ve had this experience many times as a musician. Four guys will be singing on a quartet, say A Cappella, and suddenly the sound appears. This note appears that nobody is singing and people look at each other, “Who’s singing that?” Well, nobody is singing it. It’s part of the overtone series, that’s floating in. By the way, the better or the worse people are in pitch, the less likely they’re going to hear the overtone series. In other words the more accurate you are with pitch, you’re going to have some neat overtones. The human voice by the way defaults back to correct tuning, physically correct tuning. The scale that we deal with on the piano is called the “Tempered scale” which means that if you want to play in the key of C, that’s really a compromise. The way they’ve tuned [Duane playing piano] that scale is really a compromise to allow the piano to also play in the key of D flat [Duane playing piano] D, E flat [Duane playing piano] E, F … [Duane playing piano]

The tempered scale, it’s tempered by the others. It’s a compromise. It’s like each scale can have its own way if you’re going to play in all those other scales, but the human voice and the human ear defaults to absolute temperament tuning. When you hear a great A Cappella group, let’s say Take Six. You probably heard of that six guys that are just unbelievably good and accurate. When they sing you hear true pitch for one thing, that it’s not a tempered scale. Then you also, because they’re singing truly on pitch, you hear all these overtones above them that you think maybe somebody is singing that part, but nobody is singing that part. That’s just the overtone series.

That’s just “Some Good Stuff, You Really Ought To Know” if you want to become a good musician. Not that there’s anything to do about it, bust you just need to know about these things. We’ll see you next month. Bye bye.

Here is more information about overtones:

And here is a Wikipedia article about them:

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