Overtones Vs. Fundamentals In Music And Audio (In Simple Terms) Thursday January 26 2023, 2:30 AM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
Overtones Vs. Fundamentals In Music And Audio (In Simple Terms)

What Is The Fundamental Frequency In Music?

When it comes to audio terms in the world of music, getting to the science behind sound waves and pitch can literally make your brain explode. It's great for the geniuses out there to go and explore if they want, but some of us need the breakdowns of pitch, overtones, and frequency put in layman's terms! 

The concept of a fundamental frequency can get deep, but the easy way to think of it in music and audio terms is to think of every note you sing or play as a pitch. 

When you hit a pitch, tons of tones are actually coming out of that soundwave, although we may not be able to hear them all as people. 

The tones coming out of them are all categorized as partials, with all the partial tones coming together to make a full tone or a pitch that one can play on an instrument or sing with their voice.

Of all these partials, one tone is recognized as the fundamental tone, which is perceived by our ears as the lowest partial that we can recognize as we listen. 

If you're looking at the visual waveform of the pitch being performed, the breakdown of each partial will show you that the fundamental tone has the fattest waveform, which is why it is heard the best out of all the tones coming from that one pitch.


What Is An Overtone?

Along with the fundamental tone, which is a partial, there are other partial tones as well that you can find when hearing a pitch. These partial tones that sit higher than the fundamental tone are referred to as overtones. 

Overtones cannot be heard as well as a fundamental frequency can, and their sound waves (also known as standing waves) vibrate at a different rate, making them smaller and faster.

While the fundamental tone is always heard, overtones are rarely heard by the human ear but are almost always present in a pitch or a tone that is being sung or played. 

Overtones are often referred to as upper partials in the audio and physics world. They are also categorized as a harmonic tone, which is a wave frequency that is higher than the fundamental tone.  

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Overtones And Singing

Overtone singing is often done in solo performances outside of Western Music culture, where vocalists perform a type of throat singing (although there are multiple approaches to throat singing).

More often, when it comes to overtones in vocal performances, they are very present in choral groups where harmonies and multiple pitches are layered together and produce audible overtones in the overall sound. 

In many cases with composers for choral music, the writers may need to be aware of the overtones that may be present in certain chords that could add to or take away from the overall harmony happening with the harmony parts written.

FYI: It is a bit confusing, but worth it to note that harmonics and harmonizing are not the same in this case.

While harmonics are barely audible notes that are automatically present above the fundamental frequency, harmony notes are distinct pitches that need to fit a song's scale of chord progression. 

The harmonics you hear (aka overtones) in a choir might not actually match the harmony parts that need to be present for a particular chord. 

Many professional singers have attempted to challenge themselves and try to harmonize with their own voice using overtones, my friends and me included! 

Renowned singer Lalah Hathaway is featured in the video above, actually harmonizing with herself and manipulating the tone of her voice to hit a fundamental pitch and overtone at the same time. How impressive is that? 

Overtones And Instruments 

Instruments can do some wildly impressive things when it comes to isolating certain partials in a full pitch that is played. 

Some instruments actually allow the players to be able to play the overtones in a pitch without the fundamental frequency, which is hard to do as a vocalist! String instruments have a particular method of playing called natural string harmonics, which can isolate sweet high partials. 

An even more advanced method of playing strings to isolate overtones is called artificial harmonics, which are more difficult but allow you to access more chromatic notes as an instrumentalist. 

With wind instruments, players can blow with certain techniques that will put more emphasis on overtones or on the fundamental frequency. As an example, didgeridoo players often manipulate partials with their mouth movement techniques.  

Brass instruments, on the other hand, often focus on the fundamental tone, although some overtones can be present during performances. This is likely due to the fact that brass instruments were originally made with no valves.

But more modern brass instruments being made feature valves that allow the players to tap into more than their usual fundamental notes. 

Related Post: 10 Famous Singers With Perfect Pitch [+ How It Helps Or Hurts]


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Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her recent collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

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