SCIENCE: Harmonics – you can’t fight Mother Nature

When ancient man struck a hollow-log with a stick they discovered certain parts of the hollow-log hurt their hands (and made a “thud” sound). They also discovered other parts of the log were louder, had a more resonant sound AND did not hurt their hands!

  • Painters mix blue and yellow pigments to create green.
  • Chefs wait for water to reach 212° to boil.
  • Dancers deal with the laws of gravity.
  • Music is defined by rules of nature – even if we don’t understand the science.

Sound is a physical property of the vibration of molecules in an atmosphere. Yes, when a tree falls on an alien planet with an atmosphere and nobody is around to hear it … it made a sound. (Of course the density of the alien air affects the pitch).

When we listen to a musical note, we hear the fundamental tone – and give it a letter name. However, as soon as anything begins vibrating besides its fundamental tone lots of additional tones are generated. Musical instruments are designed to enhance the mathematically generated tones. Each additional tone is softer in volume than the previous notes. These additional notes are called harmonics or overtones.

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The presence of natural harmonics mean when a flute, piano or trumpet plays a note – a string is plucked or bowed; those fundamental tones also include lots of other notes too.

The natural distribution of harmonics from open in the base clef, closed in the treble clef, clustered in the high-treble clef, is also how we later learn to voice chords.

When a trombone plays a C3 you basically get an entire C Major triad too (see “Music Equivalent” above). The 5th harmonic (the chord’s 3rd) is faint, and thankfully we don’t usually hear the 7th harmonic (the dominant 7th). However, you always hear the first few harmonics of a note (along with the harmonics of other notes of a chord).


MAJOR CHORD = When building a C Major triad, the harmonics of all three notes support the “major” quality of the Major triad with extra Major 3rds (E) and Perfect 5ths (G).

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MINOR CHORD = When building a C minor triad, the harmonics of all three notes are not as supportive of the “minor” quality of the minor triad. The minor-third (E) clashes a bit with the natural third (E) harmonics.

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CHORDS WITHOUT A 5th = When building any chord you can omit the Perfect 5th because the Root harmonics already prominently includes the Perfect 5th.

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About blakehandler

BLAKE was a Microsoft MVP and award winning programmer with over 20+ years experience providing complete Windows and networking support for small to medium sized businesses. BLAKE is also Jazz Musician and Instructor for residential clients on the Los Angeles West Side.
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