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Harmonic Series in Music: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Cathy Neff

Cathy has taught college courses and has a master's degree in music.

Just as the colors of a rainbow combine to make white light, the related notes in a harmonic series combine to make what we hear as a single pitch. Learn about the harmonic series, overtones, perfect, major, and minor intervals, fundamentals and harmonics.

Harmonic Series in Music: Definition and Lesson

There is a wonderful phenomenon in nature called color, and it is made up of light waves that we see with our eyes. What our eyes see as the color 'white' is actually the presence of all colors combined, and what our eyes see as the color 'black' is actually the absence of all color. When white light is focused through a prism, the prism acts as a filter and separates all of the colors back into individual colors, creating what we see as a rainbow. The prism doesn't create the different colors; it just lets us see the colors that are already present in white light.

Music acts much the same way as color, but instead of light waves that we see with our eyes, music has sound waves that we hear with our ears. Instruments with columns of air, strings, metal, or wood vibrate to create these sound waves that we call music. Instead of 'colors,' we have 'pitches,' but just as white light can be separated into all the separate colors that go into it, a pitch can be separated into all the separate notes that combine to make up that one pitch. When we hear a pitch, we aren't actually hearing one pitch but a series of notes that combine to make that pitch. This is what we call the pitch's harmonic series. Hearing all the notes in a harmonic series combined as one pitch is similar to seeing all the colors of the rainbow combined as white light.

Fundamentals and Overtones

Our eyes are naturally drawn to certain colors, and similarly, our ears are naturally drawn to the lowest note of the harmonic series, and this is the pitch that we hear. This pitch is called the fundamental. All of the notes that make up the harmonic series above that pitch are called overtones because they happen above, or 'over,' the fundamental pitch. They can also be called partials because they are parts of a pitch. The more common of these overtones are called harmonics, and they are frequently played by certain instruments such as harps and guitars. If we relate this harmonic series to color, the fundamental would be the 'white light' of a pitch that we actually hear, and the overtones would be the 'rainbow' of individual notes that make up that pitch.

Perfect Intervals

The colors of the rainbow always appear in the same order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Likewise, the notes of the harmonic series always occur in the same order of intervals. An interval is the distance between two notes, and it is measured in half-steps. The intervals in the harmonic series occur in order of strongest to weakest intervals.

The strongest interval is an octave, which is the note of the same name that occurs 12 half-steps above the original pitch. So if you were to play middle C on the piano, the octave above that would be the C above middle C.

perfect octave

The second strongest interval is the interval of a fifth, which is 7 half-steps above the original pitch. A fifth above C would be G.

perfect fifth

The third strongest interval is the interval of a fourth, which is 5 half-steps above the original pitch. A fourth above C would be F.

perfect fourth

All of these very strong intervals are called perfect intervals, and they are so strong that they are easily recognizable to the human ear. You could liken them to the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. These three intervals are referred to as a perfect octave (P8), a perfect fifth (P5), and a perfect fourth (P4) when they have the number of half-steps given above.

Every perfect interval can be made larger by a half-step to become what is called an augmented interval, or smaller by a half-step to become what is called a diminished interval, but these intervals do not occur in the harmonic series. Only the perfect form of the intervals of an octave, fifth and fourth occur in the harmonic series.

Major and Minor Intervals

There are intervals that occur in the harmonic series that are not as strong as the perfect intervals. These would be similar to the secondary colors of orange, green, and violet which are not as strong as the primary colors. These intervals include major and minor intervals and appear in this order of strong to weak:

Major third (M3) has 4 half-steps. (A major third above C is E)

Minor third (m3) has 3 half-steps. (A minor third above C would be E-flat)

Major second (M2) has 2 half-steps. (A major second above C would be D)

Minor second (m2) has 1 half-step. (A minor second above C would be D-flat)

major minor intervals

Just like the perfect intervals, the major intervals can be made a half-step larger to become an augmented interval, and the minor intervals can be made a half-step smaller to become a diminished interval. However, these intervals do not occur in the harmonic series of a pitch. Only the major and minor forms of the intervals of thirds and seconds occur in the harmonic series.

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