If you have ever listened to a choir sing or heard a musical instrument play, you may have noticed that there is more to the sound than just the primary note being played or sung. This additional sound is called an overtone.

In music theory, overtones are an essential concept. Understanding them can help us appreciate music at a deeper level.

What Are Overtones?

Overtones are additional pitches that are produced along with the fundamental pitch of any musical note. They are also known as harmonics and partials. These additional pitches are not usually perceived by the untrained ear but can be detected by using various tools and techniques.

How Do Overtones Work?

When a musical instrument produces sound, it vibrates at multiple frequencies simultaneously. The fundamental frequency, which is the lowest frequency of the sound produced, is what determines the pitch of the note we hear. However, there are other frequencies that vibrate at higher rates than the fundamental frequency, creating overtones.

The Science Behind Overtones

Overtones can be explained through the science of acoustics. When a string or air column vibrates at its fundamental frequency, it creates a standing wave pattern that produces its primary pitch. If this pattern is divided into smaller sections, it creates additional nodes where other frequencies can develop.

These frequencies are multiples of the fundamental frequency and create overtones. For example, if a string vibrates at 440 Hz (A4), its first overtone will be 880 Hz (A5), which is twice its original frequency.

Types of Overtones

There are two main types of overtones: harmonic and inharmonic.

Harmonic overtones are multiples of the fundamental frequency and create musically pleasing sounds that complement each other to form chords and harmonies.

Inharmonic overtones do not follow this pattern and create dissonant sounds that clash with the primary note and create an unpleasant sound.

Applications of Overtones

Overtones have been used in music for centuries. They are essential in creating various musical instruments, such as pianos, violins, and guitars. The combination of overtones produced by these instruments creates unique sounds that make them instantly recognizable.

Overtones are also used in vocal music. In choirs, singers use overtones to create a fuller sound by emphasizing certain harmonics of the primary note. This technique is known as overtone singing.


In conclusion, overtones are an essential aspect of music theory. They add depth and complexity to musical notes and create unique sounds that we can appreciate. Understanding overtones can help us appreciate music on a deeper level and give us insight into how musical instruments work.