What Is Overtone in Music Theory?


Martha Robinson

Music theory is a complex subject that is vital to understanding the intricacies of music. One of the key concepts in music theory is overtone. In this article, we will explore what overtone is and how it affects the sound of music.

What Is Overtone?

Overtone, also known as a partial, harmonic, or resonant frequency, is a frequency that occurs naturally above the fundamental frequency of a musical note. In simpler terms, each musical instrument produces not only the main or fundamental frequency but also additional higher frequencies that are multiples of the original frequency.

These additional frequencies are called overtones and give each instrument its unique sound. For example, when you play a guitar string, it produces not only its fundamental pitch but also overtones that contribute to its characteristic timbre or tone quality.

How Do Overtones Work?

To understand how overtones work in music theory, let’s consider an example of a vibrating string. When you pluck a guitar string, it vibrates back and forth at a specific rate or frequency. The rate at which the string vibrates determines its pitch or note.

However, this vibration causes the surrounding air to vibrate as well at various frequencies. These frequencies are multiples of the fundamental frequency and are known as overtones. The first overtone is double the fundamental frequency, while the second overtone is triple its frequency and so on.

What Are Harmonics?

Harmonics are another term used interchangeably with overtones in music theory. They refer to specific frequencies that occur naturally along with overtones in musical instruments.

Harmonics can be produced by playing natural harmonics on stringed instruments like guitars and violins or by blowing air into wind instruments like flutes and clarinets.

The Importance Of Overtone In Music Theory

The concept of overtone is vital in music theory as it helps us understand the various components that make up a musical tone. By studying overtones, we can better appreciate the unique sound of each instrument and how it contributes to the overall harmony of a musical piece.

Additionally, understanding overtones can help musicians fine-tune their instruments to produce specific tones and adjust their playing techniques to achieve desired effects.


In conclusion, overtone is a fundamental concept in music theory that helps us understand the structure and composition of musical tones. It is an essential element that contributes to the unique sound of each instrument and plays a crucial role in creating harmony in music. By mastering the concept of overtone, musicians can better appreciate and manipulate the sounds they produce, leading to more nuanced and rich musical performances.