The Difference Between Overtones and Harmonics

Once you start getting into making your own music, you will quickly realize that it’s more complicated than it originally seemed. There are numerous important concepts to grasp that you may not know much about.

For instance, you may have heard other musicians or sound engineers talk about overtones and harmonics before. That conversation may sound like it is taking place in a foreign language, but it’s important to decipher it.

You can do exactly that by continuing with the rest of this article.

What Is an Overtone?

Before we can start discussing overtones and harmonics, we have to first touch on resonant frequencies.

A resonant frequency is the natural frequency produced by an object. When an object is exhibiting its resonant frequency, that means it is also vibrating at a rate that is conducive to the creation of a standing wave pattern.

Notably, there is more than one resonant frequency that exists for each object. You can create that standing wave pattern by hitting different frequencies.

One of those frequencies is known as the fundamental frequency. You may also hear that referred to as the fundamental tone, the basic frequency, or even just the fundamental.

Identifying the fundamental frequency of an object is important if you want to learn more about overtones. Why is that, you ask? That’s because the fundamental frequency is an important point of reference for the overtones.

Overtones refer to the resonant frequencies that exist above the fundamental tone. You can identify different overtones for any particular item. Successive overtones are also known collectively as an overtone series.

What Is a Harmonic?

Now that we know more about resonant frequencies and overtones, we are better equipped to discuss harmonics.

Harmonics, also referred to as harmonic frequencies, are multiples of the fundamental tone. However, they do not account for all the multiples available. Instead, harmonic frequencies are only the whole number multiples of fundamental frequencies.

Since we are talking about whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency when discussing harmonics, the fundamental is also counted in that group. You can then use multiplication to identify the succeeding harmonic frequencies.

What Are the Differences Between Overtones and Harmonics?

With knowledge about overtones and harmonics in hand, we can now discuss how those two differ from one another. Let’s use bullet points to illustrate those differences better.

  • Included Frequencies – Overtones refer to resonant frequencies aside from the fundamental tone. Meanwhile, harmonics only include the frequencies that also double as whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency.
  • Occurrence of Resonance – Resonance must take place if you are talking about an overtone. On the other hand, there are instances wherein resonance may not take place while you are observing the harmonic frequencies.
  • Presence in the Vibrations – You’ll find that all overtones can be found in the vibrations of an object. The same cannot be said for the harmonics.

Differentiating between overtones and harmonics is important if you’re trying to make music or tune your instruments. Considering the many similarities between the two, telling them apart can be very difficult. Hopefully, the details provided in this article will help you understand those differences better.