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Overtone control

Almost every musical tone consists of a fundamental pitch (which is normally what our ears tell us is the basic pitch of the note) accompanied by several higher pitches, variously called overtones, partials or harmonics. The way these overtones are related to the fundamental, as well as their volumes compared with each other, defines the timbre or tonal quality of a sound.

The overtones that accompany the fundamental pitch of a note played on the harmonica (and most other wind instruments) all have a very simple relationship to the fundamental. If the fundamental pitch of the note is f, then the overtones can be expressed as 2f, 3f, 4f, 5f, 6f, 7f, etc. In other words, if the fundamental frequency (also called the first harmonic) of a note is 261.6 Hertz (a standard Western middle C - the note you get when you play 1 blow on a standard C harmonica), then the frequency of the second harmonic is 2 x 261.6 = 523.2Hz, the third harmonic is 3 x 261.6 = 784.8Hz, the fourth harmonic is 4 x 261.6 = 1046.4Hz, etc., etc.

To give a musical example, here are the pitches of the first eight harmonics of a middle C:

Here is a table listing the musical values of these harmonics:

Harmonic Note Interval above Fundamental
1st harmonic C Unison
2nd harmonic C Octave
3rd harmonic G One octave plus a fifth
4th harmonic C Two octaves
5th harmonic E Two octaves plus a major third
6th harmonic G Two octaves plus a fifth
7th harmonic Bb Two octaves plus a (slightly flat) minor seventh
8th harmonic C Three octaves

To put this into harmonica terms, if you play 1 blow on a C diatonic, you will also hear overtones of the same frequency as the notes produced by 4 blow, 6 blow, 7 blow, 8 blow, 9 blow, 10 blow bent two semitones and 10 blow. (Actually, this is only completely true if your harp is perfectly tuned in Just Intonation, but let's not quibble.)

So what has all this theory to do with harmonica technique?

Well, by carefully altering the shape of your mouth as you play, it is possible to enhance certain of these overtones and thus alter the tonal characteristics of a given note, using a similar technique to that used by guimbarde players and throat singers (overtone singers). The best way to do this is to spend a lot of time playing long single notes and experimenting with your mouth shape whilst paying careful attention to the tone you are producing. Try shaping your mouth and tongue as you would when pronouncing different vowel sounds and listen closely to the effect it has on your harmonica - the development of this skill is not so much learning to do it, but more a case of learning to hear what you are doing. With a little practice you should be able to produce something like this:

As well as applying this to single notes, the same technique can be applied to chords, making them sound fuller, thinner, richer, brighter, or harsher, depending on which overtones you choose to emphasise.

Useful links:

The harmonic series

A Tour Up The Harmonic Series
Alternative Tuning and How We Hear - Partials


Vowels and Formants III: Formants for fun and profit (Some harmonica demonstrations, plus lots of useful links - check out the other pages at this site too)

Throat singing/overtone singing

What Is Overtone Singing?
Khoomei - How To's And Why's by Michael Emory
Method of Learning Overtone Singing by Tran Quang Hai
How To Throat Sing

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