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An overtone is any frequency higher than the fundamental frequency of a sound. The fundamental and the overtones together are called partials. Harmonics are partials whose frequencies are whole number multiples of the fundamental (including the fundamental which is 1 times itself.) These overlapping terms are variously used when discussing the acoustic behavior of musical instruments. Due to a translation error in its coining, Alexander J. Ellis strongly suggested avoiding the term overtone in deference to upper partial (simple) tones.[1] (See etymology below.)

When a resonant system such as a blown pipe or plucked string is excited, a number of overtones may be produced along with the fundamental tone. In simple cases, such as for most musical instruments, the frequencies of these tones are the same as (or close to) the harmonics. An example of an exception is a circular drum, whose first overtone is about 1.6 times its fundamental resonance frequency.[2] The human vocal tract is able to produce a highly variable structure of overtones, called formants, which define different vowels.



Most oscillators, from a guitar string to a bell (or even the hydrogen atom or a periodic variable star) will naturally vibrate at a series of distinct frequencies known as normal modes. The lowest normal mode frequency is known as the fundamental frequency, while the higher frequencies are called overtones. Often, when an oscillator is excited by, for example, plucking a guitar string, it will oscillate at several of its modal frequencies at the same time. So when a note is played, this gives the sensation of hearing other frequencies (overtones) above the lowest frequency (the fundamental).

Timbre is the quality that gives the listener the ability to distinguish between the sound of different instruments. The timbre of an instrument is determined by which overtones it emphasizes. That is to say, the relative volumes of these overtones to each other determines the specific "flavor" or "color" of sound of that family of instruments. The intensity of each of these overtones is rarely constant for the duration of a note. Over time, different overtones may decay at different rates, causing the relative intensity of each overtone to rise or fall independent of the overall volume of the sound. A carefully trained ear can hear these changes even in a single note. This is why the timbre of a note may be perceived differently when played staccato or legato.

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