Harmonic is obtained by a method of playing stringed instruments - playing the instrument while holding a finger against the string but very lightly so that it doesnt touch the fretboard. Another meaning used has to do with the relationship between frequencies. Although these meanings are related try to be sensitive to these different definitions.
3 Physics of the Plucked String
The pitch of a plucked string is dependent on three factors the length of the string the tension in the string and the mass density of the string (i.e. the mass divided by the string length). If you increase the tension (like when bending a string) or make the string shorter the pitch increases. The frequency also goes up as the mass density decreases. This last property is why guitar strings get thinner as you move towards the higher strings and why lighter gauge strings are slinky and easier to bend.
4 Wave Theory
There is an inverse relationship between frequency and wavelength. As frequencies increase the wavelength becomes shorter. But if you double the wavelength the frequency would be halved.
The simplest wave is a pure tone
Any waveform can be broken up in to a series of sinusoids of different frequencies
If we view the shape of a string just before it is released as a waveform we can then consider a single sinusoidal component at a time. In a vibrating string each sinusoidal waveform defines the boundaries that the string moves between. Places where the string does not vibrate are called nodes or zeros.
The reflected wave is again inverted so after the reflection we have two waves (with the same frequency and amplitude) travelling in opposite directions. At the fixed end they add to give no motion - zero displacement after all it is this condition of immobility which causes the inverted reflection. But if you look at the solid line on the diagram (representing the sum of the two waves) youll see that there are other points where the string never moves. They occur half a wavelength apart. These motionless points are called nodes of the vibration and they play an important role in all of the instrument families. Halfway between the nodes are antinodes points of maximum motion. But note that these peaks are not travelling along the string the combination of two waves travelling in opposite directions produces a standing wave
This is shown in the figure which represents a time sequence (time increases from top to bottom). Think of it as representing a series of snap shots of the waves. The blue wave is travelling to the right the green to the left. The red line is their sum the red wave is what happens when the two travelling waves add together (superpose is the technical term). Note the positions (nodes) where the two travelling waves always cancel out and the others (anitnodes) where they add to give an oscillation with maximum amplitude.
6 Natural Frequencies
A frequency is called a natural frequency if it can exist without any driving source. With our string there is a physical interpretation of natural frequencies. A frequency is a natural frequency if its waveform has nodes that match up with the ends of the string. When you pluck a string you are causing it vibrate at these natural frequencies. The lowest frequency at which this occurs is the fundamental - the pitch you hear.
7 The Harmonic Series
The harmonic series is a mathematical definition generally used when talking about frequencies. The harmonic series is important in musical applications because most instruments (including guitar) produce sounds that contain harmonic frequencies. The natural frequencies of the string mentioned above form a harmonic series.
8 Harmonics and modes of vibration
The string on a musical instrument is (almost) fixed at both ends so any vibration of the string must have nodes at each end. Now that limits the possible vibrations. For instance the string with length L could have a standing wave with wavelength twice as long as the string (wavelength 2L) as shown in the first sketch in the next series. This gives a node at either end and an antinode in the middle.
Lets work out the relationships among the frequencies of these modes. For a wave the frequency is the ratio of the speed of the wave to the length of the wave f v/wavelength. Compared to the string length L you can see that these waves have lengths 2L L 2L/3 L/2. We could write this as 2L/n where n is the number of the harmonic.
The fundamental or first mode has frequency f1 v/wavelength v/2LThe second harmonic has frequency f2 v/l2 2v/2L 2f1The third harmonic has frequency f3 v/l3 3v/2L 3f1The fourth harmonic has frequency f4 v/l4 4v/2L 4f1 and to generalise
The nth harmonic has frequency fn v/ln nv/2L nf1.
All waves in a string travel with the same speed so these waves with different wavelengths have different frequencies as shown. The mode with the lowest frequency (f1) is called the fundamental. Note that the nth mode has frequency n times that of the fundamental. All of the modes (and the sounds they produce) are called the harmonics of the string. The frequencies f 2f 3f 4f etc are called the harmonic series. This series will be familiar to most musicians particularly to buglers and players of natural horns. If for example the fundamental is the note C3 or viola C (a frequency of 131 Hz) then the harmonics would have the pitches shown in the next figure. These pitches have been approximated to the nearest quarter tone. The octaves are exactly octaves but all other intervals are slightly different from the intervals in the equal tempered scale.
The figure shows the musical notation for the first twelve harmonics on a C string. When you play the sound file listen carefully to the pitch. The seventh and eleventh harmonics fall almost halfway between notes on the equal tempered scale and so have been notated with half sharps.
On a guitar tuned in the usual way the B string and high E string are approximately tuned to the 3rd and 4th harmonics of the low E string. If you pluck the low E string anywhere except one third of the way along the B string should start to vibrate driven by the vibrations in the bridge from the harmonic of the first string. If you pluck the low E string anywhere except one quarter of the way along the top E string should be driven similarly. Guitarists often begin to tune-up in the following way first tune the 4th harmonic of the low E string the 3rd of the A string and the top E all to the same note then tune theB string (B3) to the 3rd hamonic of the first (E2) then tune the 4th harmonic of the A string to the 3rd of the D string. This method cannot be extended succesfully to the G string because it is usually too thick and stiff so it is better tuned by octaves using the frets. For several reasons (see the notes at the end of this page) this method of tuning is only approximate and one needs to retune the octaves afterwards. The best tuning is usually a compromise that must be made after considering what chords you will be playing and where you are playing on the fingerboard.
12 Calculating Pitches
Perhaps the way to figure out what pitches the harmonics are is to use a tuner. Begin with the pitch of the open string and consider it as the base of the harmonic series (the fundamental). Playing a harmonic at the twelfth fret generates a pitch equivalent to the second harmonic in the open string which is an octave above. The next harmonic at the seventh fret produces a pitch equal to the third harmonic in the open string - an octave and a fifth above the fundamental in the open string. A harmonic at the 5th fret is the fourth harmonic two octaves above the open string. Using this process to select one of the harmonics in the open string may be why the playing technique is called a harmonic.
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