The Overtone Series in Music

Major and minor scales are the result of centuries of experimentation and careful observation of nature. This scale was created as a concept which was only vaguely understood at the time. This concept was later referred to as the overtone series and it consists of a series of pitches that gradually become closer together on a continuum. For more information about what it takes to be a composer, check out The Mystery of Music Composition.

Fundamental Tone

In the overtone series, the lowest pitch is called the fundamental. The fundamental is the lowest natural note that is produced by the instrument. If you strike a note on the piano, you can hear remnants of the overtone series. Hold down the pedal and you will hear it echo several pitches in addition to the fundamental tone. If you listen carefully enough, you should be able to hear this relationship to the fundamental tone.

When playing a C, it is not just a single pitch that is sounded. There are a combination of pitches which sound together to create the note C. Looking at the first couple of notes from the overtone series it will become evident these notes spell a major triad. This is one of the reasons that the minor key wasn’t used as a home key very often. It was seen as weaker, imperfect, and further away from the natural pitches.

The overtone series is outlined below. The low C is the fundamental tone, and the notes in parentheses illustrate notes in the series that do not conform, (are out of tune), with the tempered scale. Notice how the higher the overtone series goes, the closer the pitches become to each other.

The C is given the value of a whole note in this series to help illustrate a very important point.

It is the fundamental tone, and therefore; it is also the strongest pitch in the series.

The Major Triad

Looking at this series it becomes evident where the major scale came from. The major triad is illustrated between the C, E, and G on the 4th, 5th, and 6th overtones. The second strongest relationship is the octave, and then after that the Perfect 5th. This helps to explain why the dominant (fifth) plays such a huge role in classical music. Because of the close proximity of the dominant to the tonic, there is a natural pull between those two scale degrees.

The Major Scale

To create a major scale, use the fundamental tone and the series it generates, the dominant and the series it generates, and the subdominant and the series it generates. Try creating an overtone series on F, C, and G and see if it is possible to find the major scale in it.


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