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Tuning based on the Harmonic Series

22 July, 2019 - 10:18
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Almost all music traditions recognize the octave. When one note has a frequency that is exactly two times the frequency of a second note, then the first note is one octave higher than the second note. A simple mathematical way to say this is that the ratio10 of the frequencies is 2:1. Two notes that are exactly one octave apart sound good together because their frequencies are related in such a simple way. If a note had a frequency, for example, that was 2.11 times the frequency of another note (instead of exactly 2 times), the two notes would not sound so good together. In fact, most people would find the effect very unpleasant and would say that the notes are not "in tune" with each other.

To find other notes that sound "in tune" with each other, we look for other sets of pitches that have a "simple" frequency relationship. These sets of pitches with closely related frequencies are often written in common notation as a harmonic series. The harmonic series is not just a useful idea constructed by music theory; it is often found in "real life", in the realworld physics of musical sounds. For example, a bugle can play only the notes of a specific harmonic series. And every musical note you hear is not a single pure frequency, but is actually a blend of the pitches of a particular harmonic series. (The relative strengths of the harmonics are what gives the note its timbre. See Harmonic Series II: Harmonics, Intervals and Instruments ; Standing Waves and Musical Instruments; and Standing Waves and Wind Instruments for more about how and why musical sounds are built from harmonic series.)

Figure 6.1 Harmonic Series on C
Here are the first sixteen pitches in a harmonic series that starts on a C natural. The series goes on indefinitely, with the pitches getting closer and closer together. A harmonic series can start on any note, so there are many harmonic series, but every harmonic series has the same set of intervals and the same frequency ratios. 

What does it mean to say that two pitches have a "simple frequency relationship"? It doesn't mean that their frequencies are almost the same. Two notes whose frequencies are almost the same - say, the frequency of one is 1.005 times the other - sound bad together. Again, when we hear them, we say they are "out of tune". Notes with a close relationship have frequencies that can be written as a ratio12 of two small whole numbers; the smaller the numbers, the more closely related the notes are. Two notes that are exactly the same pitch, for example, have a frequency ratio of 1:1, and octaves, as we have already seen, are 2:1. Notice that when two pitches are related in this simple-ratio way, it means that they can be considered part of the same harmonic series, and in fact the actual harmonic series of the two notes may also overlap and reinforce each other. The fact that the two notes are complementing and reinforcing each other in this way, rather than presenting the human ear with two completely different harmonic series, may be a major reason why they sound consonant and "in tune".

Note: Notice that the actual frequencies of the notes do not matter. What matters is how they compare to each other - basically, how many waves of one note go by for each wave of the other note. Although the actual frequencies of the notes will change for every harmonic series, the comparison between the notes will be the same.

For more examples, look at the harmonic series in Figure 6.1. The number beneath a note tells you the relationship of that note's frequency to the frequency of the first note in the series – the fundamental. For example, the frequency of the note numbered 3 in Figure 6.1 is three times the frequency of the fundamental, and the frequency of the note numbered fifteen is fifteen times the frequency of the fundamental. In the example, the fundamental is a C. That note's frequency times

2 gives you another C; times 2 again (4) gives another C; times 2 again gives another C (8), and so on. Now look at the G's in this series. The first one is number 3 in the series. 3 times 2 is 6, and number 6 in the series is also a G. So is number 12 (6 times 2). Check for yourself the other notes in the series that are an octave apart. You will find that the ratio for one octave (Section 4.1) is always 2:1, just as the ratio for a unison is always 1:1. Notes with this small-number ratio of 2:1 are so closely related that we give them the same name, and most tuning systems are based on this octave relationship.

The next closest relationship is the one based on the 3:2 ratio, the interval of the perfect fifth (for example, the C and G in the example harmonic series). The next lowest ratio, 4:3, gives the interval of a perfect fourth. Again, these pitches are so closely related and sound so good together that their intervals have been named "perfect". The perfect fifth figures prominently in many tuning systems, and, in Western music, all major and minor chords are based on the perfect fifth. (See Triads and Naming Triads for more about the intervals in major and minor chords.)