harmonic. 1 Physical term describing the vibration in segments of a sound-producing body (see sound). A string vibrates simultaneously in its whole length and in segments of halves, thirds, fourths, etc. These segments form what is known in algebra as a harmonic series or progression, since the rate of vibration of each segment is an integral multiple of the frequency of the whole string, i.e., each segment vibrates respectively twice, three times, four times, etc., as fast as the whole string. The vibration of the whole string produces the fundamental tone, and the segments produce weaker subsidiary tones. A similar phenomenon occurs in an air column in a pipe. At most the first 16 tones in such a series can be heard by the human ear; the character or timbre of a fundamental tone is determined by the number of its subsidiary tones heard and their relative intensity. The subsidiary tones have been loosely called harmonics (as a noun), but they are properly called partials, the fundamental tone being the first partial. They are also called overtones (a synonym for "upper partials"), although this term includes a number of sounds that do not fit in with the harmonic series, and are therefore not considered musical. 2 Term describing the silvery sound produced separately when the fundamental and possibly more partial tones are damped by touching a string at a nodal point. Similarly harmonics are produced separately in an air column by overblowing or in brass wind instruments by the use of valves.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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