Magic Choral Trick #159 Harmonic Series 101
One of the guys in my Men’s chorus told me last night that hearing about the Harmonic Series for the first time changed his life.
While it may not be quite so dramatic for most singers, every choir member should at least be aware of the basics of the Harmonic Series.
The bottom line is this: Within every note that is sung is a series of many more, higher pitches that can be heard. When it’s just the one note being sung, the closest of these higher pitches will be the easiest to hear. The ‘Overtones’ further up will be a bit more tricky to hear – unless they’re being amplified by someone else singing the pitch absolutely in tune with the first singer’s note.
As singers, it’s usually just the first 7 to 10 overtones that affect us
Here’s a Wikipedia link about the Harmonic Series – but unless you already know about this or are a mathematician, I’d advise you to just skip the text and look at the pictures!
The original single low note is called the Fundamental – and all the other notes that you can hear within this note are called Overtones. It’s no accident that if you think of this Fundamental as the Root of a chord – all the other notes of a chord are found somewhere in the Harmonic Series above that Root.
For now, let’s call the Fundamental Doh.
#1 = Doh one octave higher than the Fundamental
#2 = Soh above the previous note (#1)
#3 = Doh, Two octaves above the Fundamental
#4 = Mi – Just above the Doh in #3
#5 = Soh – Just above Mi (#4) and one octave above #2
#6 = Tah (flat 7 – which in a scale would normally be Ti – This is the note that provides
the distinctive sound of the Barbershop 7 chord)
#8 = Doh – Three octaves above the original fundamental
If I were to spell this series out in actual pitches (As they do on the Wikipedia page) the notes would be:
C C G C E G Bflat C
We can practise listening for the overtones by playing a low note on a stringed instrument, then trying to hear the octave (Doh), the fifth (Soh) and the third (Mi).
So why is this important to us as singers? Because, whether or not we’re aware of the Harmonic Series we use it all the time in order to tune with other chorus members. A normal sort of chord found in a choir piece would have the Basses singing Doh, the Tenors – Soh, the Altos – Doh and the Sopranos – Mi. All these would be part of the Harmonic/Overtone series of the Fundamental (the low Doh)
Once we know about this, it helps to clear our hearing. We know what to listen for in order to tune with the other parts. It also helps us to understand balance. We know that if the Third (Overtone) of the chord is already ringing because there’s a really in tune Fifth being sung – the chord will sound spectacular if we just place that Third in very gently when we sing it.