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Tuning based on the harmonic series

Almost all music traditions recognize the octave . When note Y has a frequency that is twice the frequency of note Z, then note Y is one octave higher than note Z. A simple mathematical way to say this is that the ratio 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 real-world 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.)

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, anyone who is accustomed to precise tuning would say they are "out of tune". Notes with a close relationship have frequencies that can be written as a ratio 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".

Nobody has yet proven a physical basis for why simple-ratio combinations sound pleasant to us. For a readable introduction to the subject, I suggest Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy

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Source:  OpenStax, Frequency and music. OpenStax CNX. Feb 21, 2006 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10338/1.1
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