[Smt-talk] The Overtone Series

Victor grauer victorag at verizon.net
Tue Jul 22 11:32:47 PDT 2014

To Carson, Ildar, Dimitar et al.

You don't need to convince me about harmonics. I'm very aware of them and have used them in my own work. But there is a difference between the harmonics you can produce when experimenting or performing on a string instrument and the overtones you hear when listening to isolated "normal" tones on any instrument at all. As we all know very well, overtones are usually heard as timbre, not as discretely identifiable pitches. What makes an oboe sound different from a violin is the relative strength of the different overtones. Same when you sing on the vowel "a," which sounds different from "o" or "ee" only because the overtone patterns are different for each vowel.

Sure, it's possible to train yourself and others to hear the overtones as discrete pitches, but that's very different from the claim that overtones are routinely heard as a "chord" made up of such pitches rather than a tone color. For this reason it seems obvious to me that the triad could not have originated from listening to the overtone series. 

Now admittedly it might be possible to claim the triad could have originated from experimenting with string harmonics, which is a different matter. But in that case one is not listening to a chord, but to individual pitches. You might derive some scales that way, but there's a big difference between a scale and a chord.

Moreover, as I see it the real problem with deriving the triad from the overtone series is that the triad as such appeared only very late in music history and only in the Western tradition. The polyphonic tradition that began in the churches, monasteries and cathedrals of Europe was based on intervals, not complete chords -- although chords including triads, certainly appear, they are incidental, not a fundamental element of the musical structures. It wasn't until the 16th century that, very suddenly and out of nowhere, we find music clearly and unequivocally based on triads.

Many theoreticians, I think, rely too heavily on the purely theoretical aspects of music, ignoring equally important historical aspects pertaining to the origin and development of culturally based traditions. As I see it, the triad is one of these traditions. It appeared at a certain time and place in music history and proceeded to evolve as a tradition. One can theorize about the manner in which the triad is employed and the way in which it expanded into seventh chords, ninth chords, secondary dominants, etc. But there was nothing "natural" about its origin, it was a cultural phenomenon through and through.

Victor Grauer
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

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