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Harmonics, or overtones are natural bedfellows of frequency. When a note is sounded, something is vibrating at a certain frequency. Depending on what is vibrating, other frequencies may also be produced and typically these are odd or even or a mixture of odd and even whole number multiples of the original frequency although usually at a lower amplitude (quieter).

The harmonics add to or subtract from the main frequency (called the fundamental or first harmonic) in a particular way. If both waves are increasing in amplitude, (or both decreasing) they will add together and reinforce each other. If one is increasing while the other is decreasing, they will subtract from each other. The result is a complex and rich waveform which give an instrument its quality. The materials, thicknesses and dimensions as well as playing technique will all govern how the instrument produces harmonics.

In a similar vein, instruments can be made to produce harmonics without the fundamental frequency being present. For example, stopping a stringed instrument (placing a finger on the string) without pressing it to the fingerboard in the right place will produce a harmonic. The easiest to obtain are the octave and the fifth.