The harmonic series is a naturally occurring principle of sound. Other than tuning forks and pure tone generators, musical tones set in motion sympathetic resonance through an orderly progression known as the harmonic series. These notes are not played but resound through a complex interplay of waveforms. Harmonics are also called overtones or partials and are responsible for the richness and quality of sound, the timbre of instruments and voices. Overtones create the recognizable characteristics, the signatures of sound that allow us to differentiate between a cello and violin or a male and female voice.
Every single human voice has a different ratio of overtones created by the mass and tensile quality of bone and tissue and the relative capacity of lungs and resonating space in the body.
The theory of harmonics can be illustrated in terms of sympathetic vibration by using a piano keyboard with the dampers raised so all the strings can vibrate freely. When a single note, for instance a C tuned to 256hz, is played and allowed to ring, the C an octave above, at 512hz, will be set in sympathetic motion. At the same time the fifth above that, G, 768hz will also begin vibrating along with the C above that, 1,024hz, the major third above, E, 1,280hz and the G 1536hz, on through a theoretically infinite spiral of ever decreasing intervals.
Harmonic principles underlie the matrix of the universe. Life forms around patterns of DNA code like crystals forming in a solution. Sound forms around the holographic encoding of harmonic overtones. The generation of invisible un-played notes invokes the sacred realm and awakens our collective sense of wonder. This knowledge of sacred sound is universal human wisdom and echoes through Gregorian chant as it resonates in the Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo.
The invocation of overtones is a sonic reproduction of mythology. In didgeridoo music, the performer blows a low fundamental tone and through skillful manipulation of breath and voice creates a pulse of overtones that can open a portal to the Dreamtime. Music has always accompanied worship, and the sacred use of sound invariably features harmonic overtones. In Gregorian chant, the massed voices reverberate in the great resonating chambers of Cathedrals that were designed to the same sacred geometry as the music itself. Within the overtones of music we find the essence of intent. This is the third dimension of music that elevates sound to art. Musical waveforms, like radio waves, are carrier signals. Embedded in sound waves are the crystalline alignments that encode and carry consciousness.
In the spiral of the cochlea the raw signal of intention is converted into the impulses that become awareness. To understand how intent is encoded in sound we must first consider language. In speech the consonants define form while the vowels convey the meaning. Each vowel sound is a distinct alignment of harmonic overtones and each language has its own distinct harmonic patterns. Accentuation of overtones conveys the emotional context of words. A change of tone in a person’s voice gives us meaning beyond the words. Harmonics determine the tone of voice. A lack of harmonics in language produces a grating monotone that we would characterize as colorless. Intention is encoded in the overtones like information is conveyed in the barcodes on a grocery item.
The scanner can read the code, determine the price, discounts and manage inventory. In the same way our brains scan the harmonic content of sound to establish context. Is the dog barking because he is playful or is he telling us to stay away? A guttural edge to his bark is a warning. A good way to experience the effect of a change in overtones is to take a walk in a wooded area and notice the patterns of birdsong. Once you find a quiet place be still and listen. After a while set off walking fairly briskly and notice the tone of the birdsong sharpen as the birds send signals warning of the approach of a human. The shape of the overtones change just as a person’s voice will change when they are agitated. Musicians are well versed in the techniques of conveying intent through the manipulation of their instruments. A competent violinist has a range of expression at her fingertips. Using intonation and vibrato she can infuse any note with meaning. Expression is often written into musical scores. For instance, spirito, meaning spirited, amoroso, meaning affectionately. A skilled musician can translate these instructions in recognizable sound and the listener can recognize the emotion.
Integral patterns of harmonic order infuse the architecture of the universe with living form. Alignment with the harmonic series is a flowing path of ease and grace. It is through resonance that the universe converses. Chinese Tao, Polynesian Mana, Christian Holy Spirit, these are all representations of the divine order of resonance.
Through music we can balance body and mind. This is the transcendent power of tone. Something innate in us recognizes the geometry of harmonic resonance and just as harmony always seeks resolution in the one, so, too, does the human spirit always align itself with beauty.