The harmonic series in music | Assaff Weisman | TEDxNYIT


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Good morning. I wanted to take you back to that incredible Bobby McFerrin video
that started us off today and take a closer look
at what might be happening there, and I’m going to spare you
my terrible singing, so don’t worry. So just to recap quickly, Bobby started by giving
the audience two notes: this one, and then by moving a little bit
to his left, indicating a higher pitch, this one, right? Then they went back and forth
between the two. And when he jumped
a little bit further to his left – indicating a higher pitch – but without singing it, the entire audience landed on this one. Right? It was amazing. You saw it. And of course, this begs the question, why this pitch? Why not this one or this one
or any number of higher pitches? I suppose it’s possible
that everyone in the room that morning had their musical education at the hands
of Maria and the von Trapp family, as in
(Music: “Do-Re-Mi”), but that doesn’t seem like
a totally satisfactory explanation. So back to the video. The audience is now
in possession of three notes: two that were given to them, and this one that they
had to come up with on their own. Then Bobby jumps to his right
and gives them this lower note, and they have a total of four. And from that point on,
they’re off to the races, right? All he had to do was indicate whether he wanted them
to sing higher or lower. But, slowly but surely,
they added to their range all of these notes
down to here and back up. And they did it together,
without hesitation, as if they’d just come out of rehearsal. It was really incredible. How do we explain that? How do we explain Bobby’s comment
at the end of the video where he said that this works
wherever he tries it, regardless of culture,
regardless of geography. The pentatonic scale, the five-note scale,
which is what they were singing – one, two, three, four, five – right? just in two different registers,
a lower one and a higher one. “The pentatonic scale,”
he said, “just works.” Wouldn’t it be nice if there was
some sort of universal law of nature that would help us explain how someone in New York
or in Beijing or in Dubai would complete this musical puzzle
and arrive at the same results? Well, it turns out
that there is such a thing, a universal acoustic phenomenon
that addresses this precise question. It’s called the “harmonic series,”
or the “overtone series,” and it works a little bit like this. So, tell me what you hear. (Plays C) You might think that all you’re hearing is this low and rich
and resonant note that we call “C,” which is produced by its corresponding strings inside
the piano, vibrating from end to end. And you’re right,
but you’re only partially right. Because as the laws of physics remind us, while that string is vibrating
in its entirety, it’s also vibrating in two
equal parts, down the middle, and then three equal parts
and four quarters and five fifths and so on and so on. And each one of those divisions
produces higher and higher tones, overtones. And they occur in a very specific order. And the wonderful thing is that this isn’t just true
of this beautiful Yamaha piano, it’s true of any regularly
constructed, vibrating body, like the strings on a flute – sorry,
the strings on a violin or a guitar. I’ll get to the flute, a vibrating
column of air, as in the flute. Every note produced
by those instruments and many others has embedded within it this very specific,
preordained series of higher notes, completely dictated by nature. So, let’s try our own experiment and see if I can get you to hear
some of these overtones. The first one, as I said, is the result of the string
vibrating in two equal parts, and it’s going to be the C
an octave above the original C. If you go back to Maria
and the von Trapps, you remember that we learned our
(Plays a C scale), right? eight notes of the scale, and every eight notes,
we have a repetition of C. So what I’m going to do is silently
depress the key of this higher C. I’m not playing it, I’m just allowing
its strings to vibrate, and listen to what happens
when I strike the lower, fundamental C. (Plays C) You hear that higher C? One more time. (Plays C) Everybody hear that? Show of hands. Who doesn’t hear it? Excellent, amazing. So the next overtone is the result of the string
vibrating in three equal parts, and it’s going to be a G, now just five white notes away
from that first overtone. So let’s repeat the same experiment. The tones get fainter as they go up,
but listen closely. I silently depress that G and strike
the same fundamental, one more time, (Plays C) Hear it? Everybody hear it? This one’s so clear because
it’s actually a different note. It’s no longer a C, as the first two were; it’s now a new note, a G. The next overtone continues this trend
of diminishing distances between them – it’s now just four white notes
up from that G, and it’s yet another C. Let’s see if you can hear this one. It should be quite faint,
but let’s try the same experiment. (Plays C) Everybody hear that? It’s quite faint, but there, right? And on we go: the next one,
just three white notes away, is this E. It’s a new note, so now we have
three notes with which to play: a C, a G and an E. The one after that is yet another G, so we’re stuck with, still,
just three different pitches. And the next one is interesting; it falls in the cracks
somewhere between A and B-flat. Now, there’s a long and complicated
explanation to why that happens, and it has to do with how
modern pianos are tuned, but for today’s purposes, just remember that sound-wave frequencies aren’t limited to
the fixed 88 keys of the piano; they can occur anywhere, and so we have our fourth different tone. Let’s recap: we have
the original C, the G, the E and now this beautiful,
kind of bluesy color note, that you can either hear as the lower one
with a little bit of upper color or the upper one with
a little bit of color underneath. The next overtone is another C, so we still have just four
with which to play – it’s up here. And the fifth new note is
the very next one in the overtone series, and it is a D. So, to recap again: We have the original C, this G, this E, this beautiful color A,B-flat and this D. Five notes. What happens when I put them all together? You hear they’re all
spread out across the piano. So, here’s the C, the D, the E, the G, and the color A or B-flat. Now, I’m going to interpret
that color note as the lower A, which is the more common approach. And, you guessed it, what we have are the five notes
of the pentatonic scale, (Plays pentatonic scale) embedded in every single note
produced by so many of our instruments. Now, as such, the pentatonic is one
of the true universals in all of music. You can find it
in the folk music of China, (Chinese folk music) I know you’re dying to try this at home, so on your piano, it’s easy
to find the pentatonic scale: just play all the black keys. How about as far away as Scotland? (Music: “Auld Lang Syne”) Same five notes. Or imagine a pan flute and that
we’re in the South American Andes. (Andean Music) Or how about African
or African-American spirituals? (Music: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) Same pentatonic. Or how about this one? (Music: “Amazing Grace”) Same five notes again. And this turns out to be one of composers’ favorite tools
when they try to evoke those cultures. So here’s the French composer Debussy trying to conjure up
the sounds of a Japanese pagoda. (Music: “Estampes, I. Pagodes”) Or how about a little bit closer
to home with Jimi Hendrix? (Music: “Purple Haze”) Even that one, purely pentatonic. And we could go on all day. I haven’t given examples
from blues or jazz or Native American music or Greek music. It really seems like
it would be easier to find cultures that don’t use the pentatonic
than ones that do. I don’t know if, like me,
you’ve been following the news recently of these ancient cave
discoveries across Europe and the very fascinating art
that was found in them. Among the artifacts
were some prehistoric flutes dating back 30, 40,000 years, made from animal bones, and when those were reconstructed, it turned out that even some of those
were tuned to the pentatonic scale. So it seems to me
that our paleolithic ancestors have left us a little bit more
than just fashionable dieting concepts. They remind us that whether
consciously or subconsciously, we’ve been picking up the notes
of the harmonic series for millennia and incorporating it
into our diverse musical languages to the point where they seem so familiar that a roomful of strangers
can reproduce them just by watching a man jump on stage. You know, musicians get very excited
when they talk about the harmonic series because it really does hold so many keys to understanding the way music developed
over the course of history. But for me, one of the most important
takeaways has to do with listening, with real deep, attentive listening, and I’m not just talking about
within the context of music. There’s still a lot for us
to discover out there if we just choose to listen. Thank you. (Applause)

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86 thoughts on “The harmonic series in music | Assaff Weisman | TEDxNYIT”

  1. Sketching_Fox says:

    Technically, the 7th harmonic is closer to Bb than A but it does exist in the cracks. The pentatonic scale uses the pitches CDEGA because a stack of the third over tone produces it not because of the harmonic series. A pentatonic built from the harmonic series would sound quite different.ย 

  2. brandolf harpoon says:

    that mic makes this unlistenable

  3. Paul De Leon says:

    wow now I'm even more motivated to study for my intro to music composition exam tomorrow.

  4. walkabout says:


  5. Leah Anderson says:

    Weisman is wrong about the "universal acoustic phenomenon" . This particular overtone series does not happen everywhere in all "regular" instruments. This series he references mainly applies to Western music with Western instruments. Take for example a gong from a Balinese gamelan. The overtone series we would hear would NOT be in the root-octave-fifth-fourth-[etc.] pattern we are taught to hear, but instead a different series altogether. I am currently studying the different overtone series for idiophones vs chordophones vs membanophones vs aerophones and so on. The overtone series mentioned in this video applies to aerophones (wind instruments) and chordophones (strings), even some idiophones but definitely not all! (i.e. Xylos and Marimbas have a different overtone series than the "universal" one Weisman claims all instruments have. Take a listen for yourself!).

    I just wanted to share because I feel like we Western musicians have been taught incorrectly. And I realize now that only those who have studied the world (ethnomusicologists) know how ignorant western culture is to everywhere else. I know it was hard for me to even grasp that there were other overtone series since I've only been taught about THE overtone series, as opposed to ONE of many overtone series. I was ignorant, but I'm still discovering more about how certain instruments have a unique overtone series than other instruments within the same family. It's a very interesting topic! Don't take my word for it, go out and see for yourself! But please don't stay in the dark. Hope this helped somebody out there!

  6. Mark Swarthout says:

    Thank you! Finally, an easy to understand explanation of the harmonics. It really was eye opening for me, though may have been intuitively obvious for others!

  7. Titan Army says:

    so tedx doesnt mind blatant plagiarizing of Leonard Bernstein's lecture?

  8. Angus Brooks says:

    his scottish thing at 7:52 is the australian anthem

    no not land downunder ๐Ÿ˜

  9. Pablo Guazzotti says:

    the overdrive on the mic had me thought he was going to wrap up by screaming Pantera's 'fucking hostile'

  10. Jeremy Lindsay says:

    Ripping off Bernstein

  11. Terrance Shaw says:

    I was getting ready to rethink my life when he said the strings on a flute.

  12. Djan Ra says:

    that is a cheap plagiarism of Leanard Bernstein first Norton lecture…

  13. Chris Musix says:

    "You're only partially right."

    I see what you did there ๐Ÿ˜€

    And if you guys REALLY want to be floored: the back row of a Chess board resembles a diatonic scale.

  14. Jim Cole says:

    I love the harmonic overtone series – it's everywhere! Here is an overtone melody using voice
    Kate DeVore: Polyphonic (Overtone) Singing – Inside View
    To see it, assemble these parts: youtube. com/watch?v=RNdtXlJvhp8

  15. Roger [kirby] Waters says:

    now i lrned to do harmonics on piano so prettyful ^u^

  16. profil4e says:

    Well try Bulgarian folklore, like " Pilentce pee " or " ะ’ะฐะปั ะ‘ะฐะปะบะฐะฝัะบะฐ – ะ˜ะทะปะตะป ะต ะ”ะตะปัŒะพ " … there is No universal note pattern!

  17. bs20170 says:

    Bobby McFerrin is a MORON, and for that very reason, Assaff Weismann, as well!

  18. Ben Woollard says:

    Bernstein did it

  19. Mica Felix says:

    He's very intelligent but god he seems like such a douchebag

  20. ThePi314Man says:

    My high school choir teacher taught us about this and it was incredible to hear our voices resonating in the piano. His passion for music and general geekiness was palpable and really rubbed off.

  21. Leo Wanenchak says:

    It is a HUGE leap to interpret the 7th partial of the overtone series as a 6th to complete the pentatonic scale. ย …..and besides that, the only pitch relations one can play on the piano from the overtone series are the octaves. ย Every other pitch is not available in equal temperamentโ€‹.

  22. Iain Hill says:

    Oh what a shame; That the mic should be clipping so badly, and also so terribly compressed.

  23. Bret Simner says:

    Nice job Assaff. Long time, no see! Hope you're well! B

  24. Dom Berta says:

    thank you Assaff

  25. MdC says:

    Shame. This is plagiarism. Ted is for hipsters.

  26. Sherden Overtone Singing says:

    and then… there is… OVERTONE SINGING ! ! ! ! ๐Ÿ™‚ from Tuva to Sardinia, we can use harmonic overtones in our voices to create music just by singing one fundamental note.

  27. MichaelUhler says:

    Interesting that you interpreted the harmonic seventh as the 6th of a pentatonic scale. I get that you are explaining this to a group who are not musicians. But this isnโ€™t true enough to give your interpretation any validity. I guess itโ€™s a convenient way of bolstering your own musical ideology. Iโ€™d say the reason people knew to go to the E after hearing the C and D was based on the cultural conditioning of the major scale much more than our intrinsic understanding of the overtone series. Remember that singing and equal temperament are abstract abstract phenomena whereas the overtone series can only be demonstrated by either living beings or manmade instruments. Things to keep in mind for your next talk. You might want to go back to the drawing board in formulating your hypothesis.

  28. Novel Naidalop says:

    His nose is larger than his head

  29. Fleisch Berg says:

    I'm seein dem stings on da fluuuute man

  30. Fleisch Berg says:

    plays Purple Haze "And I havent played any examples from blues"….. yeah right pal,

  31. Alan Crook says:

    Higher pitch is to the payers right! T.E.D. Has been devalued.

  32. L Pearce says:

    Why don't things sound out of tune when you are playing in a minor scale if the fourth harmonic is a major third?

  33. Colin Berry says:


  34. Spooky Boyy says:

    This guy is really late to the party
    Nowhere near as elegant or useful an explanation as bobby mcferrrin
    he just sounds like another teacher

    bring back the master !

  35. ick Mick says:

    didnt Leonard Bernstein do this first?

    the hendrix tune is based on a tritone so it couldnt be based on the pentatonic scale as claimed by the talker.

  36. RichTheWolfGaming says:

    "The strings on a flute"

  37. Nate says:

    Great lecture!
    I teach piano and I always teach music theory, not just how to read sheet music. I introduce theory by doing what you did and calling it the Chord of Nature, as it is commonly called. To my technically minded students, it lets them understand why the dominant is as important as the tonic in establishing the key. In fact, when a pianist accompanies a singer, the pianist usually plays an arpeggio of the dominant chord to give the singer the key!

  38. Jim InBerlin says:

    He so should have acknowledged his source for this presentation… Leonard Bernstein

  39. Chris W says:

    Overdrive must also be universal… ๐Ÿ™ If you're talking about SOUND, you might want to be sure your own sound is set up correctly. With the voice driven into distortion, its hard to hear the much quieter piano in several places.

  40. Shermanbay says:

    Excellent lecture! As one whose BA is in music theory & composition, I use a similar demonstration with my students showing the overtones. It works better in a small classroom! I have a slight nitpick, however. This lecture shows a Western bias. Historic Asian music, at least until the modern merging of cultures, does not exhibit the pentatonic structure nearly as much (if at all), but often uses harmony based on third and quarter-steps, incompatible with a piano. That suggests a cultural assimilation, not a universal biology.

  41. OXYCOPE says:

    Very clear and concise presentation!

  42. mike pivik says:

    omg dieting concepts!!!! zinger!!! great video

  43. Ernst van Gelderen says:

    Maybe it is nice that someone tweeks our knowing of this instinctively proper sounding stuff once more. Plagiarized from Bernstein or not!

  44. Teddy Dunn says:

    This guy is a total necc. The pentatonic scale is generated by 4 fifths. Cultures chose this scale somewhat arbitrarily. I gotta disagree with his theories.

  45. Mr. Numi Who says:

    Amazing how the scale was constructed on harmonics (nearly)… nice Debussy, but awful arrangement of Purple Haze (standard piano tropes just don't cut it)… also the harmonic phenomenon begs the question, which came first, harmonic music or the way we sequence our tones while talking – one would think that music melody mimics talk, but it appears to be the other way around (given the underlying harmonic aspect)…

  46. Lack of Focus says:

    This is very cool.

  47. Nolan says:

    This is extremely interesting this guy is an amazingly talented and intelligent teacher.

  48. Alpha Lima says:

    And noone has noticed that the whole thing is heart one tone higher: when that guy says a C, we hear a D!

  49. John Varney says:

    The harmonic series doesn't exist on equal-temperament piano notes.

  50. bcmasur says:

    music and math are universal language

  51. PhiSonics Sound Immersion Technologies says:

    It is important to note that he was imprecise in his claims about the harmonic series. The harmonic series is a universal wave phenomenon only for bounded one-dimensional wave paths. Some of our musical instruments approximate one-dimensional wave paths closely enough to be considered roughly as such (like strings and tubes of air). The harmonic series is the special one-dimensional case of the more general modal series, which varies according to the geometry and material characteristics of each vibrating thing. In our very-much-not-one-dimensional instruments (drums, gongs, vibraphones, etc) we have these more complex, non-harmonic, modal series.

    In short, the closer to one-dimensional our vibrating system is, the closer it's vibrational modes approximate the harmonic series. And vice-versa.

    Hopefully this clarifies somewhat for any interested readers.

  52. Samuel De Grandi says:

    hes talking about the major pentatonic right?

  53. Tom Dowad says:

    I think many of the comments here are too hard on the guy. Its a good talk. It happens to be true so we should expect this explanation will have been given before. He's referring to the major pentatonic, he failed to mention that the blues scale is a minor pentatonic. I think it is equally important to understand how the cycle of 5ths generates the chromatic scale. But the talk is for people who don't know music theory so understandable he didn't cover that.

  54. Joe Kelly says:

    There is nothing new under the sun. Man does not create – he re-creates.

  55. Mizmzappa Mizmzappa says:

    Does this guy know his left from his right???

  56. vesnyakinci says:

    H H HOTTT!!

  57. Botdu84 says:

    what's that sound quality for a tedx talkin' about music ?!

  58. Jerreau Driessen says:


  59. Burntsider says:

    Higher pitch to the left? Lower pitch to the right? Huh?

  60. Bjarni Einarsson says:

    Correct me if I'm wrong.. but isn't this just pure math i.e. wave harmoning.. and of cause physics i.e. material resonance?

    That is.. strings with some thickness and tension will resonance at some frequency which is of cause the main purpose of string instrument and it's tone.. but that string will only oscillate at that specified and owne frequency and therefore.. only grap the curcent waves from lower tone which match this criteria.. more the tones are harmonic more it will pick up etc?

  61. synco pated says:

    The only think god dam jews can do is steal. Like eistein himself

  62. Harrison Bergeron says:

    Why do most TEDx talkers either behave so…&/or treat their audiences so…?

  63. Rigel Moon says:

    Cave paintings discovered from the Paleolithic period showed Fred Flintstone playing a rock piano.

  64. Dk J says:

    Wat too much talk. Thank you.

  65. Ma Zy says:

    He skipped Middle East or Indian music

  66. Jordan Zdimirovic says:

    HIGHER C?!

    Ahhh, that was an E… I have perfect pitch soooo get it right man

  67. Flat Foot says:

    Higher pitch to the LEFT and lower to the RIGHT???? WTF!!??

  68. Share your English says:

    the first overtone i heard wasn't the octave but the major third or tenth

  69. VV Piano says:

    Musicians do really get excited when it comes to harmonic series. It is key of understanding to so many things. We got to listen carefully. Love love love this talk!!!

  70. Mickeyislowd says:

    He forgot John Lennon's Jealous Guy. Its wholly pentatonic.

  71. One Beat Music says:

    I love this video, especially when he plays Purple Haze – it sounds so good!

  72. Emma says:

    They no longer have the Bobby McFerrin piece – grrrr. Kinda leaves this guy's presentation high and dry.

  73. V.J.Gerald James says:


  74. Nate says:

    Those who pressed thumbs down were Neanderthals who didn't write pentatonic scale music!

  75. killboybands1 says:

    it's a shame that people are still teaching this on an equal tempered piano.

  76. Luxurious03 says:

    Did he place the mic too close to his mouth or something?

  77. Chicken Alive Farms says:

    9:43 He needs to go study. The world has not even existed here 30,000 years. Look at the Grand Canyon. It didn't take 6,000,000 years to form it. The Bible says a flood covered the whole earth (Genesis 7:18-20). The Grand Canyon is a washed out spillway and provides spectacular evidence for Noah's flood. Plainly as that. No need of a college education to understand this. Rocks with fossils all over the earth show evidence of this. People have found shark teeth and elephant tusks WAY back in caves. How would a huge elephant fit in a small area? Google Kent Hovind. He has a different view than most people do on this topic.

  78. Rober th says:

    Decades later, people are repeating what Leo Berstein did.

  79. narendra mahershi says:

    there are two ragas in Indian music based on pentatonic scale named Bhupali and Deshkar

  80. Kevin Wang says:

    Watching a TED talk on the harmonic series with this audio quality…

  81. RWBHere says:

    0:50 No; the question is not begged at all. 'To beg the question' is from 'to beggar the question', or in other words, to render the question worthless, make it of no value, or to make it not worth asking in the first place. That's in contradiction to what he then proceeded to do; ask a valid question.

  82. Paco Hantos says:

    The beloved ones are the known ones, Like in the family, that what you hear and See every day, you think that only this is harmonically your GODs!

    Stay away for three days from all what you surrounded by the most time of your life and than start new! IT will be a pleasure to hear your voice and sound!

    Do it or let IT be and follow self entitled GODs!

  83. Helen Rowlett-Barbu says:

    The harmonics of his mic are bothering me XD

  84. Phillip Otey says:

    I get that this is an introduction but it's like speaking English in a German accident and calling it German. Not true to non western music at all

  85. PeaceFuL BeInG says:


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