Overtones vs. Fundamentals: Learn The Difference in Simple Words

First things first, when we say fundamentals vs. overtones, we’re talking about frequencies. Frequencies are divided into harmonics, partials, overtones and fundamentals.

A fundamental frequency is the lowest frequency produced by the saxophone, or any instrument for the matter. Fundamental frequencies are also known as first harmonics, and that’s because a harmonic is the multiple of the fundamental frequency. 

What about the overtones? Those are pretty much any frequency that is above the fundamental. In other words, any harmonic is an overtone.

Why are They Called Overtones?

Overtones or harmonics, can be decomposed by the Fourier signal analysis, which is a mathematical tool that implies the decomposition of a frequency of one oscillation into a sum of cyclic signals. No matter how complex the frequency is, this decomposition is possible, and the lowest frequency is called the fundamental. 

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The other harmonics that follow the first (or fundamental frequency) have a frequency that’s a multiple of the first. Each harmonic is named according to the frequency it represents, and they have whole (integer) values, while the ones that don’t are simply referred to as overtones.

However, because not all harmonics can be heard, the overtones are named according to what can be heard of them and skip the ones that can’t.

Fundamental1st harmonic
1st overtone2nd harmonic
2nd overtone3rd harmonic
3rd overtone4th harmonic

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Why Should You Know Overtones and Harmonics?

Every saxophonist knows that to advance with your level of playing and skills, you can’t do without harmonics. They’re an excellent way to get familiar with the plenty of registers that a sax has.

Moreover, understanding harmonics and overtones mean that a player can more or less hear a note before it’s played, both aurally and through the sensation of the muscles. In other words, the way the reed vibrates on the embouchure’s lower lip, which makes the player familiar with what the note feels like, thereby, enabling them to play in a more relaxed and natural way.

This also enables the saxophonist to play an even tone throughout all the horn’s registers, when they master how to alter their tongue position as well as their oral cavity shape in order to hit the right harmonics or overtones.

How to Practice Overtones?

The best way to start mastering the art of overtones is to finger a note in the lower register. Then, while keeping your fingers in the same position and without using the octave key, start adjusting the embouchure as well as your breath to hit higher notes.

Little by little, you should be able to hit at least eight notes, or two octaves, from the harmonic series.

Bear in mind, you might find that hitting a 3rd note (an octave and fifth above the fundamental note) is easier for you than hitting a 2nd (just an octave above the fundamental), so it doesn’t work in an ascending way.

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However, the higher you go up the harmonic series, the harder it would be to get the notes just right, and for which you might want to make some adjustment to your embouchure. You could also try using more of the mouthpiece in your mouth, or even less of it, as suitable.

Changing the position of your tongue or even making adjustments to the shape of your oral cavity can help. In all cases, it will take some trial and error to get there.