You are here: Science > Energy > Musical sounds

Musical sounds

Sound waves are produced when a string is plucked or bowed. The wave with the longest wavelength is called the fundamental. Other...Read More >>Sound waves are produced when a string is plucked or bowed. The wave with the longest wavelength is called the fundamental. Other vibrations have shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies: these are called overtones. The fundamental and the first six overtones are shown here. This progressive series of overtones is known as harmonics: each has a frequency which is a whole-number multiple of the fundamental.Musical sounds have wave patterns that are evenly spaced and regular, while noises—unpleasant sounds—usually have irregular patterns. Each musical note has a specific pitch that is the same for every instrument. The lowest pitch for each note is called the fundamental frequency (or, simply, fundamental). The note A, for example, is produced by 440 vibrations per second (440 Hz). No musical instrument produces a perfectly pure note. Each is coloured by the presence of other, fainter notes of higher pitch, called overtones. These are different for each musical instrument, and so give that instrument its characteristic sound, or timbre.


Concert pitch is now standard throughout the world, with the note A set at 440 Hz. This has not been the case in the past. Until 1939 when the standard was introduced, the pitch of A could vary from anything between 400 to 450 Hz.

Q-files now has new sections specially written for younger readers. They are: Living world, Earth, Science, Human body, Prehistoric life, Space, History, Geography and Technology.


Find the answer