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Harmonics and Harmonic Distortion

This article is a simplified explanation of harmonics and harmonic distortion. Knowing this stuff is essential if you want to up your engineering game.

What’s a Harmonic?

So, first of all, what is a harmonic.

If you take a note, like a C, and play it on a guitar or a piano, because of the physics involved, not only do you hear the note C, you also hear, very quietly, other notes that are mathematically related to the C you’re playing. Like, you might hear a C an octave higher, and then another octave above that, and you might hear an E and G mixed in there as well. It’s actually quite a bit more complex than that, but the point is that if you play a note on virtually any instrument, you get more than the single note that defines the perceived pitch. That other stuff are the harmonics.

The harmonics of a note are caused by the physics of vibrations, and by the construction of an instrument, or of a persons’ face if we’re talking about the harmonics of a sung note. And, in fact, the harmonics of an instrument are a huge factor in why an instrument sounds the way it does. A guitar with steel strings has a different set of harmonics than a guitar with nylon strings. The two types of guitars have a lot in common in terms of harmonics — you can tell they’re both guitars — but the steel string is typically brighter and more metallic, and that’s because of its harmonics.

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