And if you were to give each of them different phases, would the sound start to sound "off", or would it sound the same? All the same frequencies would be present, which makes me think it might sound exactly the same. But on the other hand, the way they add up would be different, so could there be some cancellation that wouldn't be present when they all had the same phase?

Also, does this same-phase relationship occur as often with non-harmonic overtones/partials as well?

  • $\begingroup$ You'll have to provide some evidence for your claim. $\endgroup$
    – akrasia
    Aug 29, 2014 at 21:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If you pluck a string at the center and do the Fourier analysis, all the harmonics are in phase. That is the expansion of a triangle wave. $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2014 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ If we pluck the string away from the middle, the harmonics are just as 'in-phase'. $\endgroup$
    – user121330
    Sep 2, 2014 at 18:38

2 Answers 2


It seems that the harmonic (integer multiple) overtones of a sound usually all have the same phase. Is this true...?

No, I don't think this is generally true, although it may be true for certain instruments. What led you to believe this? In trumpet tones, for example, the different harmonics come up at different times during the attack, so it seems unlikely to me that they're all in phase. But Ross Millikan pointed out in a comment that for a plucked string we do expect all the components to be in phase, in the sense that they all have maxima at the same time that the fundamental has a maximum; this is not the same as all having zero-crossings at the same time that the fundamental does, so there is an ambiguity in what you mean by "same phase."

And if you were to give each of them different phases, would the sound start to sound "off", or would it sound the same?

With a few exceptions in unusual situations, the ear-brain system is deaf to phase. The exceptions involve unusual sounds like cannons firing --- the lore is that one can distinguish the sound of a cannon firing from the same sound with the pressure differences inverted.

  • $\begingroup$ That last point is interesting. Do you have a reliable reference? A cursory search found this and this, among other things. $\endgroup$ Sep 2, 2014 at 16:20

The harmonics are a mathematical construct of the Fourier series

You have some complex repeated, unchanging wave form at some single frequency, $f$. That's all you have: one weird wave form, one frequency. No overtones, no harmonocs, nothing...

However, suppose you decide to approximate the weird wave form by combining sine and cosine waves. You decide to try using sine and cosine waves with the same phase as the weird wave form, and with frequencies of $f$, $2f$, $3f$, and so on. (You could always try some other wave form, I'm guessing?)

Fourier says that you can always select amplitudes for these sine and cosine waves such that your approximation gets better and better as you add more and more terms.

So now you can analyze how your weird wave form behaves in any situation by analyzing how each of the sine and cosine waves are affected...

Note also that "shifted phase harmonics" are already mathematically included in the standard Fourier Series:$$A\sin(nf)+B\cos(nf)=\sqrt{(A^2+B^2)}\sin(nF+p)$$ $$\text{where }\tan(p)=\frac{B}{A}$$

  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Aug 29, 2014 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ The questioner suggests that a harmonic of given frequency is in phase with the fundamental - in other words, if the fundamental is sin(2pi.ft) then the harmonic is sin(n.2pi.ft) - with no cosine component. $\endgroup$
    – akrasia
    Aug 29, 2014 at 21:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.