# Why are the harmonics of a piano tone not multiples of the base frequency?

I was trying to figure out which piano keys were being played in an audio recording using spectral analysis, and I noticed that the harmonics are not integer multiple of the base note. What is the reason for this?

Take a look at the spectrogram of a clean sample from a single piano key. I am using Piano.ff.A4 from here.

The following is the same as above, with a superimposed reference grid of $440 ~\mathrm{Hz}$. As you can see, the harmonics have increasingly higher frequencies than integer multiples of $440 ~\mathrm{Hz}$.

At this point you might think that the actual base frequency is just slightly higher than $440 ~\mathrm{Hz}$. So let us make a different reference grid, which lines up with the harmonic at ~$5060 ~\mathrm{Hz}$.

You can now clearly see that they aren't actually integer multiples of a base frequency.

Question: What is the explanation for this? I am looking both for simple high-level explanations of what is happening, and more in-depth, instrument specific ones, which could maybe allow me to attempt to calculate the harmonics.

My first reaction was that this must be some non-linear effect. But you can see that the harmonics do not change frequency at all as time passes and the sound gets quieter. I would expect a non-linear effect to be pronounced only in the loudest part of the sample.

Update – I measured the frequencies using peak detection on the Fourier transform from 0.3 to 0.4 seconds in the sample. This table compares the measured values with integer multiples of 440:

meas.   int. mult.
440.    440.
880.    880.
1330.   1320.
1780.   1760.
2230.   2200.
2680.   2640.
3140.   3080.
3610.   3520.
4090.   3960.
4570.   4400.
5060.   4840.
5570.   5280.

• Jul 17, 2016 at 17:06
• @StéphaneRollandin Good keyword, should be plenty of leads in there. Will check it out in a couple of hours. Jul 17, 2016 at 17:08
• I believe the explanation can be found here: sources of a piano's inharmonicity: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . You find the full mathematical derivation, harmonics included, for a plucked string here: sciencemadness.org/talk/… . Bear in mind that piano strings are hammered, not plucked. That changes the initial condition of the PDE solution.
– Gert
Jul 17, 2016 at 17:09
• @ArturoTorresSánchez That is a good video, but it doesn't discuss at all the phenomenon I was asking about. It is about equal temperament, which is a separate issue. I was aware of all that, but I didn't know about inharmonicity. Jul 17, 2016 at 20:29
• This is clearly inharmonicity. However, the next time you're wondering where some particular harmonics come from in a piano string, do a web search for aliquots and agraffes; these are mechanisms in some pianos, particularly Steinways, that can be used to produce different combinations of overtones than you would expect from looking at just the "speaking part" of the string. Jul 18, 2016 at 18:54

This effect is known as inharmonicity, and it is important for precision piano tuning.

Ideally, waves on a string satisfy the wave equation $$v^2 \frac{\partial^2 y}{\partial x^2} = \frac{\partial^2 y}{\partial t^2}.$$ The left-hand side is from the tension in the string acting as a restoring force.

The solutions are of the form $$\sin(kx - \omega t)$$, where $$\omega = kv$$. Applying fixed boundary conditions, the allowed values of the wavenumber $$k$$ are integer multiples of the lowest possible wavenumber, which implies that the allowed frequencies are integer multiplies of the fundamental frequency. This predicts evenly spaced harmonics.

However, piano strings are made of thick wire. If you bend a thick wire, there's an extra restoring force in addition to the wire's tension, because the inside of the bend is compressed while the outside is stretched. One can show that this modifies the wave equation to $$v^2 \frac{\partial^2 y}{\partial x^2} - A \frac{\partial^4 y}{\partial x^4} = \frac{\partial^2 y}{\partial t^2}.$$ Upon taking a Fourier transform, we have the nonlinear dispersion relation $$\omega = kv \sqrt{1 + (A/v^2)k^2}$$ which "stretches" evenly spaced values of $$k$$ into nonuniformly spaced values of $$\omega$$. Higher harmonics are further apart. We can write this equation in terms of the harmonic frequencies $$f_n$$ as $$f_n \propto n \sqrt{1+Bn^2}$$ which should yield a good fit to your data. Note that the frequencies have no dependence on the amplitude, as you noted, and this is because our modified wave equation is still linear in $$y$$.

This effect must be taken into account when tuning a piano, since we perceive two notes to be in tune when their harmonics overlap. This results in stretched tuning, where the intervals between the fundamental frequencies of different keys are slightly larger than one would expect. That is, a piano whose fundamental frequencies really were tuned to simple ratios would sound out of tune!

• @WoundedEgo the main bending leading to this effect is not on the attachment points, but at the beater of the key, when you play a note. Jul 17, 2016 at 19:42
• Can you specify what $A$ is?
– Gert
Jul 17, 2016 at 21:20
• @Gert It's a complicated coefficient that depends on things like the material used and the shape of the wire. I left it unspecified to keep things cleaner. Jul 17, 2016 at 21:23
• It does give a pretty good fit. This is a more accurate measurement of the frequencies than what I showed in the question. Vertical axis is the ratio to "perfect" harmonics of 440 Hz, horizontal is $n$. This is a two-parameter fit: $B$ and a proportionality constant. Jul 17, 2016 at 22:19
• "It's a complicated coefficient [...]" I think it's simple $EI$: elastic modulus times inertial moment about the neutral line.
– Gert
Jul 17, 2016 at 22:47

In plain English, there is stiffness at the ends of the strings where they are fixed in place, which makes the string's frequency of vibration slightly higher (sharper)—effectively shortening the length of the string slightly, for all practical purposes. And the resistance to bending is dependent on the frequency. It behaves more “stiffly” with regard to higher frequencies, reducing the string’s effective lengths more and more for each higher and higher frequency harmonic (“partial”). Therefore the upper partials go effectively sharper in pitch, the higher they get.

All stringed instruments exhibit this effect to some extent, and it’s part of the reason realistic piano sounds were hard to synthesize electronically on early synthesizers… when all the harmonics are in tune, the timbre sounds “deader” and less rich.

A real-life example of this would be guitar strings, which eventually go “dead” as you use them, and don’t sound as good as new strings. This is because the cumulative effect of playing them makes them more and more soft and flexible, reducing the stiffness at the fixed ends and making the upper partials more in tune with the fundamental. This sounds “duller”, much less rich in tone then new, much stiffer strings.

It also means that pianos have to be “stretch tuned”… low notes are tuned slightly flat, and high notes are tuned slightly sharp. Otherwise, playing a C1 and a C6 at the same time would sound slightly out of tune, as the partial of C1 closest to C6 would be slightly sharper than C6's mathematically precise frequency of 2^5 times the frequency of C1*, resulting in an audible, out-of-tune-sounding “beat” of the partial against the C6’s root, just like two strings whose fundamentals are close but not exactly in tune. Tuning C6 slightly sharp by the same amount that C1’s 6-octave partial is sharp, ironically, makes the piano sound more in tune.

EDIT: *A comment below drew my attention to the fact that I had originally made a mistake here. The frequency of C6 is 2^5 times the frequency of C1, because each octave is a doubling of frequency. In terms of frequency:

• C2 = 2*C1 (=2^1*C1)
• C3 = 2*2*C1 (=2^2*C1)
• C4 = 2^3*C1
• C5 = 2^4*C1
• C6 = 2^5*C1

So that's where the 2^5 comes from.]

• "sharper than six times the frequency of C1" ← You mean $2^6 = 32$ times the frequency of C1. Jul 18, 2016 at 6:30
• There is one key difference between your answer and that of knzhou. You say that the stiffness is relevant only at the ends, while according to the other answer it is important all along the string (which makes more sense to me). Do you have any comments on this? Jul 18, 2016 at 6:34
• I meant to write $2^5 = 32$ times of course ... Jul 18, 2016 at 7:33
• That's the best description of stretch tuning I've ever seen. I wonder how many piano tuners understand that. Jul 20, 2016 at 4:14
• @Szabolcs My intuition says knzhou is correct. This is noticeable on a practical level to anyone who plays guitar, as thicker guitar strings tend to give a noticeably richer tone than thinner ones, which could be due to the difference in tension on the inside and the outside of the bend causing the upper harmonics to be more out of tune, as (s)he describes. However, the effect I described at the string's ends is there too (and is also there at the ends of air columns in wind instruments, etc.) Without being able to prove it rigorously, I'd say we're both right, and both effects contribute. Jul 25, 2016 at 22:36

Carrying out the Fourier transform, I get a slightly different result for the frequency spectrum than 'knzouh'. I used $u$ instead of $y$ and $c$ instead of $v$, so the PDE becomes:

$$u_{tt}=c^2u_{xx}-Au_{xxxx}$$ Fourier transforming the equation: $$F\{u_{tt}\}=F\{c^2u_{xx}\}-F\{Au_{xxxx}\}$$ Transforming $x$ to $k$: $$\hat{u}(k,t)=\int_{-\infty}^{+\infty}u(x,t)e^{-ikx}dx$$ $$\int_{-\infty}^{+\infty}u_{tt}(x,t)e^{-ikx}dx=\frac{\partial^2}{\partial t^2}\hat{u}(k,t)$$ $$F\{c^2u_{xx}\}=c^2(ki)^2\hat{u}(k,t)=-c^2k^2\hat{u}(k,t)$$ $$F\{Au_{xxxx}\}=A(ki)^4\hat{u}(k,t)=Ak^4\hat{u}(k,t)$$ Inserting we get:

$$\frac{\partial^2}{\partial t^2}\hat{u}(k,t)=-c^2k^2\hat{u}(k,t)-Ak^4\hat{u}(k,t)$$ $$\frac{\partial^2}{\partial t^2}\hat{u}(k,t)=-k^2(Ak^2+c^2)\hat{u}(k,t)$$ Call: $$\hat{u}(k,t)=U(t)$$ So $$U''(t)+k^2(Ak^2+c^2)U(t)=0$$ $$U(t)=c_1\sin(k\sqrt{Ak^2+c^2}t)+c_2\cos(k\sqrt{Ak^2+c^2}t)$$ $$\omega=2\pi f=k\sqrt{Ak^2+c^2}=kc\sqrt{\Big(\frac{A}{c}\Big)^2k^2+1}$$ $$f_n \propto n \sqrt{Bn^2+1}$$

• Hey Gert, you're completely right! I was clumsy and dropped a minus sign; I fixed my answer. Jul 18, 2016 at 19:05
• Just wanted to point out that the sign mistake was in the equation, not the end result, as knzhou didn't note it explicitly. Should have checked the result myself but really don't have time on a Monday ... I'm curious to see how this constant $B$ differs between piano keys. It should depend on both the string tension and the string shape. Several keys should share the same type (thickness) of string, but I don't know about the tension. Will try next weekend. Jul 18, 2016 at 20:55
• @Szabolcs: " I'm curious to see how this constant BB differs between piano keys. It should depend on both the string tension and the string shape. " I think a full solution is needed for that, not just a frequency spectrum. But I'm lacking boundary conditions,to solve by separation. I only have $u(0,t)=0$ and $u(L,t)=0$... But at least we have the right PDE now! ;-)
– Gert
Jul 18, 2016 at 21:53
• Boundary conditions can be modeled as a system of coupled damped harmonic oscillators. The eigenfrequencies and damping ratios can be estimated from mobility measurements if you have the equipment. Jul 21, 2016 at 11:07