A Short Word on a Note

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

“Music is the literature of the heart. . .”

—Alphonse de Lamartine

As writing is a selection of carefully crafted words, music is a composition of individual notes. An author has little control over what each individual word means in the context of a culture, just as a composer has little control over the timbre, or quality, of each individual note; however, just as individual words themselves carry weight, so do individual notes.

How a note emotionally impacts a human soul cannot be scientifically measured, but physics can explain how a note is just as complex and full of layers as a word.

What you hear in this audio is a flute playing multiple notes, yet only one fingering is being used— a middle C fingering (pictured above). This means that different sounds are being created without the keys moving. By overblowing the first note (the fundamental frequency), you can “push” into the next note. An effective use of this is jumping octaves without having to change the fingering, with the “push” in air accounting for the pitch jump; in fact, this is the reason that a trumpet only has three valves and can still play every note required of it.

Overblowing a note doesn’t create a completely different pitch, however— it brings out an existing pitch from the fundamental frequency. When you hear the middle C (the1st note in the audio), you are also hearing every other note in the recording at the same time as the middle C, as well as higher notes. These layered sounds, or overtones, are very quiet and often can’t be individually picked out by the listener, but they give notes the richness that human ears find pleasing. Overtones can be mathematically found by using the formula to find the fundamental frequency’s harmonics (the related notes that you “push” into as heard in the audio). The wavelength is halved each time, as expressed by L=(n/2)λ. Therefore, the harmonics are not linear with the same interval each time, but rather logarithmic (as heard in the audio and seen in the transposition's curved pattern).

The stringing of notes is an art form; composition is a form of wordless storytelling. Like all arts, music takes advantage of the natural properties of our world and overlaps with the mathematical and physical, even on a note by note basis.


Berg, Richard E. “Standing Waves.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Apr. 2020, www.britannica.com/science/sound-physics/Standing-waves.

Harmonic Logarithm, archive.lib.msu.edu/crcmath/math/math/h/h090.htm.

“How to Play the Flute Fingering Diagrams for the Flute.” How to Play the Flute:Fingering Diagrams for the Flute - Musical Instrument Guide - Yamaha Corporation, www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/flute/play/play002.html.

“Physics Tutorial: Fundamental Frequency and Harmonics.” The Physics Classroom, www.physicsclassroom.com/class/sound/Lesson-4/Fundamental-Frequency-and-Harmonics.

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