World Composition march 2013 – Ivo Vroemen & Jorick Bronius

As a school assignment, we were confronted with 3 professional musicians yielding less conventional instruments then we normally use in western music. Together with three more jazz musicians they formed a project-ensemble for which we are writing a piece of music which will be performed in the “Muziekhuis Utrecht” on the 22nd of March 2013. In order to compose a musical piece for this ensemble we do a research on the sound of each individual instrument. How do these particular instruments sound and how can we combine them? For our compositional concept we will focus on harmonics and overtones of the instruments.

In our ensemble we have a Sitar, an Erhu, Pan Pipes, a Flute, A Double Bass and Percussion. The school assignment also entails a few other limitations. We cannot use conventional western notation to transfer our composition to them so that they can play it. 

The Research

Main Question

How do the harmonics/overtones of the instruments in this ensemble sound and how can we combine them in a musical piece?


– Which harmonics are playable on the given instruments?

Since the Sitar is tuned in C# we’ll try to fit the other instruments around it.


Regardless of the octave the harmonics are played in, these are the possibilities we are going to work with. Obviously there are a lot more playable overtones but in this particular research we choose to stick to the basics.

– Which harmonics can we accentuate using electronics?

Using software plugin’s we can accentuate any existing harmonic in the sound of an instrument. This is offcourse in a fixed-pitch situation. But we find it a more challenging task to make the accentuation adaptive, therefore we measure the frequency of the fundamental played by an instrument to calculate the harmonic frequencies and using harmonic synthesis we can preserve the basic sound of the instrument and still manipulate the tone as far as we want and exaggerate existing overtones while the musician is playing melodies.

– What happens exactly when overblowing?

We speak of overblowing when wind-instruments use a certain technique to play overtones. This does not mean the instrument just produces the normal sound without the actual fundamental, but actually the whole spectrum shifts. In many cases of wind-instruments the spectral coherence changes dramatically. One can rather easily hear the difference between an overblowing tone or a normally played one when played sequentially. This is not just because the difference of the frequency of the fundamental, but also because of the change of the harmonic pattern when overblown.

– From when are more complex chords unrecognizable when eliminating fundamentals and the lower overtones?

To answer this question we should discriminate natural fundamental elimination, by acoustically playing them so on the instrument, and electronically filtering out the fundamental. When playing harmonics in the context of chords on an acoustic instrument, the chords are more or less recognizable until the harmonics start to get more difficult to play. Therefore they are player-depenable parameters.

The other way of suppressing fundamentals, using electronics, is a different matter. One can say that as long as the overtones suggest the correct fundamental the chords would still be recognizable. This can happen in different ways. The overtones suggest a natural harmonics pattern which tricks our minds in still hearing the overtone. We could also go psycho-acoustical on ourselves and have the musicians play overtones that creates a difference tone which tricks our ear itself into hearing frequencies that aren’t actually there. Though this often results in hearing some rather unpleasant chords and can is a rather unreliable method, for it can only work when it is done at a certain loudness.

– How do we transfer our composition without conventional western notation?

Using some rather simple methods we kept the composition open to investments of the musicians themselves to some extent. We just set some simple boundaries using the following schedules. For every musician we made a separate play chart so that everyone knows what to do when the conductor gives a cue.

WC Full ScoreWC Score Part - Contrabass WC Score Part - Erhu WC Score Part - Flute WC Score Part - Panpipes WC Score Part - Percussion WC Score Part - Sitar

– What is the relationship between the research and the project?

Using the result of this research we can compose a piece using overtones and harmonics to produces chords and melodies divided over all the available instruments. We made a schedule including chords and the instruments that are able to contribute to those chords using a specific harmonic. Other than enlisting us the possibilities using these techniques, this research also entails a limitation which is also a source of inspiration in creating the concept of the composition.

– How does the research contribute to the artistic concept?

Now that we know the possibilities of what the harmonics of each instrument can do, we can shift our focus to the artistic concept of the composition. Obtaining a lot of knowledge we can now set free our creative minds to combine the given sounds. We now know that there is a whole world of possibilities when just using harmonics. In order to not get lost in this whole world we chose to keep it simple and not go too deep with the all of the acquired knowledge so we can focus on the basics first. We also chose to let the musicians play the fundamentals as well so that not the entire piece relies solely on harmonics to get a certain amount of tension in the piece as well as making a contrast between the sounds of the two worlds.


These are the possible chords using nothing but playable overtones on the available instruments in our ensemble. In red you see the chords that are incompletely present, they are not fully represented as triads.


Limiting ourselves to the playable harmonics that can contribute to a complete triad, we can build all of the chords shown above excluding F, Fm, Am en G#. In contrast to a single pipe on the Pan Pipes the harmonics on the other instruments are interchangeable so that can play several functions in a triad. Therefore they can create several chord inversions. Bowed harmonics, though softer, sound brighter and many instruments should only use these in softer movements of a piece. Most pizzicato harmonics, excluding the first octave, are even too soft to use when playing in an ensemble. Though using electronic effects we can enhance these tones if desirable. Harmonics on wind instruments caused by overblowing usually sound much sharper and louder than when using other harmonic techniques that cause the tones to be much softer and produces more noise.

From all this we conclude that the harmonic fusion between jazz- and ethnical oriented instruments can be achieved in several ways. Their harmonics are very combinable to form a fitting musical piece with a lot harmony and a lot of space for expression!


One thought on “Articles

  1. Pingback: Article on instrument harmonics | Jorick Bronius

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