The effects of harmonics on music

January 8, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

One comment on “The effects of harmonics on music”

  1. At the root of this, there are a couple of interesting questions: Is it possible to make a system sound better by adding non-linear distortion? If it is possible to improve the subjective quality of a system by adding distortion, is this a responsible thing for a high-end manufacturer to do?

    Paul answered the second of these by saying that he aims to minimize distortion in all cases.

    Some of the discussion about nice sounding and nasty sounding harmonics is not right IMHO. The idea of “adding harmonics” is meaningful in a simple lab measurement of harmonic distortion. As Paul has explained several times, this is a way of evaluating non-linear behavior of a system using a pure single tone (sine wave) as a test signal and measuring the added harmonics as a figure of merit. We know that THD measurements don’t correlate well with listening tests. In fact some amplifiers that measure with low THD sound really bad.

    Any musical waveform (even a single note from a voice or instrument) contains multiple frequency components, where some are overtones/harmonics of the fundamental and some are unrelated to the fundamental. It’s not really meaningful to simply talk about adding even or odd harmonics of a complex signal. Any ensemble performance generates an even more complex waveform.

    I think that when people talk about nice sounding or nasty sounding harmonics, what they are really saying is that an amplifier that predominately adds low order even harmonics in a THD test generally sounds better than an amplifier that predominantly adds higher order odd harmonics in a THD test.

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