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A friend has recently told me that while string instruments and aerophones are suitable for playing chords, bells and most other instruments are not. He said the reason is that when you play a certain note on a strings instrument or an aerophones, it produces the main pitch and overtones in other pitches that are harmonically related to the main pitch in a way that is suitable for our usual diatonic scale and chords. But for bells and most other instruments, he says they produce totally different overtones and are thus not suitable for playing chords.

Is this true? How does this work? Also, I play a MIDI controller with a synthesizer and thus I want to know which synthesized sounds are suitable for chordal playing and which are not.

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  • Cue the argument over whether a piano is a string or a percussion instrument :-) Jun 2, 2023 at 14:41

3 Answers 3

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Bells, yes. They tend to have 'inharmonic harmonics' making them problamatic for chordal music. But 'most other instruments' is going way too far. Mallet instruments such as xylophone and marimba play chords just fine. And it's only really the traditional 'bell-shaped' bells that have the issue. There are plenty of bell-like instruments - glockenspiel, celesta etc. - which have more harmonic spectrums, allowing them to blend in harmony with themselves and other instruments.

Yes, 'all other' covers synthesis too, if we want to be pedantic.

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  • Sure you can play chords on bells - youtube.com/watch?v=tHgpuWPg1OE [it's actually more fun than it initially looks, give it a minute to get going].
    – Tetsujin
    Jun 1, 2023 at 10:22
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    @Tetsujin I would say more generally that sufficiently high-pitched instruments can play chords even if they have non-harmonic overtone spectra. The higher the pitch, the more does the fundamental dominate and the overtones just add a shimmering effect. So hand bells work quite ok, but larger bells – arguable. IMO, chords on carillon sound pretty horrible. Jun 1, 2023 at 10:31
  • @leftaroundabout but it's not only about the relative prominence of the overtones and the fundamental; there's also the tuning. Carillon bells are specifically tuned to emphasize the minor third above the "prime" -- the most prominent tone (which is an octave above the "hum tone," the fundamental). This makes chords that include a major third rather dissonant. A handbell that is nominally an octave lower will have the same fundamental, but the emphasized overtone is a twelfth above. A handbell choir playing F3-A3-C4 should be more harmonious than a carillon playing F4-A4-C5.
    – phoog
    Jun 1, 2023 at 11:16
  • IIRC timpani are another pitched instrument that has "inharmonic harmonics". Jun 1, 2023 at 20:36
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for bells and most other instruments, he says they produce totally different overtones and are thus not suitable for playing chords

This is true in general. However, it is possible to tune the inharmonic overtones of an idiophone by shaping the instrument, which can enable them to play chords. The marimba and vibraphone are notable examples. From Wikipedia's vibraphone article:

These rectangular bars have three primary modes of vibration. The deep arch causes these modes to align and create a consonant arrangement of intervals: a fundamental pitch, a pitch two octaves above that, and a third pitch an octave and a major third above the second. For the F3 bar that usually forms the lowest note on a vibraphone, there would be F3 as the fundamental, F5 as the first overtone, and A6 as the second overtone. ...

After beveling or rounding the edges, fine-tuning adjustments are made. If a bar is flat, its overall pitch structure can be raised by removing material from the ends of the bar. Once this slightly sharp bar is created, the secondary and tertiary tones can be lowered by removing material from specific locations of the bar.

which synthesized sounds are suitable for chordal playing and which are not[?]

The best way to determine this is to use your ear. But you can use the information above to help you understand what's going on. Synthesis of bells and other idiophones is achieved by using inharmonic overtones, and just as with natural sounds, the degree to which these overtones approximate the harmonic series determines their usefulness in chords.


Handbells have been mentioned in the comments. These are also manufactured with attention to the relationship between the fundamental pitch and the overtones. From Wikipedia:

The overtones on an English handbell are a 12th (an octave and a perfect fifth) above the fundamental, while Dutch handbells – such as Petit & Fritsen – focus on the overtone a minor 10th (an octave and a minor third) or a major 10th (an octave and a major third) above the fundamental.


In fact, inharmonicity is also a feature of strings unless the oscillation is driven (with a bow). This leads to stretched tuning in pianos and various problems with guitar intonation.

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A variety of idiophones will work. Tubular bells, xylophone, marimba, and steel drums come to mind. But on a synthesizer, most anything can work as long as it produces a pitch.

Broadly speaking, for pitches instruments, the overtone series is the overtone series. What changes from instrument to instrument is which partials are more or less present in the sound. Those combinations give different instruments their unique timbres, but don't especially impact whether chords sound good or not.

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    "Broadly speaking, for pitche[d?] instruments, the overtone series is the overtone series": idiophones do not have harmonic overtones in general; some care is required to tune the overtones when the goal is to be able to play harmonic intervals.
    – phoog
    Jun 1, 2023 at 10:11
  • @phoog I did not speak of idiophones in general. I named several specific ones that regularly play chords. I'm not sure what your objection is.
    – Aaron
    Jun 1, 2023 at 14:08
  • It's to the "broadly speaking" sentence, as indicated in the comment. The phrase "broadly speaking, for pitched instruments" indicates that the context of the second paragraph isn't limited to the list in given in the first but instead to all pitched instruments (if I'm wrong to assume that "pitches" is a mistake for "pitched," please let me know). So you seem to be saying that all pitched instruments necessarily have harmonic overtones in varying proportions, which isn't true of pitched idiophones. Their overtones aren't harmonic but may be tuned to resemble harmonics.
    – phoog
    Jun 1, 2023 at 16:14

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