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A partial (or partial tone) is a sine wave component of a periodic sound (with regard to Fourier analysis). Partials are often used to characterize timbres.


The words partial, overtone and harmonic are sometimes treated as synonyms. Yet, there are significant differences between them:

  • An overtone is a partial above the fundamental, the partial with the lowest frequency. This explains why the numbering of partials and overtones is usually offset by one (e.g. the second partial is the first overtone).
  • A harmonic is a whole-number multiple of the fundamental frequency of a sound. It is not always a partial of a sound: for example, it can also be another pitch played alongside the first one. However, partials (or overtones) can be qualified as harmonic or inharmonic depending on their relationship to the fundamental.

That said, some sources may disagree with these definitions, and in any case, the context is usually sufficient to clear up any potential confusion.

See also