Tone and Harmonics

Picture of ukuleles in the Ukulele House, Hono...
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Most people usually conceptualize that because the strings of a ukulele are fixed at each end, they will resonate in the same frequency.  As it turns out, this idea is false.  The idea here is, in the event that the string induces vibrations on the soundboard, standing wave patterns are created – this contains the entirety of all present harmonics.

For every time the ukulele string is plucked, the vibrations created behave like waves which travel to and fro the medium being directed at each fixed end.  There are particular sizes of waves which can last while on the medium, waves which won’t cancel each other out as they are directed back onto themselves.  These types of waves are referred to as harmonics.  They are classified as standing waves and deliver non-moving sound patterns.

In the case of a ukulele string, there are quite a number of harmonically-related standing wave patterns that can be produced.

The first pattern, known as fundamental or first harmonic, possesses the longest wavelength of all.  Next is the second harmonic, which is also known as the first overtone, has a wavelength half that of the first harmonic and also two times its frequency.

As for the third harmonic, it only has a third of the wavelength of the first harmonic, and triple its frequency.  Based on these patterns, the succeeding harmonics has the same set-up when it comes to the frequencies and wavelengths.  The harmonic patterns produced in a ukulele will always depend on the way the ukulele string is plucked.

The pitch of the note we hear from the ukulele is relative to its fundamental frequency, while the timber of its sound is relevant to the sum of all harmonic structure.  This concept can easily be seen when you play both a trumpet and a clarinet at the same note – the sound heard from each instrument can easily be distinguished.    In the two instruments, they have the same fundamental frequency, but each has its own harmonic envelope which gives each instrument its own character.  This concept is therefore also applicable to ukuleles, in that the concert, soprano, baritone and tenor produce different sounds because of the difference in their sizes.

Besides the size of the ukulele, the sound produced can also be affected by other factors.  These include the overall structure of the body, the firmness of the soundboard, the quality of the strings used, and the ability of the materials used in the ukulele in absorbing or reinforcing sound.

For example, ukuleles made with plastic bodies and backs will sound a lot different than those constructed of wood.  Another type of soprano ukulele, commonly known as the Pineapple-shaped soprano, boasts a more throaty tone as compared to the traditional-shaped soprano.  This sound difference is, of course, attributed to the difference in body shape.

For ukuleles made of wood, the sound produced will greatly depend on the type of wood used, its thickness and its internal bracing.  Those which are constructed with bulky soundboards produce dull tones and do not have the same sharp “bark” possessed by ukuleles made with thin soundboards.  Also, bulky soundboards are known to have extremely short tone resonance.

High quality ukuleles have the ability to produce better sounds, thanks to the careful selection of construction materials used for the instrument.  They always make sure that the materials used will have the longest resonance and work well together.  Also, the type of wood and density is taken in consideration, making sure that the instrument can resonate freely and at the same time durable.  Different species of wood can be used in making ukuleles.  Examples include Spruce, Mahogany and Koa – all lending a unique sound to the instrument.

Many old-fashioned ukuleles in the market today typically produce better sounds today as compared at the time they were built 7 decades ago.  This is because of the internal stress undergone by the body over the years, which consequently relaxed it therefore giving it better resonance.  These instruments are very sensitive, that even relative humidity can easily affect the quality of sound produced.

Based on my experience, newly made ukuleles can sound much better once they have been used for around a year.  It is only at this time that they are considered to be matured – just like with old violins which are sought after for their mature sound.

When it comes to ukulele strings, always buy from reputable string manufacturers.  High quality strings typically are uniform in diameter, have excellent durability, more flexible and give your ukulele that distinct sound.  Never buy inferior quality strings – these are usually made with the polymer used in the bristles of scrub brushes.

There is a well-known song entitled “Little Brown Jug” that says: “…if I had a cow that gave such milk, I’d clothe her in the finest silk…I’d feed her on the finest hay…and milk her 40 times per day.”  Like the song goes, once you find the ukulele that will fit your preferences, make sure that you provide it with the best care: buying a protective case for it, supplying it with only the highest quality strings, and using it as often as u can!  Enjoy!

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