William Fitzpatrick - violin expert

What are natural and fingered harmonics

Discover one of the most fascinating violin techniques

In this video, William explains the difference between natural and artificial harmonics in a very easy-to-understand way.

Released on December 4, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi and welcome to virtualsheetmusic.com's Meet the Expert. My name is William Fitzpatrick and I am Professor of Violin at the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music at Chapman University in Orange, California. I'm as well Director of MusiShare in Irvine.

Well, why don't we have a look at harmonics. Now to really look carefully, we are going to have to understand that the function of the bridge is to stop the string from vibrating over here, on the backside. And then we have the nut here. It stops the string from vibrating in the head of the violin. So it means that the distance that we have, which is vibrating is from the bridge to the nut.

Now when strings vibrate, it's not just one circular vibration. It divides itself. For example, it divides itself at the halfway point, here approximately. So you've got this part vibrating, and then you've got this part vibrating. Not only does it divide itself at the halfway point, but into quarters. So you've got this part, vibrating, this part vibrating, this part vibrating, this part vibrating.

Now why is it necessary to understand that? Well, each of those points produces what we call harmonics. So, we've got an open G, and we go to that half way point, lightly put our finger, we get the harmonic from open G. You'll note that this is halfway. Halfway between the bridge and the nut. What happens if I go halfway between the bridge and the nut even more? I get the next harmonic. What if I go even higher? I get even more harmonics. So from here, all the way up, there are those harmonics, or that's where the string is vibrating.

Well, not only does it occur up there, it occurs down here. Now, if I go from here halfway towards the left and each finger, it's going to produce what we call then all of these harmonics together, natural harmonics. Why are they natural? Because they are all coming from, or being produced on an open string. Now, if I were to use my first finger, and stop the string, reduce the distance, right? Because it's not going to vibrate from that A, my first finger, to the knot. Now this my finger becomes the knot. Well, I too can get those harmonics, all of which are happening on the lower end.

Now, many composers have used both natural and fingered harmonics. For example, Bartk, he wrote something from his Romanian folk dances, one whole movement using fingered and natural harmonics. Or you don't even have to... Go so closely to modern times. What about Mr. Sibelius, in his last movement, he used harmonics to go over the orchestra in this little part. Wow. These are both natural and fingered harmonics. If you have any questions about this, or comments, or any special requests, please feel free to post them on the comment section. So take care, and see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Jeffrey Melzack on October 16, 2021 @10:18 pm PST
Professor Fitzpatrick, I’m working on Debussy’s “ Girl With The Flaxen Hair”, and being new to harmonics is there a video that shows how to accomplish getting this important aspect of the music? Also my fingers are somewhat short and although I stretch, have difficulty especially with the first finger on the G string and reaching the harmonic with the pinky. Thank you. Your videos are very instructive.
Jason Schulte * VSM MEMBER * on March 28, 2016 @6:36 pm PST
I am bit uncertain about how harmonics are written. For example, the last note in "Meditation de Thais" shows a harmonic written as the first stopped "d" not on the A string. Sounds like 3rd finger lightly on "d" if one were playing in 1st position. However, all the youtube videos of people performing "Meditation de Thais" show them playing the "d" note one octave above the first "d" on the a-string. I can play harmonics. I'm just not certain if I'm playing the right one the way it is written on the page. Please help!
William - host, on March 29, 2016 @9:23 am PST
Hi! Harmonics have multiple possible realizations. I play this note on the A string 2 octaves above the open A. As the note before is a harmonic as well I would suggest using a 1st finger however and not 3rd. Thanks!
Rosemary Jefford on August 7, 2015 @5:17 am PST
Thank you for the demonstration. Do you know any orchestral works that use harmonics in all the strings simultaneously? Thanks.
William - host, on August 9, 2015 @8:50 am PST
Hi and thanks for the comment! Unfortunately my orchestral experience is not up to the task but I would imagine that if there were they would be divisi
Rosemary on August 9, 2015 @10:51 am PST
Hi - yes I think divisi too. I'll keep searching! Thanks.
Mandy on April 6, 2015 @7:59 pm PST
Dear Professor Fitzpatrick,
Thank you for your posts, I have learned so much from your theory on harmonics & intonation so far. Wish You-Tube had of been around when I was little and learning. Very helpful & very generous of you to post these videos. Thank you Mandy
William on April 7, 2015 @10:08 am PST
You are welcome!
Joseph Hull on March 30, 2015 @6:41 am PST
I am a self taught composer and would like to know why a composer would use natural or fingered harmonics in his music. Thanks for your reply.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on March 30, 2015 @8:15 am PST
HI Joseph. Well, I am a professional composer, and I can tell you that harmonics are often used "as an effect" that otherwise couldn't be accomplished. The sound of harmonics is completely different from the sound of regular produced notes. Hence why composers often use harmonics in their compositions, to create a different sound, effect and feeling. I hope this answers your questions. Thank you!
Joseph Hull on March 30, 2015 @10:03 am PST
Thank you so much for your reply. I often suspected that they were used to produce a different sound or quality of sound but I never read this in print or heard it demonstrated. Thanks for the clarification. Now I will need to become familiar with the sounds.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on March 30, 2015 @11:55 am PST
Dear Joseph, you are very welcome! Actually I forgot to mention another motivation to use harmonics instead of regular notes: convenience of playing. On the violin, for example, it is much easier to play the high E note on the E string with the 4th finger (in 4th position) as a natural harmonic instead than the real note. Much easier to "catch" it in fast passages as well coming from lower or different positions.

As an example, have a look at the Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, bar 126 of the violin part:


That passage alternates regular notes with artificial harmonics. Those artificial harmonic notes, would be much, much harder to play as regular notes, because would force the player to jump, shifting, back and forth on the violin fingerboard, making it almost impossible to play that passage. With harmonics instead, you can play the same notes, as harmonics, by staying in the same position or by just moving between close positions, with minimum shifts.

As an example of "effect" instead, I'd suggest to listen to the Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, where, in bars 14, violins and cellos play natural harmonics in a almost "random" way, just to create a fantastic effect otherwise impossible to achieve. The impressionist repertoire of Debussy and Ravel is plenty of such effects as well.

Or you can checkout my own "Halloween Night" for violin and piano, included in our Halloween Collection, where the violin plays artificial harmonics in bars 36-42, coloring the music with effects that make you feel listening to ghost whispers:


Harmonics are fun, for both the composer, the player and the listeners.
Joseph Hull on March 30, 2015 @12:59 pm PST
Thank you. I have a better understanding now of both the practical and aesthetic values of using harmonics in my pieces for violin. I listened to your "Halloween Night" and although I did not have the full score available , I believe I could hear where the harmonics were used. They imparted to the tone a kind of eerie effect. I also understand how using them can facilitate getting from note to the other quickly with a minimum of changes in position. I will remember these things when I compose for violin again. Thanks.

My website hulljoseph.musicaneo.com.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on March 30, 2015 @4:23 pm PST
You are very welcome Joseph! Any time Smiley Face

I browsed your website, very nice music, congratulations!!
Jennifer Philogene on April 5, 2014 @2:11 pm PST
Hi Professor

I assume that it is you playing the Meditation from Thais. It sounds GREAT. What make of violin are you playing with. I am a new violin student.

Thank you
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on April 6, 2014 @8:16 am PST
Hi Jennifer, Prof. Fitzpatrick is currently not available to answer questions for personal issues, so I will try to answer instead. The answer to your question is YES: that recording is from Prof. Fitzpatrick recorded repertoire. Isn't it a great performance indeed? Thank you again.
Patricia on December 9, 2013 @10:37 am PST
Dear Professor Fitzpatrick:

I am learning to play a passage two-perfect-octave (2P8) above the written note with a harmonic touch.

I understand that I have two options: one will be play the entire passage in first position changing strings (with fingers #1 and #4) and open strings (with finger #3); or, the second option is to go up/down on the same string, changing to high positions, but remaining on the same string.

My question is, -In your opinion, which of the two options is the one you will use and recommend?

Thank you.

William on December 9, 2013 @12:23 pm PST
Hi In theory either should work. Do note however that the higher you go on one string the more difficult it becomes to get a clear emission. With this in mind I would suggest staying in first position as much as you can. Hope this is helpful!!!
Heidrun Kath * VSM MEMBER * on December 6, 2013 @4:07 am PST
Hello Maestro, Thanks for replying. Until now I've had fingered harmonics in the too hard basket, but feel like I want to try. I have the VSM score. In the Quasi lento section, there is the melody (the black notes) and the harmonics above. Which finger do you use for which? Forgive me my ignorance, I have never learned this.I love natural harmonics!
William on December 9, 2013 @12:25 pm PST
Hi! Whenever its an open sting at the base its 0/3 and when its a non open string note it would be 1/4. Hope this helps!
Heidrun Kath * VSM MEMBER * on December 14, 2013 @3:21 am PST
Thank you, Maestro. I will see whether this is going to work on MY violin!
Heidrun Kath * VSM MEMBER * on December 5, 2013 @2:15 am PST
In the harmonics section of the Czardas by Monti, with which finger do you play the black notes, and with which the harmonic notes? I now understand the theory, but not quite the application.
William on December 5, 2013 @9:31 am PST
Hi and thanks for the question.I need to know more however to answer correctly. What do you mean by "black notes"? For reference, any open strain is fingered 3/0 and and non-open string 4/1. Please let me know more to answer correctly! Thanks
Tudor * VSM MEMBER * on December 4, 2013 @3:09 pm PST
Nice video! I actually played Bartok's Romanian Dances, because I'm from Romania and I was curious if they would resemble the folk music in my country, being known that Bartok is hungarian. They're not like the traditional dances, they're rather an adaptation for a more approachable piece of music. That part you're talking about was really tricky, but I mastered it with hours of practice.

Thank you for your tutorials!
William on December 5, 2013 @9:31 am PST
You're welcome!
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