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What Is an Artificial Harmonic?

The strings of an instrument can be divided into sections for harmonics.
A double bass, which can be used to play artificial harmonics.
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  • Written By: Andrew Kirmayer
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2014
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One way to play stringed instruments is to use harmonics. Each string on a guitar, violin, and bass, for example, can be divided in half or in smaller segments, to find notes that are at pitches two octaves higher than ordinary. These notes can be hit lightly with a finger on the playing hand. An artificial harmonic is different in that one hand typically plays a note at a specific location, while the hand plucking the strings hits them at a desired fret. Techniques for playing this way often include the pinch harmonic, in which a player touches the harmonic note with one thumb and plucks the string with the other hand.

Playing the artificial harmonic on an instrument generally takes practice. For guitarists, it is typically difficult to teach because there are so many ways to hold a pick when playing. The notes of the harmonics are typically higher than other notes that can be played on the guitar. Artificial harmonics can also be played on violin. Usually the index finger is placed on one note while the pinky finger touches a note that is a fourth higher than the first one.

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An artificial harmonics can also be played on a cello and double bass. The strings are generally longer than most other stringed instruments, so a player typically uses his or her thumb and ring finger. How such harmonics are written out on sheet music varies. Classical musicians began to write them out in the early 20th century. There are different ways, however, of notating this musical technique, and orchestras sometimes have difficulty knowing the right notes to play when certain methods are used.

A variety of high-pitched notes and even sound effects can be created with an artificial harmonic. Classical music solos sometimes incorporate such sounds, and guitarists can also practice their own techniques when soloing. It can be pleasant to listen to an artificial harmonic, but the technique generally takes a lot of practice to learn. On most instruments, the placement of the hand and fingers is different for each position, and often differs from where the notes and chords near the harmonic note are played.

Writing out artificial harmonic notes can be a creative process. There are often limitations as to what can actually be played by most musicians. Playing a stringed instrument this way is often learned by experimenting with the notes while practicing. For fast playing, the hand movement needed to get into the right position sometimes makes the sound hard to create.

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