Acoustically, a note perceived to have a single distinct pitch in fact contains a variety of additional overtones. Many percussion instruments, such as cymbals, tam-tams, and chimes, create complex and inharmonic sounds.
Music harmony and intonation depends strongly on the harmonicity of tones. An ideal, homogeneous, infinitesimally thin or infinitely flexible string or column of air has exactly harmonic modes of vibration. In any real musical instrument, the resonant body that produces the music tone—typically a string, wire, or column of air—deviates from this ideal and has some small or large amount of inharmonicity. For instance, a very thick string behaves less as an ideal string and more like a cylinder (a tube of mass), which has natural resonances that are not whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency.
However, in stringed instruments such as the piano, violin, and guitar, or in some Indian drums such as tabla, the overtones are close to—or in some cases, quite exactly—whole number multiples of the fundamental frequency. Any departure from this ideal harmonic series is known as inharmonicity. The less elastic the strings are (that is, the shorter, thicker, smaller tension or stiffer they are), the more inharmonicity they exhibit.
When a string is bowed or tone in a wind instrument initiated by vibrating reed or lips, a phenomenon called mode-locking counteracts the natural inharmonicity of the string or air column and causes the overtones to lock precisely onto integer multiples of the fundamental pitch, even though these are slightly different from the natural resonance points of the instrument. For this reason, a single tone played by a bowed string instrument, brass instrument, or reed instrument does not necessarily exhibit inharmonicity.
However, when a string is struck or plucked, as with a piano string that is struck by a hammer, a violin string played pizzicato, or a guitar string that is plucked by a finger or plectrum, the string will exhibit inharmonicity. The inharmonicity of a string depends on its physical characteristics, such as tension, stiffness, and length. For instance, a stiff string under low tension (such as those found in the bass notes of small upright pianos) exhibits a high degree of inharmonicity, while a thinner string under higher tension (such as a treble string in a piano) or a more flexible string (such as a gut or nylon string used on a guitar or harp) will exhibit less inharmonicity. A wound string generally exhibits less inharmonicity than the equivalent solid string, and for that reason wound strings are often preferred.