Overtones Reveal the Nature of God

Monday, February 09, 2009

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When a string on a stringed instrument is struck or plucked, a complex series of vibrations is set in motion. First, the string vibrates as a whole, creating the fundamental pitch, which is then perceived as the primary tone being played.

However, the string also vibrates in halves, each portion of the string producing another distinct pitch, exactly an octave above the fundamental. The string vibrates in thirds as well, creating a third distinct tone, much quieter and much more difficult to discern. The string is also vibrating in fourths, fifths, sixths, etc., each smaller portion of the string creating it's own unique overtone, or harmonic. The frequencies of these overtones are mathematical in nature. Pythagoras, of Pythagorean Theorem fame, worked out the mathematical relationships of theses overtones in the 6th century B.C.

The strength of these overtones, some weaker, some stronger, and the interaction between these overtones, the fundamental, and the body of the instrument itself helps create the unique timbre of each different instrument. As a matter of fact, these overtones play a role in vocal timbre as well, and even in our perception of spoken vowels and consonants.

Our traditional, Western style of music is based on these qualities inherent in the very physics of sound. You will notice that the fundamental tone plus the first five overtones creates a major chord. This is the reason why the sound of a major chord sounds consonant to our ears. It is a natural result of the way sound works, as God created it.

The interesting phenomenon of overtones, combined with another principle of physics called "sympathetic vibration," can be used to effectively illustrate the Biblical concept of the Trinity, the doctrine of one God manifested in three Persons (1 John 5:7, 2 Cor. 13:14, Matt. 28:19).
    At any ordinary piano (not an electric keyboard or organ), slowly and quietly press down on the C key, two octaves below middle C. Do not allow the hammer to hit the string. Now, hold the key down while playing the notes middle C, E (above middle C), then G (above middle C) one at a time. As you play and release each note, with the low C still held down, listen for the sympathetic vibrations of each tone ringing on the low C string. After having played and released all three of the notes in the C major chord, you should be able to hear the vibrations of all three pitches still ringing clearly and distinctly on the one low C string.
The three notes vibrating on one string can help us to understand that God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit are three persons, yet one Godhead.

The study of the physics of sound gives us a small glimpse into the personality and character of God. We learn that God is a God of order, of beauty, of creativity and has given us a wonderful tool with which to praise and worship Him!

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Curtis Hollembeak


Curtis holds a bachelor's degree in Bible with a music minor, as well as a master's degree in Sacred Music, having studied under Dr. Frank Garlock, president of Majesty Music, and Ray and Ann Gibbs, well-known Christian singers. He has served as music director and jr. high/high school supervisor at Grace Baptist Church of Mankato, Minnesota; school music director at the Franklin Road Christian School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; media engineer for the Sword of the Lord in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and, full-time music director at Second Baptist Church and Twin City Christian Academy in Festus, Missouri. He is currently self-employed and serves in the music ministry of the Berean Baptist Church in Rockford, IL. Curtis is co-founder and President of the Asaph Music Co. He regularly sings bass with the Bible Truth Chorale on recordings produced by Bible Truth Music at Faith Music Missions.

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