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over- +‎ tone, calque of German Oberton.[1][2]



overtone (plural overtones)

  1. (physics, music) A tone whose frequency is an integer multiple of another; a member of the harmonic series. [from 1867]
  2. (figuratively, often in the plural) An implicit message (in a film, book, verbal discussion or similar) perceived as overwhelming the explicit message. [from 1890]
    Antonym: undertone
    • 2012 April 23, Angelique Chrisafis, “François Hollande on top but far right scores record result in French election”, in the Guardian[1]:
      The lawyer and twice-divorced mother of three had presented herself as the modern face of her party, trying to strip it of unsavoury overtones after her father's convictions for saying the Nazi occupation of France was not "particularly inhumane".

Derived terms[edit]



overtone (third-person singular simple present overtones, present participle overtoning, simple past and past participle overtoned)

  1. (transitive) To give an overtone to.
    • 1860, The Art Journal, page 39:
      The flesh tints appear to have been darkened by being overworked; the draperies are overtoned in the same way []
    • 1977, Sol Dember, Steven A. Dember, Jeffrey H. Dember, Drawing & painting the world of animals, page 55:
      The background is now rendered by using meadow green with a stick pastel around the lower area under the lynx in an irregular fashion, and overtoning the areas closer to the animal with an irregular application of leaf green color.
    • 2011, Jerrold Levinson, Music, Art, and Metaphysics:
      Can you imagine, finally, the opening of Janácek's Sinfonietta, with its richly overtoned, overlapping fanfares, performed not by brass but by a consort of oboes—even very loud ones?


  1. ^ Douglas Harper (2001–2024), “overtone”, in Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. ^ Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1863) Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (in German), Braunschweig, published 1913, page 37:
    Das Ohr, von solchen Schwingungen getroffen, hört nämlich bei gehörig angestrengter Aufmerksamkeit nicht nur denjenigen Ton, dessen Tonhöhe durch die Dauer der Schwingungen in der Weise bestimmt ist, [] sondern es hört außer diesem noch eine ganze Reihe höherer Töne, welche wir die harmonischen Obertöne des Klanges nennen, []

Further reading[edit]