An overtone is a natural resonance of a system. Systems described by overtones are often sound systems, for example, blown pipes or plucked strings. If such a system is excited, a number of tones may be produced along with the fundamental tone. In simple cases, such as for most musical instruments, the frequencies of these tones are the same as (or close to) the harmonics (integer multiples of the fundamental frequency). An example for an exception is a circular drum, whose first overtone is 2.4 times its fundamental resonance frequency. The human vocal tract is able to produce a highly variable structure of overtones, called formants, which define different vowels.
Most oscillators, from a guitar string to a bell (or even the hydrogen atom or a periodic variable star) will naturally vibrate at a series of distinct frequencies known as normal modes. The lowest normal mode frequency is known as the fundamental frequency, while the higher frequencies are called overtones. Often, when these oscillators are excited, by, for example, plucking a guitar string, it will oscillate at several of its modal frequencies at the same time. So when a note is played, this gives the sensation of hearing other frequencies (overtones) above the lowest frequency (the fundamental).
Timbre is the quality that gives the listener the ability to distinguish between the sound of different instruments. The timbre of an instrument is determined by which overtones it emphasizes. That is to say, the relative volumes of these overtones to each other determines the specific "flavor" or "color" of sound of that family of instruments. The intensity of each of these overtones is rarely constant for the duration of a note. Over time, different overtones may decay at different rates, causing the relative intensity of each overtone to rise or fall independent of the overall volume of the sound. A carefully trained ear can hear these changes even in a single note. This is why the timbre of a note may be perceived differently when played staccato or legato.
A driven non-linear oscillator, such as the human voice, a blown wind instrument, or a bowed violin string (but not a struck guitar string or bell) will oscillate in a periodic, non-sinusoidal manner. This generates the impression of sound at integer multiple frequencies of the fundamental known as harmonics. For most string instruments and other long and thin instruments such as a trombone or bassoon, the first few overtones are quite close to integer multiples of the fundamental frequency, producing an approximation to a harmonic series. Thus, in music, overtones are often called harmonics. Depending upon how the string is plucked or bowed, different overtones can be emphasized. However, some overtones in some instruments may not be of a close integer multiplication of the fundamental frequency, thus causing a small dissonance. "High quality" instruments are usually built in such a manner that their individual notes do not create disharmonious overtones. In fact, the flared end of a brass instrument is not to make the instrument sound louder, but to correct for tube length "end effects" that would otherwise make the overtones significantly different from integer harmonics. This is illustrated by the following:Consider a guitar string. Its idealised 1st overtone would be exactly twice its fundamental if its length was shortened by ½, say by lightly pressing a guitar string at the 12th fret. However, if a vibrating string is examined, it will be seen that the string does not vibrate flush to the bridge and nut, but has a small "dead length" of string at each end. This dead length actually varies from string to string, being more pronounced with thicker and/or stiffer strings. This means that halving the physical string length does not halve the actual string vibration length, and hence, the overtones will not be exact multiples of a fundamental frequency. The effect is so pronounced that properly set up guitars will angle the bridge such that the thinner strings will progressively have a length up to few millimeters shorter than the thicker strings. Not doing so would result in inharmonious chords made up of two or more strings. Similar considerations apply to tube instruments.