KIVA SIMONA: What is overtone singing ?



What is Overtone Singing? Overtone singing in the west (not to be confused with Central Asian throat singing), involves splitting one voice into 2 distinct pitches at once. The lower pitch is the fundamental from which the natural harmonic series is generated. The singer uses special techniques to isolate individual harmonics and make them clear above this lower pitch. It is possible to move these 2 pitches in counterpoint with each other.

Harmonic overtone singing allows a single voice to produce two or more pitches simultaneously. The lowest pitch is the fundamental or ground pitch, from which corresponding overtones from the harmonic series are emphasized and controlled through a sequence of vowels and shaping of resonant cavities, especially involving manipulation of the tongue. Using various techniques, one is able to sing contrapuntally with oneself, opening up new musical territory.

There is no tension involved anywhere in the body while overtone singing. The singer is in a relaxed state, which ensures there is never any damage to the vocal cords.

There are many other benefits, including therapeutic applications, such as:

*expanded breath capacity
*left brain/ right brain synchronization (analytical/ intuitive)
*self-diagnosis of problem areas of the body (blockages) and the means to heal them through sound
*entering deeper brain wave states, similar to those in meditation
*concentration levels rise, implying that one can be more consciously aware when naturally in these deeper brain wave states
*development of the ‘inner ear’ for more focused bodily awareness

The healing aspects of overtoning may be thought of as ‘automatic’, as one advances towards gaining control of specific harmonics.

At the other end of the spectrum, even opera singers have discovered valuable aspects of their voices through it, adding an alternative approach to their formal training. This is now being more fully investigated as to the role of ‘formants’ in classical singing, i.e. solving issues with changing registers. Musicians of all kinds may find ways of incorporating it into their compositions and improvisations, with instrumentation that further enhances the chordal possibilities.

The practice of overtoning serves to put sound through the microscope, so to speak. Think of a prism, reflecting beams of brilliant color from a single source, or a ‘laser beam of sound’, zeroing in on the harmonics.

The history of overtone singing

Known by various names (i.e. harmonic chant, Mongolian overtone chant, polyphonic singing), it has developed over three decades in the west, initially of its own accord. It became more widely known due to the accessibility and popularity of central Asian throat singers in the early 90¢s (mainly from Tuva and Mongolia), although western overtoning and throat singing are quite distinct from one another. There is still much public confusion concerning the difference between the two. The western style has evolved to include polyphonic singing, with moving fundamentals, in comparison to the folk music of central Asia, in which there is usually only a single drone pitch. Throat singing also involves constriction of the larynx, whereas western overtoning has very little, if any at all. Tuvan throat singing has several techniques and sub-styles. This has been popularized by the group Huun-Huur-Tu. Another distinct form of throat singing is practiced by Canada’s Inuit people, in which traditionally, two people (usually women) stand face to face and play guttural vocal games.

David Hykes, is one of the earliest contemporaries who coined the term ‘harmonic chant’ to describe his ethereal whistle-like style in the ’70¢s. However, a cylindrical disc recording exists from the late ’20¢s in which Arthur Miles, an American cowboy, sings overtones, presumably through his own discovery.

The earliest western compositions written specifically with overtone technique appeared since the late ’60¢s by Karlheinz Stockhausen (with the composition ‘Stimmung‘) and Folke Rabe in the early ’70¢s. The initial work of Stockhausen was composed using a different system of overtone singing instructions (based primarily on vowels) than what is commonly used today (a numbering system).

Due to its relatively young status, western overtoning does not really have a tradition. In comparison, central Asian throat singing goes back at least as far as the Silk Road trade, and is widely believed to have shamanic origins, though the Tuvans themselves cannot even come to unanimous agreement. The vast majority of these Asian singers are male, although these days it is more acceptable for women. There are many practitioners of overtoning in the west now. It can be found lurking in the background of practically any genre you can imagine, from New Age to jazz to world to pop, etc. Since the doors are wide open to its usage, experimentation is rampant. It is not gender specific. Apart from musical applications, it is also used for sound healing purposes.

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