Daily Archives: February 19, 2014



Inside Music:
“Harmony for One”
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, August 2001.

Although few people are aware of this, it is possible to sing more than one tone at a time — to, in effect, sing harmony with yourself. This fact runs counter to most people’s experiences, but nonetheless, if you know how to do it, you can produce multiple tones with your voice.

The techniques required can take time to master, but the physics involved is simple. It’s based on the use of overtones, or harmonics, those higher and less audible, but still very important, tones that contribute to the overall “flavor” of your voice (or of any musical instrument, for that matter). The fact is, whenever you sing a tone, there are also a number of higher overtones “inside” that tone which are harmonically related to the main pitch (or fundamental tone) that you’re singing. As I’ll show you, you can physically “focus” your voice so that one or more of those overtones are emphasized, creating the impression that more than one voice is singing.

To focus your voice in this manner, there are two main concepts to work with:placement, and formants. Both have to do with controlling acoustic resonance in your body.

Placement deals with what part of your body is resonating the tone(s) you’re singing, i.e. your chest, your throat, your head, etc. For our purposes, you want to use what’s called “forward placement.” That is, you want your voice to resonate in the front of your face — in your nose, cheekbones, and teeth. To learn to place your voice forward, sing a long sustained tone, such as an “oo,” preferably a higher pitch in your vocal range, as these are more easily resonated in the head. See if you can focus the tone in such a way that you begin to feel a buzzing sensation in the front of your face. As you begin to feel it, emphasize it further by increasing the forward focus of your tone. It’s a phenomenon better introduced in person than in writing, but if you play with it for a while, you’ll get the hang of it. (TIP: You can test whether you’re achieving good forward placement by touching your front teeth together very slightly; if they buzz strongly against each other as you sing, you’re on the right track.)

By the way, singing with forward placement doesn’t mean that the rest of your body isn’t also resonating and contributing to the sound — it is. Forward placement just means that the “leading edge” of your voice is resonating and buzzing in the front of your face. You need this resonance because it means the higher harmonics are strong, and ripe for being made stronger.
To make those harmonics stronger, we now turn to formants, the characteristic frequencies and resonances of the different vowel sounds that we produce when we talk or sing. How do we produce these different vowels? By changing the shape of our mouths — both internally (through the relationship between the tongue and the roof of the mouth) and externally (the size and shape of the opening of the lips).

This is exactly the same mechanism we will use to sing overtones, but we’re going to slow the whole thing down so that we can minutely control the changes in vocal resonance. Start by singing a long open tone, and very gradually alter the vowel sound that you produce. For example, start with an “oo” sound and very slowly “morph” it into an “uh,” then an “ah,” than an “a,” then an “ee,” etc. Find those odd, in-between sounds halfway between “ee” and “oo,” or “ah” and “uh.” Explore all the subtle vowel gradations such as you find in words like “wood,” “car,” and “oil.” Don’t just read these exercises, try them for yourself — they’re fun, and quite ear-opening. As you experiment, notice the many ways in which you use your tongue and lips, and how they contribute to the sound.

I find it easiest to produce overtones while singing a vowel somewhere between “oo” and “ee” (another good one is a sound halfway between “oh” and “ah”). Again, forward placement is critical to create the focused “edge” that you need. When you feel that vibrating edge, very slowly make subtle changes in the shape and height of your tongue, and listen closely for the presence of high, bell-like tones in your voice. Keep making slow, subtle changes in your vowel sound and forward placement until you hear one of those tones. When you do, focus your attention on it, and see if you can increase its intensity, either by changing your tongue slightly and/or changing the shape/size of your lip opening.

Learning these skills is always a process of trial and error. It’s important to pay close attention, listening for and emphasizing those subtle physical changes that produce the desired results. Only such gradual changes and concentrated attention will allow you to focus your voice precisely enough to begin amplifying specific overtones.

It’s best to do these experiments indoors rather than outdoors, because the overtones are quickly carried away and lost in the open air. The space you sing in can have little or no ambient reverberation, like a car or small carpeted room, or it can be very “live,” like a tiled bathroom, large open living room, gymnasium or dance rehearsal space.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can find and amplify a nice clear overtone for pretty much any vowel sound (though some are certainly harder, such as long “a”). Once you’ve found one overtone, if you keep your tongue position constant, you can produce other overtones simply by changing the size and shape of your lip opening. As you cycle up and down through the other overtones, it sounds much like the arpeggio of a chord because, as I said earlier, the overtones are harmonically related, both to the fundamental tone and to each other. Some singers are so skilled at singing overtones that they can actually sing several at once, enabling them to sing chords! One especially refined example of this can be found in the vocal tradition known as Tuvan throat singing. A more contemporary example is the Harmonic Choir.

When I sing in this way, I often find myself singing longer and longer tones, as my breath capacity increases and I lose myself in the experience. Sometimes, I even feel as though I’m breathing in as I sing rather than out — a very restful and meditative state. Others who are listening often have the sensation that the overtones are not coming from the singer, but from another direction entirely, sometimes from all directions at once.

Give it a try and see what fascinating new sounds you can create. Enjoy!

© Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of “Rhythm Guitar Secrets”(Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.





Monday, August 16, 2010

What is Overtone Singing?

Dear Constant Reader:  
Because of the high number of nearly identical questions I have received about overtone singing, I have had to post a blog to save my finger tips, which as a result of my impeccable reply rate, now feel and actually look a bit like the surface of a stale Triscuit Cracker. I may never use a Blackberry again. But no loss. Moreover, people want to know more about overtone singing, and I’ve heard they are having a hard time finding answers.
I promise this will be the most boring of my blog posts to come, for I must get the basics out of the way before I get to the good stuff, the juicy stuff, the stuff that you don’t even have to chew to swallow. But you must first learn what follows.
Overtone Singing with a tampura
A vocalist who sustains a steady tone while simultaneously isolating and amplifying distinct frequencies above it, uses a technique commonly known to the west as overtone singing. When manipulated to appear distinct, harmonic overtones of a sustained tone are usually perceived as ethereal, whistle-like pitches occurring above or within the sustained tone, and the overall, gestalt effect of overtone singing is of a singer producing more than one note at a time, usually a drone and melody that, for some, brings to mind the bagpipes. 
Still don’t get it? Don’t expect to completely understand how overtone singing actually works. I have been singing and studying overtones for ten years and still feel baffled when contemplating this vocal art. Overtone Singing leaves people fascinated in the aftermath of their initial shock of first hearing. And the mystery does not end; in fact, as one learns more, the mystery grows exponentially more profound. So be patient with yourself, and appreciate that the world still holds a little mystery. 
I shall attempt to provide the simplest explanation of those whistling tones you hear above a guttural drone, those ethereal little melodies weaving atop a steady pitch. Here it is: 
We live our lives inside an unending melody, and most of the time, we are oblivious to this music that is the ever-present harmonic series.
I might just be able to prove this to you right now. Get comfortable in your seat, relax from head to toe, bring your awareness to the sounds around you, and do not judge the sounds as they enter in to the forever-open holes at the sides of your head. Now, you might be listening deeply; at least, deeper than before. Next, breathe in all the way to the floor of your belly, and sing–don’t just say–a steady “Ah” for the length of about one full breath. You might believe you have just sung a “note”, but in the real world–in the world of unending melody–you have actually sung several distinct notes. 
Congratulations on taking the first step out of audial oblivion.
Harmonic Series to the 16th Partial
Sound is the result of air molecules energized into motion by vibrating matter. When something vibrates it absolutely must produce a series of tones above it; however, there are exceptions. But most of the time, these little tones are locked in to a pattern of fixed positions that are immovable. This lawfully organized pattern of tones appear in musical notation above, and it is called the Overtone Series, or the Harmonic Series
If you don’t read musical notation, you can still observe details in the patterns. For example, the tones go up the page and, the farther they ascend, the gaps between them become smaller and smaller. Other patterns can be observed.
Do know, however, that the overtones do not end at number 16 as I have listed here. Actually, the harmonics continue to ascend way higher, and theoretically above the highest limits of the range of human hearing (max. 20, 000 Hz). I have listed the harmonics within this limited scope because the most overtone singing is performed within this range of the harmonic series. 
With all that said, I have yet to explain how it is done.
The scientific explanation won’t help you learn to sing overtones, but put simply, overtone singing involves tweaking areas of resonance in the vocal tract and oral cavity. 
You tease your mouth and throat just enough until the overtones come out the way you want them to. It’s kind of like the hardware foreplay involved when putting a key into a reluctant lock. You know, whenever you have to cat sit for a friend, you always struggle a bit with the front door, but each time you put the key in the lock, you get a little bit better at getting in: For all things, we must endure a period of awkward acclimation. But you’ll get nowhere fast if you don’t listen hard. Well, not so hard you block yourself, but you must learn to augment your hearing sense.  
I learned to do overtone singing and Tuvan throat singing (see video demonstration below) by listening very carefully to the sound of my own voice. Sounds a bit narcissistic to sit in a little room for hours on end and listen to myself, but I wasn’t talking or saying words, and somehow that makes it more normal. Instead, I was sustaining steady long tones on different vowel sounds. 
Then, something switched inside my awareness. To describe the sensation is difficult, but the closest comparison I can think of is to the perception of color. Imagine going through life without ever having seen the color green, or perhaps you somehow filtered out just a certain shade of the color green. One day, you see it, and this new addition to your repertoire of perceptions, energizes and inspires you. You might say, “The world isn’t so boring after all! There is still hope for unending fascination!” 
Those were my words exactly when I first heard the tones inside my voice. I heard not just a bland drone that carries quotidian speech laden with signification, but a full chord of rich musical tones sounding out what seemed to be the music of the whole universe, and right there inside my little voice. I could hear nebulae exploding, black holes sucking dark matter, whole galaxies colliding, and an angry neighbor pounding on the wall with the handle end of a Swiffer

Hearing the harmonic overtones in my voice opened my ears and, consequently, opened my awareness. 

With my third ear open and my third eye in tears (what could have been taken merely as the sweat of my brow), I practiced listening and singing, seeking out recorded examples of overtone singing and imitating them, until I could somehow intuitively justdo any overtone singing style I heard. I now believe, however, that I had a tool that worked in my favor. 
When I first began to sing overtones in winter 1999, I was also practicing self-hypnosis, and oh, what a tool it is. No, I didn’t dangle a pocket watch in front of my own eyes until I monotoned the words, “I hear and obey.” Instead, I practiced a method of inducing a state of relaxed awareness that summoned a deeper intelligence from within me. While in this state of relaxation, something akin to a meditative state, my subconscious mind rose to the fore, where it could more easily perceive and execute the singing of overtones. 
To sum up how I learned this, I merely listened carefully to myself and to recorded examples of overtone singing and relied on my subconscious mind to do the learning.
However, I have since found ways of helping others find the harmonic series and sing with it. I have observed many students attain overtone singing skills within an hour or two. Learning to be musical with overtone singing techniques, however, might take a little longer, for just how long does it take to become musical? Seems to me that it is always there, lying dormant, until we are ready to risk heightened sensitivity. 
Meanwhile, as one begins to hear overtones in one’s own voice, the sonic world begins to change. One starts to hear music in what was previously thought to be the most unmusical of places. I remember hearing a jumpy vacillation between the 6th and 7th partials of the harmonic series in the spiraling water of a toilet bowl. I remember trancing out to the beautiful and endless shimmering ring of the 11th partial above the droning hydro transformer in the grocery store parking lot. I remember hearing folky pentatonic melodies– jigs, almost–when my housemate underwent his nightly oral hygiene ritual using his Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush. 
I also remember hearing the music of sound in more organic and less gross settings. I heard it in the winter wind singing through the tops of tall Balsam Firs; I heard it in the humble trickle of a dying stream at the center of a forest of cedars; and even in the breathing of a newborn human infant and the joyful weeping of its host. 
Thus, the unending song of the harmonics is all around us, and if we give ourselves over to listening, the harmonics sing themselves. 
Before one can sing overtones, one must first practice hearing them. 



Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Singing Undertones, Subharmonics, and Subtones

How does one learn to sing those seemingly super-low tones? Some people are as obsessed with low notes as they are with the high ones. For whatever reasons, the extremes of anything are attractive. 
Vocal infrasonics can be heard in various traditions: the yangchanting used ritually among some branches of Tibetan Buddhism; the folk music and throat-singing of Tuva (kargyraa)and Mongolia (kharkhiraa); the liturgical music of Sardinia (in the tenore bass voice): alongside the umngqokolo overtone singing of Xhosa women; and either occasionally or continuously in the epic songs of the Altai, Khakassia, and Sakha Republics. 
But the ability to produce subtones is inherent in the human vocal apparatus; consequently, this vocal technology also arises spontaneously and radically, which is to say, devoid of roots in any of the above-listed traditions.
I used to tell people that to sing subtones they simply had to hit “second puberty”. Though the joke has since grown tiresome, there is truth to the onset of a lesser knownsecondary pubescence. At about the age of 26 years, the human brain typically ascends to another plateau of cortical development, whereby the pre-frontal cortex fully matures. Think back (or forward) to your twenty-sixth year or when-a-bouts. What was happening at that time? How did you feel? Anything change?
Perhaps at twenty-six your voice didn’t start to sound like a chainsaw at the bottom of a well, but still, maybe we should rethink the concept of only one puberty, only one turning point in the ongoing development of the remarkably intelligent organism that is human body. 
Overtones and Undertones
Overtones exist. There is a clearly observable and measurable series of harmonic overtones that is inherent in periodic sound vibration. Overtones go over the main note, but is there a series of tones that go under the main note? 
Is there an undertone series
In formal acoustics, the undertone series remains a theoretical construct, not an actual acoustical phenomenon. To date, no one has produced evidence of an undertone series, a true mirror inversion of the overtone series that sounds simultaneously with the fundamental frequency (With singing, the fundamental is the actual note sung by the vocal folds).
Theoretical Undertone Series to the Fifth Partial
What is that low tone if it is not an undertone? I prefer to call it a vocal subtone, as it is caused by the oscillation of tissues that lie above the vocal folds. We use the vocal folds for everyday speech and song. The tissues above these actual focal folds are known as the false vocal folds, and you can see them on the diagram below, which is a cross sectional view of the larynx.
When the actual vocal folds are set into periodic vibration with a highly tensed glottis, the false vocal folds are pushed together and slightly upward toward the back of the throat. I have imagined that when these slimy little flesh curtains are set into motion to produce a subtone, they look and feel like puckering lips. 
When set into motion, these false vocal folds vibrate most optimally, with maximum amplitude and consistency, at exactly one half the rate of vibration of the actual vocal folds. For example, if your actual vocal folds are singing an A 440 Hz and you set your false vocal folds into optimal vibration, you will produce a strong subtone of 220 Hz simultaneously with the 440 Hz tone of your actual vocal folds. Thus, you are producing two distinct oscillations spaced one perfect octave apart. 
For this reason, I prefer to use the term subtone instead of subharmonic or undertone to describe this phenomenon, as the secondary tone is not a partial harmonic of the actual note sung, but a distinct fundamental tone unto itself. Furthermore, being a tone unto itself and not just a partial, a subtone also has a corresponding overtone spectrum. 
Remember that overtones are parts dependent on the whole, which is the fundamental vibration. Overtones do not have overtones, nor should undertones have overtones.
Does this remove the mystery from subtone singing? Not at all. We’re merely taking out the mystery and then putting it right back in again. 
No one knows exactly why the subtone vibrates so supremely at exactly one octave below the fundamental. Resonance mightbegin to explain it. The false vocal folds might absorb more energy when the actual vocal folds matches the resonant frequency of the false folds. However, one can sing a whole scale in subtones, which indicates the false vocal folds have an atypically wide range of resonant frequencies. Furthermore, the vibration of the subtone far exceeds the intensity of the vibration of the actual tone, and the false folds feel and sound as though they are not merely absorbing energy, but producing it independently.
There you haven’t it: the mystery remains. 
How to Sing Subtones
1. Sing any tone naturally and slowly slide it up a little ways, and then go all the way down to the lowest note your can sing comfortably. Hold it.
2. From that low note as your base, sing up about a perfect fifth (the opening interval of the Star Wars theme, theSuperman theme, the E.T. theme, or the opening notes of just about anything by John Williams). 
3. Starting on that note about a fifth up from your lowest, begin to hum. For a few minutes, just practice holding that hum steady to get comfortable with your note.
What follows is the hard part, and no “how to” explanation will be universally applicable to each individual, but try this anyway:
4.  Pretend you are pushing an immovable object with all your strength and then grunt. Sustain the grunt as you sing your note. You should be feeling a lot of pressure building up beneath your throat, in your lungs, and all the way down to your lower belly. 
5. With that feeling of pressurization in your torso, imagine you are pushing up from the back of your throat where you feel normal vocalization while pushing down from somewhere a ways behind the base of your tongue. This is a difficult sensation to feel and remember, and most people feel more upward push from the back of the throat than they do downward push from the base of the tongue. There should be a sensation of the back and front meeting somewhere in the middle, where we find the false vocal folds.
6.  While pressurized and pushing the throat, begin to do the grunty hum and then add just a touch of cough and hack while continuing to sustain your note.
7. Slowly and carefully adjust all the physiological parameters (degree of tension, placement of tension, pitch of your note, vowel, mouth open, mouth closed, seated or standing, morning voice or night voice, etc.) until the subtone appears. When it does appear, don’t chase it. Take a moment to stop and become aware of how it felt and sounded. Much of the learning here is in deeply internalizing a physiological memory of the sensation. 
When you achieve a consistent subtone, you will know it. The sound will be strong and it will seem to just lock into place on its own. 
Three Common Mistakes 
1. Going too deep. When singing a subtone, you are not singing a low register note with the actual folds. The actual folds are actually singing a relatively mid-range note, and the false vocal folds are resonating at one half the rate of the actual folds. Similarly, beginning subtoners often associate the deepness of the subtone with deepness in their body. As a result they tend to put the sound too deeply in the throat to produce a gravelly rattling that feels like it is going into the chest—it’s kind of an old-man-with-his-orange-juice-in-the-morning sound. But the vibration of the subtone is actuallyabove the vibration of normal vocalization. Send your awareness of the sensation upward, not downward. However, also keep awareness in the root of your body, at the base of your belly and even lower, from which the energy of this sound must come. I know it is confusing when you think about it, as there are lots of paradoxes in this kind of singing. Doing will make it clear.
2. Vocal frying. One can produce uber low vocal tones by loosening the glottis to regulate the incoming puffs of air. These bubbly pops can be regulated to produce a false bass register, sometimes known as strohbass. In the morning, you can really get those low pops on or around the vowel “uh”, and you can make them go faster and faster until they resound a steady low tone. The vocal fry sounds primarily from the slack closure of the actual vocal folds. The sensation is completely different from subtone singing, which is an intense and simultaneous vibration of the tissues above the actual vocal folds.
3. Over-Practicing. When I first started learning subtone singing, I did it for about 3 hours the first day, 6 hours the second, 8 hours the third, and none for the the 5 days that followed because my voice disappeared into infrasound. For a while I was speaking so low I could only speak in rhythm. The moral of the story is, you must proceed very carefully and patiently. Your false folds have lain dormant for most of your life, and now you’re asking them to wake up and vibrate. With gentle and moderate daily practice (no more than 7-10 minutes a day when first learning), the false vocal folds can begin vibrating freely and with no tickling or discomfort. The beginning subtoner, however, must endure some mild tickling and slight irritation when setting into motion the tissues of the false vocal folds. But with a little time, even the most intense sounding subtone vibrations will not and should not hurt if done properly. In this context, and perhaps many others, doing properly means simultaneously relaxing some areas of your body while tensing others.
Still Mystery
Finally, though at first you may have no idea how to do this kind of singing, you will have no doubt whatsoever when you have done it. The subtone will resound with such purity that you will just know that something mysterious still lies at the back of your throat.



Saturday, February 11, 2012

Suggestions for Beginners, Reminders for Masters: Some sensible tips and harmless tricks for overtone singing

My first hearing of overtone singing was followed by a period of intense desperation. My despair came with much enthusiasm, but I remember an aching desire to sing the way I heard on the recordings. I reasoned that if merely listening to overtone singing can excite profound  fascination in me, than what can actually doing it make me feel? Pure ebullience was my guess.I sympathize with those who ask “how can I learn to do that?” I know they seek the same feeling I sought. What follows here is a rather incomplete list of suggestions, affirmations, and aphorisms which are in no particular order, but are most certainly not “random” to use the parlance of high-school times. “That was so random,” the young people say, and I do love them all for it. However those “so random” acts to which they refer are usually more deliberate and focused than anything else they have done all day–a foray of full intention, a precise and directed line against the backdrop of a quotidian wash. Randomness should not be confused with spontaneity, but either way–either one–I think we need a lot more of it. I hope the following list leads you closer to the kind of singing you want to do and the kind of feelings you want to have. Please know, however, that there are no magic words that can give you the skill. You have to play, experiment, observe, and adjust. 

1) You can teach yourself. Though learning to overtone sing without a teacher might seem impossible, many adepts have acquired skills while sitting all alone in a room. I learned by listening to recordings of overtone singers from Tuva, Mongolia, Central Asia, North America, and Europe. Within a day or two of obsessive, continuous practice, I could imitate most styles with a reasonable degree of similarity to their sources. I have taught some individuals who catch the “knack”of a style within minutes, and it is very much a “knack” because there is an indescribable trick to turning on the sound, and when you get it, you’ll have it. I believe I got the hang of this with some ease because I’d played the trumpet and other brass instruments for many years before singing overtones. Other brass players have caught on quickly as well, and the “jaw harp”–specifically the tongue placement when playing–shares some very salient parallels with overtone singing. 

2) Imitate other singers, but sing like you. All humans, regardless of age or gender, have the same digestive and respiratory components comprising the vocal apparatus. Each voice is unique and truly inimitable. You can waste a lot of time trying to sound like someone else, while your own intrinsic sound is there waiting for you to discover it. Muster the courage to work with your inherent sound because no one else in the world has what you have, and therein lies its value.

3) Listen as much as, if not more than, you sing. Maintaining enthusiasm is necessary to attaining skill and producing meaningful sound–“music” if you dare. But desire can keep you from your goal. In making efforts to produce high, ringing harmonics, the novice strains, pushes, pulls, and all around fails to observe the overtones that are already present in his or her natural singing voice. I recommend first listening for the harmonic overtones in your natural, uninhibited singing voice and, when identified, concentrating intensely upon them. By listening carefully, one learns that there is no need to force the emergence of what is already there.

4) Practice intoning vowel sounds while cupping the hand to the ear.Beginning on a pitch in your medium to low register (probably the frequency range at which you speak), intone around the vowel triangle, moving as slowly as you possibly can and breathing comfortably as needed. As you sing, cup your hand to your ear with the palm held slightly away from the jaw line. The cupping of the hand amplifies the higher harmonic overtones that characteristically fall away the moment your sound leaves your mouth and enters into the air in front of your face. I have observed this hand-to-the-ear technique at use in several of the world’s traditional singing traditions. Furthermore, in my opinion, the gesture of putting the hand to the ear helps to redirect awareness from the reactionary mouth to the responsive ear.

5) Practice the three “voices” and making transitions from one to the other. Almost any overtone-singing style is executed using one of three voices. The “voices” are more than just three differing vocal timbres. The first voice, the “neutral”or “natural”voice, uses no more laryngeal tension than is necessary for speech. Second, the “throat” voice (known as the khoomeivoice in Tuva and neighboring regions in Central Asia), uses an immeasurable but clearly audible amount of increased tension in the larynx. Technically, the throat voice is made by increasing the length of the “closed phase” in each open-and-close cycle of a periodic frequency. The throat voice is not unique to Central Asia, and it can be heard in parts of Central and North Africa and among blues and rock vocalists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart. Third, there is the “subtone” voice, which I think of as a kind of extension of the throat voice, but with prominent, and downright unmissable, sympathetic vibration of the false vocal folds and, in many singers, other surrounding tissues of the vocal tract. (For a more complete description of these voices and instructions for how to produce these voices, see my previous post).

When you have learned to do the voices, work on moving smoothly from one voice to the next. Begin with your natural singing voice, on a comfortable, mid-to-low pitch, and increase tension until you move into the “throat voice, and then return to your natural voice. Also, move from the natural voice, to the throat voice, to the “subtone” voice, and then return again, breathing as needed. Remember the exercise is to attempt to make smooth transitions, but the result may be more of a turning on and off of these vocal sounds.

6) To produce the lip trembling effect, purse the lips to the point of muscular exhaustion until they ripple subconsciously. I receive many questions about the style which I have listed on the video as “khoomei borbangnadyyr“, and I have learned  from a few viewers that this  may be actually named “byrlang.” Like many great things in life, the tremelo effect of the lips is not done consciously. I cannot speak for others, but when I do it, I purse my lips, pushing them forward, and then open them gradually and slightly to find the ideal size of the aperture. Sustaining this position, I feel the muscles surrounding the embouchre begin to fatigue. With only a little time, the lips begin to shake uncontrollably. I love this technique because it illustrates a great truth that there is strength and purpose in weakness. The more you practice the lip tremelo, however, the stronger you make the muscles, and so the more difficult it becomes to fatigue them. But no matter how beefy your chops get, there is always a “sweet spot” somewhere in the positions of the pucker and aperture that is weak enough to surrender to your “hidden will.”

7) Sing outside. Explaining this one isn’t easy, nor is it really necessary. The natural environment is composed of powerful archetypal symbols that positively affect the human organism. The forms of nature–shapes, sounds, smells, textures, tastes–instill quietude and awareness that is conducive to overtone singing. I have a theory as to why, but I don’t want to write about it write now. You may find that the most pristine outdoor locations–edenic sanctuaries in your own backyard–inspire you to sing in this way. Moreover, many overtone-singing traditions have strong ties to the natural landscape and its myriad creatures.

8) When you sing a sound you like, don’t celebrate too soon; instead, take a moment to reflect on and remember the sensation of how it felt. Finally getting it can leave you so excited that you neglect to notice how it feels when you perform correctly (by correctly, I mean the way you want it to sound). Rather than going to show a friend, setting up the recording equipment, or running to your dad’s house to sonically heal his eczema, relax and observe your physical sensations and mental attitude that led to the successful performance.

9) Move through the overtone series as slowly as possible. Beginners often try to move up and down the overtone series too quickly, racing about and making articulatory movements too gross for stability. When you find three, two, or even one overtone(s) you can sustain with some clarity, stay there….enjoy that sound. Moving slowly is not only more difficult than moving quickly, but so too one can develop more control and usually derive more musical pleasure and meaning from singing within a limited range of the series; at least, at first.

Aside from these nine simple suggestions, I can offer no more tips to mastery of overtone singing in all styles. It is impossible for, if not detrimental to, a student to receive a handful of universal, fix-all tips. A teacher must hear and see a student to make a proper assessment of a student’s ability and potential. There are too many variations on physiology and methods to help anyone without virtual or actual contact.

Finally, to reiterate, skills can be discovered and perfected all alone in a room. You don’t need a cave, or a mountain top, an emaciated guru, or a trip to “exotic” locations to learn to overtone sing. Though I believe one can come to know the world from one spot on the floor in the house one was born in, there might be some truth to authenticating some styles by visiting specific locations on the planet. I just don’t know for certain. But do beware of authenticity, as most of the time, whenever authenticity arises in a discussion, there is a either a personal or cultural ego fighting for superiority over another. Oh, and money–authenticity debates and money seem to go together like rich kids and belted, khaki shorts.

“Ours is better than yours”—what an asinine statement.  If such debates arise around you, get away from those people and go to nature, an entity which has no need to justify its identify, and so it lives on and on.




Sunday, November 25, 2012


He found himself in a landscape that was on one hand the loneliest and most isolated, and on the other, the most profoundly inclusive environment, he had ever known. The South Siberian Steppe. The land was the frozen motion of the planet’s most subtle tremors blanketed with treeless grasslands extending to the edges of the sky in all directions. The sky so vast the land seemed hardly real beneath it, and how easily the vastness of emptiness, with the slightest descent, could swallow the ground that held him.


Though the land was barren, with the tallest vegetation being the waving grasses gone to seed, the wind sounded a continuous and strangely human-sounding “aahhh”. Perhaps the ethereal vowel sound on the wind was a result of the air’s passing over the hole of his ear, but it must have blown through or around something to produce almost clarion resonance. In that moment, no effort he needed for contentment. No need to pose himself before others so as not to harm or be harmed. And the everyday judgment he habitually passed and received was away on the wind.
He returned the sound, gently as though letting breath surrender into sound, and from that effortlessly sounding intonation of “aahhh” he heard the music of sound, the inherent harmonics of a vibrating body.
With the little ego self away, the big self into sound. Before this moment in nature, the putting of the self into sound was merely theory, not direct experience.  It was a theory his Hindustani Music Teacher had imparted to him. Guruji declared, “During the Brahmacharya stage of development, you must discover the self by holding each note for a very long time, and maybe for even hours a day if your dedication is complete. So long the swara must be held that there is nothing left of you and only theswara remains.”
In the Hindustani system of classical raga singing, the term swara had once meant more than “note” or “pitch”, as it has come to mean in the modern age. The ancient meaning, however, is there to be found in the word itself. By simply taking an etymological view of the prefix and suffix, one can know that the Sanskrit swa meant “of self” and ra meant “bestow.” Then to sing a single note, the swara, is to bestow the self in sound, and one found the self in the sound by uttering it and listening to the vast harmonic content of a single, sustained vocal tone. However, the singularity of this tone is illusory.
To sustain any one single note vocally is impossible, as the oral cavity, by default, forms the raw buzzing of the vocal folds into vowels. Though the speech centers of the brain are programmed to perceive vowel sounds as parts of signifying words, the vowel sounds are horizontal combinations of overtones (“chords” if you will, but more specifically, “formant regions”). Differing combinations of overtones distinguish one phonetic vowel from another. Our speech is replete with the music of vocal sound.
He was also bestowed with the knowledge that in the classical Hindustani singing tradition the vowel “ah” is preferred for singing, as this is the vowel sound of the heart, an expression of supreme adoration.
And is it merely coincidence that many of these vowels sounds, when used as raw expressions, heard alone and unaccompanied by contrasting consonants, have culturally specific meanings associated with them? For example, take “ah” as an expression of adoration in the Hindustani system. To a westerner, does it not have a similar meaning? 


What is your emotionally driven vowel response to the following stimuli and scenarios?
1) An adorable kitten with a red bow in its fur approaches you; it purrs, meows, and rubs against your leg.


2) Unprepared for your seminar presentation about wool slacks of the Elizabethan theatre, you improvise, thus faking it, and you use this commonly heard “mantra” of ponderous uncertainty heard all too often in public presentations and everyday conversation.
3) To your shock, the kitten from before is, in truth, a rare breed of dwarfed tomcat and it is in heat. It sprays your leg with its putrid pheromones.

4)  On your lunch break, you spill an entire plate of Spaghettio’s on your temperamental boss’s white, silk blouse just five minutes before her meeting with the board of directors.

5) Angrily tearing up yet another piece of junk-mail from your cable provider, you feel the firm cardboard slice open the sensitive flesh between your fingers, which for whatever reason, was wet with lemon juice.
6) Having pondered at length on the reason for your rapidly shrinking gums, in a “Eureka” moment, you suddenly know that your toothpaste has been taken and replaced with a tube of Preparation H.
How have these expressions found their way into the lexicon of human communication? Perhaps they are there for the same reason we moan when in pain or pleasure, or scream in terror or excitement, or laugh in response to either humor or impending mental meltdown: emotional response is biologically linked with the breath and any breathing that excites the vocal folds into vibration will consequently produce a vowel sound. There is something universal in the body, its feelings, and its means of expressing them. 


Interesting to ponder, but like most idle contemplations, they serve to fascinate far more than they serve to offer any answers or evidence.
So he sings alone and there is no one to hear. There was no one there, not even him, and perhaps that is why there was no need to be known, for there was no one to know. He felt such relief in losing the little self, craving the recognition it needs to sustain it.
Nature is a place without names. Giving names to the phenomena of nature is to give it identity, and the bestowal of identity is the imposition of limitation. And with these names, to us the beings who give meaning to almost everything, the animate and inanimate myriad things of nature were reduced to their little selves.
He lost his little self on the wind in sound. “None of these forces shall sway me,” he declares to the past and future. The declaration dislodged the self-destructive tendency of his subconscious mind, and dissolved the deeply imbedded impetus to obscure the big self.
Perceiving the apparent singularity of the tone as illusory was the first step in the separation from the world of little things, ego things.
Dissolve the self, bestow the self, and listen.


  Throat (Harmonic) Singing  
    Harmonic Singing (throat singing) is a technique of manipulating the mouth and throat to bring out harmonic overtones and undertones of the natural voice that resemble a whistle or growl. In Tuva and Mongolia throat singing is practiced by nomadic farmers (See Huun Huur Tu) and goes by the name “Khoomii”. In Tibet, monks use throat singing technique when chanting Buddhist sutras (See Gyuto Monks). Essentially, what causes the harmonics is a standing wave, meaning the space created in the mouth or throat accomodates and amplifies a certain wavelength while cancelling out others. This is the same as the creation of tone in the Australian didgeridoo or indeed in a flute or other wind instrument.  
  There are several techniques involved in creating overtones and undertones of the voice. The high overtone or whistle is caused by shaping the tongue and lips to enhance the resonance of certain overtones which occur naturally in the voice. The standing wave is shaped with the mouth to create this effect. (See below for lessons on this type of singing) The undertone singing is done by creating a standing wave in the throat while slowly blowing air through the ventricular vocal folds. (Quietly immitate a creeking door with your voice to feel these.) 

Recently I had an opportunity to study the methods of throat singing with Arjuna. Following is a transcript of Arjuna’s explanation. Please visit http://www.throatsinger.com to receive recordings or learn of his upcoming concerts and workshops.

In throat singing you have a high, mid and low tone. The Tuvans call them: Sagut, Homay and Kargura. They have very distinct techniques about where to put the tongue, the opening of the throat and where it resonates. But it is primarily a vocal technique and anyone can learn it and choose to go where you want. The key is the breathing. You will never reach the full complexity of your voice until you fully understand all the complexities and subltleties of your breath. Once you establish that flowing breath, nothing interferes with the sound. The only thing that may move is the tongue or the lips which can change the harmonics. So once your instrument is in place, the sound just flows out of you. A lot of singers do things with their throat or lift their chest or make things nasal when they shouldn’t be. All of these things you will discover with your own instrument. But first I would like to talk about breathing.

First you need a good posture with a straight spine. If your posture is off, it throws off your tones. Have a relaxed, natural position of the neck. So once that’s in place relax the stomach muscles to allow the diaphram to do its work. The tendency for a lot of people is they hold a lot of tension in the stomach. We are obsessed with keeping the stomach in. But if you relax the stomach and put your hands beneath the ribcage where the diaphram is and focus on that movement. The inhale is very important. Many people say, “Take a deep breath and relax.” I say, “Take a comfortable breath.” There’s a big difference. Breathing through the nose is the way you should breathe as much as you can.

Most asthmatics breathe through their mouth and they hyperventilate. All great teachings talk about nasal breathing because there are all these nerve endings in the nose and as you breathe through your nose with the right amount of pressure it stimulates the nerves and some believe it gives more oxygen to the brain. There is a master throat singing teacher in Tuva who starts always by teaching people to inhale properly. What does that mean? You’ll find that when you inhale, you only need enough breath to create the tone you want. A lot of singers take a deep breath and set up a lot of tension. It throws your balance and your center off. If you inhale too much, you miss a lot. So you will find a comfortable inhale that gives you enough to create the tone. Make sure when you inhale that there is no interference and then gently support the exhale. You don’t need much support. You want a breath pressure, but not too strong or too weak or you aren’t going to find those resonating cavities to reach those subtle tones. The inhale sets up the exhale and the exhale is so important. You need to discover just the amount of breath pressure you need to create these incredible tones. And remember, you want the full expansion around the ribcage and you want your back to expand as well. You don’t want just the front pushing up on the diaphram.

I studied many different breathing techniques, Taoist, Chi-Gung, Pranayana. All of these can enhance your singing technique. But the important thing is getting in touch with your chi to get those overtones. So be sensitive to the breath and be sensitive to the chi. The Taoists and the Hindus do alternate nostril breathing to set up clarity in the nasal breathing. Breathing through the nose is important because that’s where a lot of resonation takes place. And if you can, learn circular breathing. (didgeridoo technique) Alternate nostril breathing for the Hindus you take the thumb and ring-finger of the right hand and after inhaling and exhaling a comfortable breath, you close off the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left very comfortably. Then close off both nostrils and hold for a comfortable time and open the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Then hold for a moment and start again. The ratio is inhale on a six count and hold for a three count. The left nostril is considered feminine energy, the right is masculine. Throughout the day, one nostril will be more dominant, more open. If you sleep on your right side, the left nostril will be open and just the reverse. I used to always sleep with my mouth open and a teacher recommended to me to tape my mouth shut because when you sleep with your mouth open you will hyperventilate. The Taoists have a similar technique for alternate nostril breathing, but they try to get in touch with the chi. What they do for the inhalation through each nostril is create a channel that goes down the spine, and once the breath reaches the base of the spine you allow the chi to go up the spine to the crown chakra and come back down, then exhale through the other nostril. This method gets you aware of the chi so you are then able to move it about.

The Taoists use the thumb and little finger to block the nostrils. Now, to get in touch with your sound, it’s good to start off by humming. When you hum you begin to feel the vibrations. It shows you where the resonating regions are and where the harmonics will be amplified. After you have taken your breath, don’t rush the sound. Make sure you are very centered before you create the tone. Then always stop your tone before you completely run out of breath. If you rush the tone or hold it too long, that sets up a lot of tension.

Every vowel you sing has a certain tongue position which changes the mouth cavity that allows you to resonate in certain “forments” or resonating regions. The principle ones are in the back of the thoat, top of the mouth and opening of the mouth. So depending on what vowel you sing will determine which forment it is resonating in. So those regions are the ones we are going to tap into to amplify our harmonics. Also there are nasal, skull and sinuses. Your instrument has its unique places where your tones will resonate. So as we get into it, you will find certain resonating regions that will allow you to get your own harmonics. One of the sounds that is good to set up your instrument for harmonic singing is “Om”. You can’t do enough oms. Not just for your spiritual or meditation practice but just for what it does for your voice. So you want that comfortable breath and sing your om. Allow enough breath to finish the om and make sure you can resonate that “m” sound.


    You can start with a little “h” aspiration so it leads the tone out there. Awareness of where the tongue is is very important. You’ll find later that a slight movement of the tongue will change the harmonics because it changes the shape of the mouth cavity and where the sound resonates. So Be aware of where the tongue is when you make the “o” of Om and where it is when you finish with the “m.”    
  It’s the slow movement of one vowel sound to the next that really gives you harmonics. What you’re doing when you move between vowel sounds, you are changing the forment. So let’s go through the vowel sounds. You want the purest vowel sound. Start with “ah” and establish where it resonates and how much breath pressure you need to create the tone. 

Now, when you watch the Tuvan throat singers do their harmonic singing, they have really exaggerated lips. They keep their lips in almost in a whistling position. That’s very important because a slight movement of the lips can change the harmonics. So try the same “ah” sound but really exaggerate the lips. Make sure your lips are in position before you start. So your instrument is set up for the sound.

Now try an “oh” with the same exaggerated lips. And be aware of how much breath pressure it takes. You want a slow and continuous breath pressure. Don’t take a large breath, you only need enough breath to create the tone you want. You want a gentle tone as your foundation. Now try “aw” like awesome with a more open throat in the back, different from “ah.”

Another thing you can try is putting your hands on your face to feel where the tone is resonating. And yawning is also very good to relax the throat and relax the jaw. It breaks down any tension that you may have.

Another important sound that gets you into the harmonics is the sound “ur.” Using the semi-vowel “r” moves you into a unique resonating region. So try a tone like “hur.” And make all of your sounds like a horn as much as you can. That’s what you want your voice to sound like. Now “ee” is also a very important vowel sound. And you want it in the same region that you have the “ur,” somewhat nasal.

Now you want to go from one vowel sound to the next. Go from an “ur” to an “ee.” And again, it’s the slow movement of the tongue that creates the harmonics. Go as slowly as you can. And maintain that horn quality to the voice. Then try “ee” to “ur.” Then after a while you’ll find your own sound. As soon as you find a harmonic you can focus on it. It really helps you open up those resonating regions.

Now you can add an “m” at the beginning. Sing four “me” and four “mur” and you want the “m” sound to have a ringing quality. You want it light and stocatto. If you get that ringing quality it can launch you right into those harmonics.

Now you have the foundation. So, next you can slowly move the tongue to break down and amplify your harmonics as you find them.


    Now I’d like to touch on the low tones a bit. The way I like to approach it is a little different from the Tuvans. Because if you focus on the Tuvan technique of cargura you may have difficulty doing the highs. It develops a different type of tension in the vocal chords. So I like to keep the highs and just touch on the lows.  
  In the beginning all you need to do is establish a “frog” which is like the sound you make when you immitate a creeking door. So you find that gentle frog and keep the vibration slow. The idea is that after a while you’ll develop more control. You can move that vibration fast or slow. So you want to be able to establish and then sustain the frog tone. Once you get that low subtone, that’s your foundation. Then later, once you can sustain it, you add the vowel sound to it. That gives you the rich lows. Eventually when you get the frog you can make it more nasal and get higher overtones. All good things will be built on that foundation if you can establish that control. You can feel your Adam’s Apple, for guys. Once you have established the frog, see where your Adam’s Apple is. Then move it up a bit, like the Tuvans do, starting with a slightly forced “hur.” What’s happening is that you have the false or ventricular vocal folds above the vocal chords. The Tuvans tap into both of those. Once you get the frog you can begin to expand it. The Tuvans use slightly more tension in the back. The forced “hur” sound helps lead you into some harmonics. With the right adjustment and the right opening you can get just the right tone. So that’s basically it. Just get a solid frog and use the Tuvan “hur” technique to launch into the harmonics.

Please visit Arjuna’s site to learn about upcoming seminars, performances and CDs of his original harmonic singing.


Learning Overtone Singing for Accessing the Higher Self


MARCH 6, 2009 · 9:21 PM

The following techniques are guidelines to help you get the feel and sound of the high, medium and low register overtones. Once you are familiar with the sounds and comfortable in creating the overtones, you will discover your own techniques and unique sounds to explore. These techniques should in no way strain the vocal cords. In fact, the quality of the voice and breathing capacity should improve with practice. Have fun with the techniques! Remember, no forcing or straining. The overtones come when you are deeply relaxed!

Higher Register: the harmonics sound similar to high whistling.

  • Tip of tongue behind the upper front teeth
    Make small movements with the lips and tongue to get the overtones vibrating.
  • EE as in “year”
    Listen especially during the transition between the “y” to “ee” sound, and then from “ee” to “rr” sounds.

The listening part is most important. Take note of how the sound changes with very slight movements in tongue position. Experiment with volume (low to high). The EE sound corresponds to the spiritual eye and crown centers. Pay attention to these areas as you practice.

It is also important to note that you are already creating harmonics with your voice. This is what makes your voice unique. The techniques you are learning are just ways to tune into and magnify certain notes or “partials.”

Mid Register: the harmonics sound like ethereal flutes.

  • OH as in OM
    Lips slightly round and tongue flat on bottom of mouth and slightly pulled towards back of throat. Visualize small grapefruit expanding the space in the mouth. The sound of OH corresponds to the root chakra (at base of spine), giving a sense of grounding and connection with Earth energies.
  • UU as in “you.”
    With slightly round lips, sing UU and then move the tongue slightly and slowly forward. Listen to the changes in harmonics. Repeat. Again, experiment with volume. The sound of UU corresponds to the throat area, the seat of creativity and expression.

Lower Register: The harmonics sound guttural (similar to Tibetan Buddhist chanting). The lower register can also sound like low notes of a flute or like someone blowing sideways on the opening of a bottle. The harmonics are produced in the back of the throat in general but can also be produced throughout the mouth with practice.

  • OH as in “OM”
    Relax the throat and open up the back of the throat and nasal passages. As you tone the sound of “OH” create a cavity in the mouth (visualize the grapefruit) and push air out through the mouth and nasal passage. This takes a bit of practice. Experiment with going back and forth with pushing air out mostly through the mouth and then a combination of through the mouth and nose.

Sound of motor: with lips closed (no air going through), make the sound of a motor (kind of like a sawing sound) high in the nasal cavities. When you get this sound, try opening the mouth to add overtones from the expanded space.

In practicing the upper, middle and lower range harmonics, keeping the nasal passages open and allowing some air and vibration to pass through this area is a great help in producing the harmonics. In the beginning, however, it may not feel natural and so to get a feel for this, practice with mouth closed for a little while. Hum through the nose and listen to each of the aforementioned sounds.

With time and practice you will learn to hear a wide range of harmonics and will begin to project greater energy in sounding out different overtones at the same time. You will then be able to create your own unique combinations of overtones that will help you towards a greater sense of well being and balance.

Have fun with your practice and let me know how you are coming along.

Bruce Manaka




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