TRAN QUANG HAI : A Wide Range of Possibilities of the Human Voice


A Wide Range of Possibilities of the Human Voice


Tran Quang Hai (France/ Vietnam)



To establish a typology of the voice is not something easy to be done .  Based on the phonation and its production, is proposed a first attempt of provisory voice classification :

  1. Calls, cries and clamours

The voice is used with intensity in order to project towards a big audience . The cries remain an individual expression of pain (funerals), joy (ululations of the Arabo-Berber world), and astonishment (“ole” of flamenco)

Sound example : KECAK chorus in Bali, Indonesia

Kecak chorus appeared at the beginning of 20th century. This genre drew from older models, such as the trance dances as practised in temples . A chorus men, some one hundred singers, seated in concentric circles facing towards the centre, where a scene from the Ramayana is played. The chorus itself performs a polyphony of diverse cries and onomatopoeias, wherein the syllables KE and CAK are stylised monkey calls. The result is a varied rhythmic counterpoint, mainly using techniques of hocket, ostinato and off beat . Synchronisation between the different parts is rigorously directed by one of the members in the chorus. There is no place for improvisation .

  1. Voice and breath

The sound of the breath itself may be exploited for aesthetic ends, as when seeking a special timbre (as in the whispered voice of the Burundi zither player . Inuit throat games combine both rhythmical component of the breath and musical line of the voice .

Sound example : Whispered song with Inanga trough zither , Burundi

The pronunciation of the words by a man’s voice with the breath very obvious is perfectly synchronised with the plucking of the zither

Sound example : Throat game by Inuits, Canada

Three short throat game pieces KATAJJAQ a) by Elijah Pudloo Mageeta and Napache Samaejuk Pootoogook, b) by Temgeak Pitaulassie with Alla Braun, c) by Soria Eyituk with Lusi Kuni

The KATAJJAQ is a singular vocal technique characterized by the alternation of audible inhalation and exhalation, by a nasal and guttural vocal emission, and of bursts of sounds without fixed pitch. It is built upon repetitive motifs . Women’s vocal jousting. The two singers get face to face, almost mouth to mouth. The idea is to fatigue the adversary, and rhythmicalle destabilize her . A piece ends when one of the women runs out of breath and laughs .

  1. Spoken, declaimed, sung

Cantillation of the Koran, Buddhist psalmody, recitation of the Rig Veda in India, ritual speech in New Caledonia, and shaman’s song in Terra del Fuego (Argentina) are different aspects of this category .

Sound example : Buddhist psalmody by Tibetan Monks, Tibet

This is an extract of an invocation to the goddess Aphyi, protector of the monastery .

The passage shows the style of chanting dbyangs (literally “vowels”) and is characterized by a solemnisation of the enunciated text, obtained by the interpolation of syllables without meaning between the words with the accompaniment of a big frame drum .

  1. Compass and register

The term “register” is used in widely different ways. Acousticians and physiologists recognize 4 registers or mecanisms: mecanism 0: strobass or fry voice, mecanism 1: chest voice, mecanism 2: head voice, mecanism 3: whistle or flute voice .

The alternation of the 2 principal registers can sometimes constitute the very essence of the musical material, as is the case of the yodel, defined as such by the rapid passing from one mechanism to the other .

Sound example : Totemic emblem song, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea , tribe: Abelam

This men’s song is sung with a “strobass “ voice in the deep bass . This song has no words .

Sound example: Song for the carnaval, Bolivia, Indians Llamero

By 2 women, this vocal duo with an ensemble of 4 vertival flutes rnkillo played in parallel octave by men . The women sing in the highest register, it is said that their voices “become visible” .

Sound example: Yodel during the alpine pasturage, Switzerland

A three part polyphonic song without words consists of yodel syllables selected for the register, mostly with the vowels (a) and (o) in chest voice and (u) in falsetto, but also with (i) in both registers .

  1. Colours and timbres

If the “flamenco voice” is often thought of as “guttural”, what does this word mean, and what kind of physiological reality is involved ? Is not the Xhosa voice while quite different from the Andalusian, not also “guttural” ? As for “nasal voice”, how can we determine the difference between the voice used in American country music and the one of Japanese shomyo chanting ?

Sound example : Flamenco song seguiriya , Spain

This example of the flamenco voice, whose pungency and dark character are summed up the adjective negra “black” . A negra voice contains a number of intentional impurities

Sound example : Shomyo buddhist chanting , Japan

The psalmodic chant Hyôbyaku is a prayer offered to Dainichi recited by an old monk with a nasal voice

  1. Disguised voices

There are several techniques of disguise that a singer can employ . In the Peking opera, a male actor sings in falsetto to imersonate a female . The masked voice in Africa evokes the supernatural spirit. The didjeridu of the Australian aborigines,the kazoo of European children, the bamboo tubes of the Iatmul of the Sepik area, Papua New Guinea, or clay pots in Rajasthan, India distort the voice during performances .

Sound example: Peking opera Jingxi/ Pingju, China

The principal feminine role is traditionnally performed by a man

Sound example : Song with mirliton , Honduras

Alternance of sung words with cries, of a relatively weak intensity . The voice is masked by means of a mirliton .A small tube is closed at its lower end while to the other end is fixed a vibrating membrane (skin from a bat’s wing, intestine or paper).

  1. Ornementation

Vibrato can be considered as ornementation . In Western lyrical singing, it is a minimal form of ornamentation . The Mongolians alternate vibrato with trills (upon 2 degrees)

Sound example : Epic song , Kurdistan, Iran

Ne discovers here the same very confined melodic structure, and the ornamentation technique tahrir, though less applied .


         8 .Singing in the instrument

By lip vibration, the Australian aborigines  use the didjeridu as a horn, and with the technique of circular breathing permitting a continuous sonorous spectrum, rich in harmonics. At the same time, the musician emits sounds of different animals

Sound example :solo of didjeridu, Australie

9 .Imitation of instruments

The flute (in Mongolia) is not , however the only instrument that the voice can take for model – the fiddle (the Tibesti region of Chad) , the whistle (Central Africa) or the drum (North and South India)

Sound example : imitation of flute limbe , Mongolia

The singer uses an acrobactic vocal technique called “playing the flute through the nose”

  1. Employ of harmonics

A periodic sound is made of a fundamental and a series of upper harmonics which are selected to create an independent melody .

Experimental Research on Overtone / Undertone Singing


My experimental research on overtone/undertone singing has enabled me to establish  new possibilities of sound productions

  1. To select  one harmonic as a drone and to sing a melody with fundamentals

The fundamentals can be varied from 110 Hz  to 220 Hz (from A2 to A3) in the diatonic scale. During that time is kept the same pitch of the selected overtone at 1320 Hz. In order to obtain this result, the tip of the tongue strongly touches the meeting point of the hard palate and the soft palate or velum under the roof of the palate and should not make any movement . In that case, the two buccal cavities obtained by the position of the tongue inside of the mouth have the same volume and get the same overtone pitch in spite of the changing pitch of the fundamentals .

  1. To create a parallel between fundamentals and overtones

The overtones are always 3 octaves higher than the fundamentals while singing the ascending and descending  diatonic scale with the fundamentals . If the fundamental is at 110 Hz , the overtone will be heard at 880 Hz. If the fundamental is moved up to 220 Hz , the overtone will be at 1760 Hz . For this experiment,, not only the tip of the tongue is hardly pressed  against the roof of the palate and moves from the velum to the hard palate when the fundamentals moves from A2 (110 Hz) to A3 (220 Hz) in order to create the same pitched distance of 3 octaves in parallel .

  1. To create the opposite direction between overtones and fundamentals

When the fundamental is sung at A2 (110 Hz) the overtone is at H16 (4 octaves above the fundamental). While the fundamental goes up to A3 (220 Hz) , the overtone goes down to H4 (2 octaves above the fundamental). Consequently, this shows the opposite movement of fundamentals and overtones . In order to get this spectrum, the position of the tip of the tongue touches near the teeth under the roof of the palate (H16 will be heard) and moves  back slowly to the velum (H4) while the fundamentals start with low pitch (A2) and ends with high pitch (A3) of the A tonality


  1. To write words with overtones (such words like MINIMUM,  WIN )

A limited number of words can be written with overtones . With the same pitch of the fundamental , the written words can be done by varying overtones  at three levels (under 1,000 Hz, 2,000 Hz, and 3,000 Hz)

  1. To create UNDERTONES (F-2, F-3, F-4 while singing a melody)

Some traditional throat voices like Tuvan Kargyraa, Xhosa  Umngqokolo from South Africa, the Tenore voice of the Sardinian Quintina  (the fusion of 4 main voices creates the virtual fifth overtone voice) use the undertone going down one octave lower than the real fundamental . Leonardo Fuks from Brazil arrived to go down to F-5 (2 octaves and a major third below the fundamental) but he could not sing a tune with that way . I have succeeded in  dividing the fundamental pitch into 2, 3, and 4 . With  the use of arytenoids inside of my throat , I could sing one octave lower (F-2), one octave and a fifth lower (F-3) and two octaves lower (F-4) than the real fundamental pitch (between 110 Hz and 150 Hz) . It is not possible to create the undertones above 220 Hz or below 60 Hz

  1. To combine OVERTONES and UNDERTONES while singing a melody

In Tuvan kargyraa, and Xhosa umngqokolo from South Africa, the combination of overtones (melody) and undertones (real fundamental split into two – F-2) can be produced simultaneously . With my experiment, I could sing an overtone melody with the fundamental divided into 3 (F-3) simultaneously . The perception is naturally not at all identical.

  1. To create overtones corresponding to 7 chakras in Yoga

In Yoga, there exist 7 chakras corresponding to 7 vowels, 7 sounds or pitches, 7 overtones and 7 points of the human body. I carried out experimen-tal research in the presence of overtones in Yoga. The result of my three-year study was presented at the International Congress of Yoga in France in 2002 .
According to my research, the fundamental of voice should be at 150Hz .

1 Mulâdhâra        coccyx   H n° 4     U           600Hz
2 Svâdhishthâna  genitals  H n° 5     O           750Hz
3 Manipûra          navel     H n° 6     Ö           900Hz
4 Anâhata            heart      H n° 8     A         1200Hz
5 Vishuddha        throat     H n° 9     E          1350Hz
6 Ajnâ between eyebrows H n°10    AE       1500Hz
7 Sahasrâra   top of head  H n°12     I          1800Hz


First, I would like to present you a quick overview of different possibilities that the voice can be found in traditional musics in the world and second, I am happy to show you some results of my recent discoveries on overtone / undertone study . Thank you for your attention ..

Selective Bibliography for Overtone Singing Study


Bloothooft G. Bringmann E., van Capellen M.,  van Luipen J.B., Thoamssen K.P.  1992: “Acoustic and Perception of Overtone Singing”, in Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, JASA, vol.92, n°4: 1827-1836.

Dargie, D. 1993: “Thembu Xhosa umngqokolo overtone singing : the use of the human voice as a type of “musical bow”, paper presented at the ICTM Conference in Berlin. (self publication)

Grawunder, S. 2003 : “Der südsibirische Kehlgesang als Gegenstand  phonetishcer Untersuchungen“ , in Gegenstandsauffassung und aktuelle phonetische Forschungen der halleschen Sprechwissenschaft :53-91, Eva-Maria Krech/Eberhard Stock (Ed), Peter Lang, Halle, Germany .

Grawunder, S. 2003: „Unusual phonetic and acoustic features in certain Tuvan throat singing styles“, Scientific Center of Research „Xoomei“, Kyzyl, Tuva

Leipp, E. 1971 : “Le probleme acoustique du chant diphonique”, Bulletin du Groupe d’Acoustique Musicale , no 58 : 1-10, Universite de Paris VI

Leothaud, G. 1989 : « Considerations acoustiques et musicales sur le chant diphonique », Le Chant diphonique, dossier n°1 : 17-43, Institut de la Voix, Limoges, France

Sundberg, Johan 1987 : The Science of the Singing Voice , Northern Illinois University Press, USA

Tisato G., Cosi, P. 2003: “On the Magic of Overtone Singing”, in Voce, Canto Parlato : 83-100, Unipress (publisher), Padova, Italy

Tongeren , van M. 2002 : Overtone Singing / Physics and Metaphysics of Harmonics in East and West , 271 pages, Fusica publisher, 1 CD , Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Tran Quang Hai , Guillou D. 1980 : « Original Research and Acoustical Analysis in connection with the Xöömij style of Biphonic Singing “, in Musical Voices of Asia : 163-173, The Japan Foundation (ed), Heibonsha Ltd, Tokyo, Japan

Tran Quang Hai , Zemp H., 1991: “Recherches experimentales sur le chant diphonique”, Cahiers de musiques traditionnelles, 4 (Voix) : 27-68, Ateliers d’Ethnomusicologie, Geneva , Switzerland .

Tran Quang Hai 2002 : « A la decouverte du chant diphonique », in Moyens d’investigation et Pedagogie de la voix chantee : 117-132, with a CD Rom, Guy Cornut (ed), Symetrie publishers, Lyon, France




1990 Le chant des harmoniques  (The Song of Harmonics),  film 16mm and video cassette , 38 minutes, directed by H.Zemp, co-authors (Tran Quang Hai and Hugo Zemp), CNRS Audio Visuel (prod), France . Contact: Tran Quang Hai, email: or

2003 Le chant diphonique, DVD , 27 minutes, directed by C.Beguinet, co-authors (Tran Quang Hai and Luc Souvet), Centre Regional de Documentation Pedagogique (CRDP), Saint Denis, Isle of the Reunion, contact: Luc Souvet email :

Weborama  (type each of these words : overtone singing , throat singing , biphonic singing, diphonic singing, canto difonico, oberton,  khoomei, sygyt, kargyraa, harmonic singing,)

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