TRAN QUANG HAI : “Harmonic Resonantial Voice vs Diphonic or Formantic Voice: Physiology and Acoustics of Vocal Production in Religious music”


“Harmonic Resonantial Voice vs Diphonic or Formantic Voice: Physiology and Acoustics of Vocal Production in Religious music”


Tran Quang Hai (CNRS, France)

30 years ago we discovered the overtones in Tibetan Buddhist chanting, then later in Mongolian and Tuvin Song (xs?s?mij style).

Since the last ten years, we “have heard ” overtones in a few other categories of songs: Shomyo Buddhist Chanting from Japan, Bunun Pasi but but or millet germinating song from Taiwan, mystery of Bulgarian Voices, the quintina phenomenon from Sardegna unearthed by Bernard Lortat-Jacob, paghiella polyphonic religious songs from Corsica,etc…

Spectral analyses in the physiological and acoustical point of view enable us to have a new way of listening to different vocal techniques. The phenomenon “overtones ” has become the new centre of interest.

I would like to present in the framework of this Firs Conference and Festival of the Asian Pacific Society for Ethnomusicology in Seoul the phenomenon of overtones in Japanese Shomyo Buddhist chanting and Tibetan Chanting. Is it a resonantial voice or a formantic voice ?

Before going into details, I think that it is necessary to give a short description of these two types of voice mentioned above.

The resonantial voice is the voice obtained some uncontrolled overtones by resonance when singing. The formantic voice is the voice using specific overtones to create a melody or a fixed pitch upon the fundamental (the case of Mongolian and Tuvin xs?s?mij singing style and Tibetan chanting).


Japanese Shomyo Chanting

Buddhism was founded in India by the Buddha Shakyamuni (Siddharta Gautama) about 5 centuries BC. All of the various schoolsl that arose later were based on the teachings of the Buddha Siddharta Gautama, the historical Buddha. It is not surprising because, like all the great religions, Buddhism spread to Tibet, China, from China to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Incidentally, it should be mentioned that Japan owes a great deal to China in many domains.

Shingon is the equivalent of what would be translated as mantra in India. Japanese Buddhist monks therefore chant Indian sacred texts in a language that is only partly Japanese. It is interesting to note that we can quite clearly discern the historical traces of the expansion of Buddhism in the fact that in the Shingon ceremony the texts are sung first in Sanskrit (Bonsan), then in Chinese (Kansan) and finally in Japanese (Wasan).

The instruments used in the Japanese Buddhist ritual recall those used in Buddhism elsewhere: the trumpets, horns and cymbals remind one of those used in the Tibetan Buddhist ritual, for example in the beginning the monks chanted the s?tras (the holy texts) without any instrumental accompaniment. And they were forbidden to listen to profane music. It was only when a new branch of Buddhism, the Mah‰y‰na (The Great Vehicle) developed that instrumental music and even the dance were considered incontestably positive elements in esoteric Buddhism. It must be pointed out that today the instrumental part of the ritual has become more important thant it used to be. Since then the chant has come to be regarded as the acoustic manifestation of the mystic essence of the mantras and the dance as the materialization of their principles, in some ways as the secret mudr‰ (a symbolic gesture of the hand, well known in India) of the Buddha. And it is precisely in secret that certain mudr‰s are executed during the course of the Shingon ritual ceremony.

The Shingon School classifies the ceremonies into two distinct luturgical forms, the exoteric (Mikkyo-date) and the esoteric (Kengyo-date) Among the exoteric Mikkyo-date are the ceremonies of praise and the identification with the imaginary divine Being. Its simple terms – but here we are approaching the crux of the matter – one may say that the identification with the Being represents the correspondence between the three actions of man (deeds, words, thoughts) on the one hand, and the three hidden actions of the Buddha on the other.

Buddhism became the official religion in Japan in the 6th century. Then much later, two monks went to China to make a deeper study of it. On returning from China, they founded two different schools: the Shingon Sh? (Shingon School) and the Tendai Sh? (Tendai School). The two monks were called K?kai (774-836) and Saich(tm) (767-822).

The Tendai School bases its theories, belief and conduct of life on a text called the “Lotus S?tra”, while the Shingon School’s are bases only on esoteric precepts. The former is more popular, while the latter is more generally reserved for the nobility and the elite.

There are not many musical instruments. Besides the trumpets already mentioned, there are cymbals (as in Tibet), the small hand-bell, the rei with an internal clapper, the large bonsh(tm) temple bell, struck on the outside, the keisu gong which is, in fact, a kind of bell placed upside down on a silk cushion, the nyo suspended gong, which is always played alternately with the hachi cymbals, and the suspended ans struck metal disc, the kei .

The ceremony itself consists of different section: the eulogies, the bows, the offering, the salutation, the hymns. Of particular importance are the Sanskrit hymn on the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, and the Sange, the chant of the scattering of flowers during which paper flowers are strewn like petals.

The production of overtones in Shomyo chanting can be obtained by pronouncing the vowels †.or O Other vowels E and I cannot produce overtones. The monk has to develop the phonation system (vocal fold, pharynx, and throat singing, sometimes nasal cavity or oral cavity). Listen to the following example Sh(tm)rei (Song of welcome), when the soloist sings. (take from 8 minutes) for 2 minutes.


Tibetan Buddhist Chanting

Tibetan religion, the inspiration for this music, is usually regarded as having begun to develop from about the 8th century of our era when, in the year 747, Padma Sambhava, its “official” founder, brought a form of Buddhism from India. This religion, no longer the pure non-theistic Buddhism of earlier time, had already assimilated Tantric practices (worship of the deity under the form of mother) which had swerved in the direction of sorcery. And when it reached Tibet, it found a widespread and long-established shamanism or spirit-worship. The attempt of the former to incorporate the supernatural beings of the latter, and to orientate them within its own framework, resulted in a religion which has, from time to time, been the subject of various “reforms”.

A monastic Abbot of this religion is called lama (supreme one) – a term now applied loosely to Tibetan monks in general – whence the religion itself has become popularly know by the name of lamaism.

For centuries, Lamaism has had an influential monastic hierarchy. This early spread throughout Mongolia (13th century).Since the liberalization of the Mongolian society following the USSR disemberment, monastic communities, which had become very rare since the end of the twenties, reappeared in many places.It existed formerly throughout parts of the Chinese and Russian empires. It is found today in Sikkim (since 17th century), as well as in Bhutan and the border regions of Nepal and India. Since the flight of their spiritual and temporal leader, Dalai Lama, in 1959, many lamas and monks have since fled. These regions, already Lamaist in tradition, include Ladak (part of Tibet until 1840), Sikkim (an independent Tibetan speaking kingdom between India and Tibet), and the Darjeeling district (part of Sikkim until 1835) of West Bengal.

There are four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa, the Sakyapa, the Kagyupa and the Gelugpa. The Gyuto Gonpa monastery belongs to the Gelugpa sect, the largest of these four sects and was established in 1474 in Central Tibet.

Apprenticeship of vocal techniques

The musical life of a Tibetan monastic community is intensive. Music is used in religious ceremonies, to call the monks to prayer, when making an offertory, to invoke the protection of the gods, during processions, to accompany ritual dances, etc…

All the monks present take part in recitation and singing. A novice must pass music examinations before becoming a monk in GyŸtŸ monastery. Chants are learnt by aural and visual imitation. Apprenticeship begin around the age of five or six when the child’s parents give him into the care of the monastery. One of the techniques used to acquire a very low voice consists of drinking huge quantities of water to induce vomiting, which will eventually alter the vocal folds. The young novices who are to play the oboe learn the technique of circular breathing by blowing through a straw into a container full of water. Their breathing is judged to be correct when the bubbles come up in an unbroken sequence.

The leader of the ritual, a very important function, is appointed by the abbot of the monastery on the basis of an excellent memory for the prayers and perfect familiarity with the ritual itself. The latter usually consists of alternating recitation, chanting and instrumental music.

Recitation may be of moderate or faster speed, in a very low voice

Chanting : there are three styles of chant:

– the Ta style: rather fast. The words are clearly pronounced. The anhemitonic pentatonic scale is used. The performance is interrupted by glottal stops throughout.

– the Gur style: slow, used in the monks’ main assemblies and during certain processions.

– the Yang style: very slow. Voice production is guttural and deep. The sound is continuous and uninterrupted. The number of notes used is very restricted. All the monks sing in unison. This style is used for communicating with the gods.

Guttural Voice with Harmonic n¡5

The Buddhist chant takes as its text a sutra of esoteric Buddhism, which is chanted in the course of the daily liturgy.

The men’s voices are pitched so low that one wonders if this can really be human beings singing. In terms of the Western scale, the pitches sung by the performers fall within the range of an octave with the lowest note situated at A two octaves and a third below middle C. In the Western bel canto tradition, the lowest pitch in the bass tessitura is generally considered to be the E an octave and a sixth below middle C. However, the lowest pitch sung out so resplendently by these Tibetan monks is a full fifth below this. This sonic world with ist full and continuous low tones is made yet more impressive by the entry of sharp metallic sounds which appear to tear through space and the astonishing sound of the Tibetan horns which suddenly impose themselves upon the musical texture. On the structural level, the idea of taking listeners unawares by suddenly adding violently abrasive sounds to a static and continuous sonic texture is similar to that employed in the music of the Japanese Noh theatre.

Only ten monks are taking part in this performance as singers and instrumentalists. The instruments uses are as follows: damaru (drum with membrane attached on both sides), thibu (sharp pitched bells), book chei (metal percussion shaped the distended cymbals), nga (drum with a diameter of 50cm struck with a bow shaped stick), kang dhung (dhung is the generic name for trumpet shaped instruments in Tibet. Kang refers to the human femur), dhung chen (chen means large . This is the gigantic Tibetan horn extended to 5 meters).

The technique of singing at such subterranean pitches is not one acquired overnight. The monks undergo rigorous vocal training which involves going down to the banks of surging river and producing extremely loud sounds which can be heard above the roar of the water.

The prayers, or mantra, which frequently consist of meaningless phonemes, whose purpose is almost exclusively symbolic, are accompanied by mudra; these are the symbolic gestures which can be seen in Buddhist iconography.

The use of vowell O is very important. It enables the monks to produce the harmonic 5 above which is reinforced sometimes by the harmonic 10 (upper octave of harmonic 5). The research of harmonic 5 (major third of 2 octaves higher than the fundamental) is intentional. Only the vowell O can get the harmonic

Only the monks of the Gyuto and Gyume monasteries could practise the overtones in their prayers.

Listen to the following sound document and pay attention to the harmonic 5 above the fundamental.

The phenomenon “overtones ” has been studied by research workers,acousticians, used by music therapists, at meditation lessons. More and more recordings have been made during the last 10 years all over the world This short presentation cannot be considered as an accomplished study, but as a beginning of the new approach of how to develop the religious recitation in general, especially in the field of vocal techniques. This is what I intend to show you here about my new attempts in research on resonantial voice and formantic voice.

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