Marie-Cécile BARRAS & Anne-Marie GOUIFFES :The Reception of Overtone Singing by Uninformed Listeners


journal of interdisciplinary music studies
spring/fall 2008, volume 2, issue 1&2, art. #0821204, pp. 59-70
•Correspondence: M.-C. Barras, Univ. Bordeaux IV (IUFM), 160 Avenue de Verdun – BP 90152, 33705
Mérignac Cedex, France; e-mail:

The Reception of Overtone Singing by Uninformed

Marie-Cécile Barras1 and Anne-Marie Gouiffès2
1 University of Bordeaux (IUFM d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux IV and Department of Music,
Bordeaux III) 2 Jeannine Manuel Bilingual School, Paris and OMF, University of Paris IV-Sorbonne
Background in acoustics and psychoacoustics. Overtone singing is a vocal technique by
which a single source produces two melodic pitches simultaneously. When an unprepared
listener hears a recording of overtone singing, the first question is usually: “How was the sound
produced?” The level of auditory education may play a role in the perception of this
Background in cultural studies. A study of a cultural initiation includes subjective aspects of
reception. Listeners are presented with an unknown vocal technique from a popular culture. The
majority of listeners will experience it as a real cultural confrontation with an unknown world
of sound. The initial phase of acculturation is therefore the most salient.
Aims. Our objective is to determine how the listener reacts to an unknown musical
phenomenon, in both its perceptive and cultural dimensions.
Main contribution. The present study concerns the listener’s reception of overtone singing.
The musical corpus includes styles of singing as diverse as those found in Tuva and Mongolia,
in South Africa (Xhosa women), or among the Dani people of Irian Jaya in the Indonesian
territory of New Guinea. Psychoacoustic tests were given to 338 adolescents (10–15 years old).
Implications. In order to understand the mechanism ‘from the inside’, all the listeners, who
have undergone the tests, then try overtone singing. Our study opens the door to a
transformation in the way one listens. It encourages an openness to other artistic and cultural
dimensions through a real education of the ear.

Keywords: Overtone singing, ethnomusicology, pitch perception, psychoacoustics, reception, cultural

M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

The present study concerns the listener’s reception of overtone singing, a vocal
technique by which a single source produces two melodic pitches simultaneously.
One of the pitches is the generally stable fundamental, which serves as a sort of drone;
the other results from the shifting emphasis of different harmonics. This shifting
emphasis has a melodic intent. The various harmonics are obtained through a
modification (by pronouncing the vowels) of the singer’s resonators (the pharyngo-
buccal cavity acts as a resonator of variable volume) and a particular use of the breath
with a forceful contraction of the abdominal and neck muscles. This is characteristic
for traditional techniques of overtone singing. In a different way, the
ethnomusicologist Trân Quang Hai thinks that the singer’s nose can be used as a
natural shutter in order to filter undesirable frequencies with no more additional
efforts than while speaking (Zemp, 1989; Zemp & Trân, 1991), but this experimental
possibility should not be confused with the guttural overtone singing (or ‘throat
singing’ as Mongols and Tuvans call it).
This vocal technique which is very original has been observed, recorded and studied
in depth for about thirty years by ethnomusicologists and acousticians (Léothaud,
1989). A short sequence of analysis presented in an interactive process can be found
at:, or at the
website of the ‘Musée de l’Homme’ of Paris: http://www.ethnomus.org1 (click
‘Enter’, choose ‘Réalisations Multimedia’, ‘Les clefs d’écoute’, ‘Le chant
diphonique’). The analysis of the frequencies can be visualized immediately as the
singer physically emits overtone singing thanks to a special computer programme
(e.g. ‘sygyt software’, http://www.sygyt.com2, Maass & Saus, 2003) which draws
sonagrams (or spectrograms), thus illustrating the acoustic specificity of the sound.
Though this vocal technique is now well known by specialists (Walcott, 1974; Trân,
1975, 2002) and also used in contemporary music, overtone singing is still unknown
to the general public. The first listening experiment that we did in music classes
triggered varied and surprising reactions. This music raised issues linked both to
perception and cultural background. Therefore we felt that overtone singing was a
good basis to explore the psychoacoustic experience and the cultural initiation that it
So the main question was: “How does an uninformed listener react to an unknown
musical phenomenon?” – in perceptive and cultural dimensions. The Reception of Overtone Singing

Musical corpus
The existence of overtone singing is now acknowledged in places beyond Mount
Altai, in Central Asia, among the following populations: Mongolian, Tuva, Khakash,
Altaian, and among the Bashkirs (West of the Urals). What is less well known is that
certain Xhosa women from South Africa perform overtone singing in extremely low
vocal registers and that a recording (by John Levy, 1967, cited in Zemp & Trân, 1991,
and in Trân, 2002) of a singer also shows that overtone singing existed in Rajasthan.
The Dani people of Irian Jaya in the Indonesian territory of New Guinea practise a
unique kind of triphonic singing that has yet to be fully researched.
We wanted to let the students listen to several techniques in order to explore the
diversity present in different continents and allow them to discover this phenomenon
in other new places. Thus the musical corpus includes styles of singing as diverse as
those found in Tuva and Mongolia (Desjacques, 1993), in South Africa (with
women’s voices singing in the lower register), or among the Dani people of Irian
The performance is executed by a sole vocalist, and not by a vocal ensemble which
produces a harmonic from the fusion of several voices, as observed in the polyphonic
singing of Sardinia (Lortat-Jacob, 1998) or with the deep bass voices of the monks of
the Gyütö monastery in Tibet, in exile in India (Trân, 1999).
Students listened to four extracts that were each less than one minute long:
• EX1 (= Extract 1), 0’57, Mongolia, xhöömij (Maison des Cultures du
monde, 1989, N°6: ‘Khuren khalgaatai delguur’).
The Khoomei (or xhöömij or xöömii… – transliterated in different ways by different
authors), from a Mongolian word that means ‘throat’ or ‘pharynx’, is generally
translated as ‘throat-singing’3 and is the name of a particular soft-sounding style (with
clear harmonics) as well as the general term for throat-singing. The fundamental pitch
in the khoomei style is higher (in a baritone register) than that of kargiraa (see EX3).
• EX2 (= Extract 2), 0’34, New Guinea, Dani people (Petrequin, 2001,
N°18–19–20: ‘Lolo-Lou, Habema’).
The Extract 2 (Dani people) is an ethnological document and not an
‘ethnomusicological’ record. It is important to note that this extract was an exception
to the rule, because the singer was producing a triphonic sound.
• EX3 (= Extract 3), 0’56, Tuva, ‘Dag kargyraa’ (Zemp, 1996, N°37:
Russie–Kyzyl, République de Tuva).
Kargiraa style, from an onomatopoeic word that means in Tuvan ‘to wheeze’, ‘to
speak in a hoarse or husky voice’ (Alekseev, Kirgiz & Levin, 1990) is characterized
by an extremely low fundamental pitch (frequency between 55 Hertz [Hz]–65 Hz). M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès


• EX4 (= Extract 4), 0’52, South Africa, Xhosa woman (Ngqoko, Lumko
district) (Zemp, 1996, N°36-a: Nondel’ ekhaya [‘Married at home’]; in the
style umngqokolo ngomqangi by Nowayilethi Mbizweni).
Umngqokolo (overtone singing in South Africa) ngomqangi style is ‘inspired by the
buzzing of a beetle held in front of the mouth [of the performer], with selection of
harmonics in the buccal cavity’ (Trân, in Zemp, 1996).
This heterogeneous musical corpus could make the identification of this phenomenon
more complicated for the listeners (because of the stylistic diversity of the pieces), but
we wanted to offer a pedagogical and cultural mind opener that was as wide as
possible in our test.
Note that overtone singing is traditionally performed by men. The ethnomusicologist
Trân Quang Hai thinks4 this tradition is based on acoustical principles (Zemp & Trân,
1991). One has to produce a fundamental tone within the range of about 150 Hz (or
about 200 Hz at most) to perceive harmonics up to the 13th harmonic (a vibration of
about 2000 Hz, or about 2600 Hz), but a 150 Hz emission is not within the usual
register of women’s voices. For instance, in the test, the Tuvan melody in ‘Kargiraa
technique’ (EX3) uses harmonics number 8, 9, 10 and 12.
The Xhosa woman in South Africa (when using the lower register of her voice; EX4),
is an exception, and all the pupils thought this was a man’s voice in this extract.
Psychoacoustic test: subjects, listening experiment and questionnaire
Psychoacoustic tests were given to a broad public (adolescents and young adults
between the ages of 10 and 30, with hypothesis of standard hearing). The results in
this paper are based on the answers of 338 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 15.
These adolescents belong to an international school “École Active Bilingue Jeannine
Manuel” offering bilingual education in French and English (about 75% students use
at least two languages at home and practice bilingualism daily). The audience
included all students from 14 classes taught by Anne-Marie Gouiffès.
The test took fifty minutes (including setting up and instructions) which stands for a
full weekly music lesson. The group of adolescents listened together to the four
extracts in the music class. No communication between them and no visible
expression were required (but this was impossible for them – see ‘Results / Student’s

The Reception of Overtone Singing


Figure 1. Ages with the distribution of girls and boys.
An open questionnaire was distributed at the beginning of the session, followed by
more precise questions that lead to investigations of the structure of the sound.
Listeners were asked four questions (one different question for each extract). It is
important to notice that they did not have the questionnaire in advance, but read the
questions one by one, while the test was going on (the students were only allowed
three minutes to write down their answers).
The questions are the following (EX1= Extract 1, EX2= Extract 2, etc.):
• EX1 – What are you hearing?
• EX2 – What are you listening to? Try to explain more. Try to describe the
• EX3 – In addition to what you have heard, try to say what you have felt and
try to explain this feeling.
• EX4 – What was your personal feeling? Try to explain the reasons why and
give us as many details as you can. Try to guess how the sound could be
When unprepared listeners hear a recording of overtone singing, one of their first
questions is usually: “How was this sound produced?” After a closer listening, they
may try to decipher the nature of the sound (the level of auditory education may play
a role in the perception of this phenomenon).
Class interval: ages
10 11 12 13 14 15 Ages
Number Boys Girls M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

Student’s reactions
Children of this age are still spontaneous enough to physically manifest what they are
feeling through body language. When they finally understand that it was produced by
a human voice, many adolescents — contrary to older audiences — are tempted to
reproduce the sound themselves, much like they did when first learning to speak. So,
reactions were varied: perplexity, laughter, miming, curiosity, pleasure, rejection,
enthusiasm, fear…5
Written answers
Responses for each extract in the open questionnaire and comments about the sound,
allowed several listening channels to be distinguished. The categories of the origin of
the sound in the Figure 2 are extracted from the free comments. The distribution of
the types of answers shows: source(s) of the sound(s) determined; voice(s) and/or
instrument(s) or labelled sound (without voice); perception of the source(s)
undetermined (see Figure 2).

In the channel noted ‘undetermined source of sound’, most of the answers specified
that they were unable to determine the source. So the remaining question was: “How
was this sound produced?”

Figure 2. Distribution of the types of answers per extract. The Reception of Overtone Singing

It was, at times, difficult to differentiate between reactions to musical characteristics
and those related to specific vocal techniques; however, we noticed that the negative
reactions (like ‘it gives me a headache’) seemed to be related to the feeling of the
obtrusive and awkward presence of the singer’s body (‘It’s like somebody with a sore
throat, and we feel it ourself’ – EX3, Justine, 13 years old), while positive reactions
were the expression of musical appreciation (like ‘It was beautiful, the way he sings’
– EX3, Joséphine, 13 years old). This point should be confirmed by data.
The answers were so interesting that other studies should be made related to the
vocabulary of specific notions that we had not foreseen (sense of the Sacred,
exoticism, feeling of strangeness, emotions, presence of the body, etc).
One example of answers concerning ‘Exoticism’
As a way to locate some unknown music (in a foreign country, from a civilization, a
cultural practice, a ritual or a ceremony…) or as an expression of ‘aesthetics of

About 25% pupils spontaneously felt the need to locate this ‘sound’ in a country, or
identify it as originating from some civilization, some cultural practice, some ritual or
ceremony, etc. (we noticed that this need grew in proportion to the age of the students
from 11 to 15). Identification was often erroneous. Only one student referred to
Mongolia for Extract 1 (correctly) but he also referred to Mongolia for Extract 4
(South Africa, in fact). We can see that around 12% referred to Africa correctly for
the Ex4, and only 1% for the other extracts.
But, initially, getting a right or wrong answers was not a problem. These answers
were interesting because they allowed us to realize how the students figured out the
representation or the image of the ‘Difference’, the ‘Distance’.
The ‘furthest away’ in space is an ‘alien’, or an ‘unidentified flying object’. The
‘furthest away’ in time is a man ‘imitating a Prehistoric man’. Lea, 14 years old,
wrote: ‘It is as if I was in a cavern during the Prehistoric Age, before man could
speak’. One pupil imagined ‘Asian monks in Antiquity’; such an image summarizes a
single definition of the distant space-time and spiritual spheres. The answers cover a
map throughout the globe, with a preference for Africa, Asia and Australia (imagined
like a continent peopled with Aborigines only). We can assume that Europe and
America (except for the Indians!) and, in fact, generally Western cultures are not
quoted (or exceptionally in a different way: use of technology with electronically
altered voices). In their view, this is not exoticism (all of these adolescents are not
from Europe, but they would refer to Western culture). Yet, ‘a far-away place where
technology has yet to arrive’ (Aude, 14 years old), can be exotic…
All of these answers (a significant number of them from youngsters aged 14–15) lay
the foundation of ‘the aesthetics of the diversity’ concept, according to the words used
by Victor Segalen in his essay, Essai sur l’exotisme (1999). M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

We can suppose that the adolescents’ need to locate and culturally identify four
minutes of music (an unknown musical phenomenon) may have to do with their
growing individuality and conscience. These adolescents can assert their identity by
applying diversity to the Antipodes, the natural wilderness of a country, a temple in a
forest, tribal dances or rituals… The singer could be a Shaman, an Indian or an African
witch-doctor… They can hear ‘the national anthem of the jungle’, but they honestly
confess imagining things: ‘At the end, I interpreted it as a song sung for African
celebrations, even though I knew it was not so’. With ‘A human voice which does not
come from our cultures’ (Jianne, 13 years old), which ‘transports […] out of class’
(Julia, 14 years old), one leaves the secular world. Perhaps, because of the weirdness
of the sonority, this voice was often associated to sacred customs. As a religion,
Buddhism was frequently quoted (due, maybe, to what the Western world has learned
of Buddhism and its mystery).
We found other answers without any connection to a particular religion, but very
profound and tainted with mysticism: ‘I felt enveloped by the sound; it struck down
deep into my bones; it dissolved all the little noises in the background and became the
ONLY sound. It was so loud and overwhelming that I seemed to become a lonely rock
shaken by that moan. It was like a call to God that pierced the sky and shattered the
trivial things that surrounding me. It was everything in the world while it played….’
(Emma, 12 years old).
At the end of the test, students were asked personal questions because we wanted to
know which kind of connection could be established between their way of hearing
and their personal background.
The questions relating to the background are the following:
• Do you play an instrument? If yes, which one and for how long?
• What is your mother tongue? Are there any other languages spoken at home
(except French)?
• Have you ever lived abroad or spent significant amounts of time abroad on
holiday (out of France)?
• Have you heard this kind of music before? Give us some details.
• What are your musical tastes?
The data about the background are still under analysis; however, a brief outlook can
be provided. For example, we noticed that several students mentioned the
‘didgeridoo’ as an instrument that could accompany the singer, or in which the singer
could sing while blowing through it. The second point is most interesting even if it is
not factual: it shows that listeners have perceived — consciously or not — the
existence of harmonics.
The Reception of Overtone Singing

• EX1 – Shalla-Marie, 13 years old:
‘A kind of highpitched voice. Vibrating. And we can hear the breaths he (or she) is
taking. It sounds like he is moving his mouth a lot to make the sound. It is a peculiar
sound, very peculiar and it sounds like the kind of music the aborigines in Australia
listen to and make.’

• EX1 – Bastien, 13, lived in Australia for 3 ½ years:
‘This sounds like the didgeridoo, the instrument of the Australian natives.’
• EX1 – Hilary, 11, Australian pupil:
‘I hear a man’s voice imitating the sound of a didgeridoo. Maybe a recorder.’
That is why we had to verify if those students had had special musical experience
when they lived or stayed abroad, or if they had specific knowledge linked to their
family origins. All the Australians pupils (or those who had had a long stay in
Australia) said the sound was reminiscent of the Aboriginal instrument.
In order to understand the mechanism ‘from the inside’, all the students of the 14
classes of the bilingual school “École Active Bilingue Jeannine Manuel” who have
undergone the tests, tried overtone singing (in the line of Zemp & Trân, 1989, 1997;
Trân & Souvet, 2004; Trân, 2005). Two weeks after the experiment, more than three
hundred pupils were taught the basics of the technique of overtone singing by Anne-
Marie Gouiffès as she was taught herself by Trân Quang Hai in 2004.
Reactions were various: girls were generally shy and inhibited, but when they tried
the results were often excellent. Almost all the boys considered this vocal experience
as a challenge and were very excited to perform.
We conducted our investigation in a bilingual school where multiculturalism was a
reality. In such an environment, signs of rejection or refusal on a cultural basis — if
they existed — were less obvious, less overt. One would not reject music because it is
strange (or ‘alien’) but resistance is based on the assumption that it is some ‘noise’,
some ‘sound’ that takes you aback, or is boring or unpleasant.

Practising the basics of overtone singing is a good way of discovering ‘alterity’ — or
‘otherness’ — because the feeling of voicing and listening implies a complete change
of habit. At the same time students discover new physical sensations and listen to
their own voices in a way they never did before. It sometimes reveals a new
personality, and the students who succeeded in overtone singing were admired by
their friends. Besides, we soon noticed that some students, usually shy when it came M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

to singing, were very happy to practice overtone singing. Probably, these students had
wished to learn overtone singing as it is sung in Mongolia or Tuva.
Despite broken voice, all the boys in the forms were willing to try and were interested
in the performance of others. ‘Sense of failure’ posed no problem. One student asked
whether written scores of overtone singing existed; this led to a discussion about oral
and written tradition… The matter was different with the girls. They were interested in
the description of the phenomenon but the majority of them refused to try overtone
singing.6 It may have to do with the fear that this way of singing, which causes funny
faces and transforms voices, might alter their own image.
After investigating a musical corpus and vocal technique little known to the general
public, we intended to bring a musicological contribution to the work of acousticians,
ethnomusicologists, and, obviously, musicians who practice overtone singing (Zemp
& Trân, 1989, 1997; Pegg, 2001).
This study proposed to examine overtone singing through the unique perspective of
listeners’ reception. The majority of listeners (a middle school audience) experienced
it as a real cultural confrontation with an unknown world of sound. The initial phase
of acculturation is therefore the most salient.
This type of research requires an interdisciplinary approach (musicology;
ethnomusicology; acoustics and its musical subdisciplines, and psychoacoustics; the
psychology of perception; sociology and cultural studies). After having conducted this
experiment, we are able to conclude that the discovery of overtone singing opened the
door to a transformation in the way one listens. It encourages opening up to other
artistic and cultural dimensions through a real education of the ear.
First of all, Anne-Marie Gouiffès would like to express her gratitude to Trân Quang
Hai, a master and a friend who has initiated her to the world of overtone singing and
accompanied her day by day in the fascinating universe of overtones. Marie-Cécile
Barras would like to warmly thank Michèle Castellengo, who supported her for many
years in a many scientific matters.

Anne-Marie Gouiffès also would like to particularly thank her friend and colleague
Dominique Ayné who helped her to edit a documentary on the living experiment.
Marie-Cécile Barras and Anne-Marie Gouiffès would also like to mention Myriam
Faurite, Henri Barras, Jean Civray and Matthew Thomas. The Reception of Overtone Singing

Alekseev, E., Kirgiz, Z. & Levin, T., (recordings and notes by) (1990). Voices from the center
of Asia. Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40017 [+CD audio].
Desjacques, A. (1993). Chants de l’Altai Mongol. Thèse de musicologie. Paris: Université de
Paris IV-Sorbonne.
Léothaud, G. (1989). Considérations acoustiques et musicales sur le chant diphonique. Le chant
diphonique, Dossier n° 1 (pp. 17-43). Limoges: Institut de la Voix.
Lortat-Jacob, B. (1998). Chants de Passions. Au cœur d’une confrérie de Sardaigne. Paris:
Editions du Cerf.
Maison des Cultures du monde (published by) (1989). Mongolie. Musique vocale et
instrumentale. Inédit W 260009 [CD audio].
Pegg, C. (2001). Mongolian music, dance and oral narrative: Performing diverse identities.
Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Pétrequin, P. & Weller, O. (recordings and notes by) (2001). Polyphonies de l’âge de pierre.
Les Dani de Nouvelle-Guinée, Volume II. Nord-Sud musique [+CD audio].
Segalen, V. (1999/1955). Essai sur l’exotisme. Paris: Le livre de poche.
Trân, Q. H. (1975). Technique de la voix chantée mongole: xöömij. Bulletin du CEMO
(14&15): 32-36. Paris.
_________. (1999). Overtones used in Tibetan Buddhist Chanting and in Tuvin Shamanism. In:
R. Astrauskas (ed.), Ritual and Music (pp. 129-136). Vilnius: Lithuanian Academy of
Music, Department of Ethnomusicology.
_________. (2002). À la découverte du chant diphonique. In: G. Cornut (éd.), Moyens
d’investigation et pédagogie de la voix chantée. Actes de colloque (pp.117-132). Lyon:
_________. (2005). Recherches introspectives sur le chant diphonique et leurs applications
[Introspective research on overtone singing, and its application]. Penser la voix, 41. Rennes:
Presses universitaires de Rennes (online publication).
Trân, Q. H. & Souvet, L. (2004). Le chant diphonique. CRDP de la Réunion: SCÉREN (DVD)
Walcott, R. (1974). The Chöömij of Mongolia. A spectral analysis of overtone singing. Selected
Reports in Ethnomusicology 2(1): 55-59. Los Angeles: UCLA.
Zemp, H. & Trân, Q. H. (1989). Le chant des harmoniques. CERIMES. [multimedia-
_________. (1991). Recherches expérimentales sur le chant diphonique. Cahiers de Musiques
traditionnelles: Voix, 4: 27-68. Genève: Ateliers d’ethnomusicologie / AIMP.
_________. (1997). Le chant des harmoniques. Paris: CNRS Audiovisuel, Laboratoire d’Études
d’Ethnomusicologie et SFE. (VHS SECAM). [multimedia-documentary].
Zemp, H. (coordination), Léothaud, G., & Lortat-Jacob, B. (1996). Les voix du monde, une
anthologie des expressions vocales / Voices of the world, an anthology of vocal expression.
Collection “Musée de l’Homme, CNRS”. Le chant du Monde MCX 374 1010.12 [+ 3CD

1 Official website of the UMR laboratory of the CNRS 7186 (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique,
France). 2 Created by Bodo Maass and Wolfgang Saus in 2003, this website ‘can be used as a spectrum analyzer and
a visual feedback tool as well as an interactive visualization of music theory’. 3 See the website Created by Steve Sklar (USA), for Tuvan throat singing or Khoomei. 4 As he told us in a work session. M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

5 The reactions were recorded on video and presented at the 3rd Conference on Interdisciplinary
Musicology (CIM07), held in Tallinn, Estonia, 15–19 August 2007, on the theme of singing. 6 On the video documentary presented at CIM07, some girls can be seen trying overtone singing but these
instances were the only ones.

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