This video has been making the rounds recently. It’s a neat little example of a thing called “overtone singing,” which is also known as “throat singing.” When you first hear it, it may seem like it must be a talent that is only granted to a rare few, but it is actually a technique that nearly anyone can learn. As singer Anne-Maria Hefele states, “overtone singing is a voice technique where one person sings two notes at the same time.” This is accomplished by manipulating the placement of your tongue and the shape of your mouth. Such manipulation produces a low note and a high note.
The low note is known as the “fundamental, ” and it is the usual tone of the voice (when preforming overtone singing, this low note sounds like a sustained drone or a Scottish bagpipe). The high note sounds like a resonating whistle.
At first glance, overtone singing might not seem like it involves any physics, but it’s actually firmly linked to this Science (at least in the Western world). Piero Cosi, senior researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Science and Technologies, states that overtone singing made its way to the West thanks to an American physicist known as Richard Feynman (one of the father’s of quantum mechanics). When tracing its history, Cosi asserts that, “Throat-Singing has almost entirely been an unknown form of art until rumours about Tuva [which is a is a federal subject of Russia] and the peculiar Tuvan musical culture spread in the West, especially in North America, thanks to Richard Feynman, a distinguished American physicist, who was an ardent devotee of Tuvan matters.”
According to William R. Corllis, many birds can also produce simultaneously two tones that are not harmonically related. Notably, these birds have a special double-barreled organ, which is called the “syrinx,” that enables them to preform this feat. In humans, the process works a little differently. Jim Cole, over at Spectral Voices, notes that, for overtone singing, performers start by following these simple guidelines:
To begin singing high whistle-like overtones, the sides of the tongue are curved upward and held nearly against the upper premolar teeth – creating a seal with the roof of the mouth all the way around (with a small opening for air to pass). To try this yourself, sing “errrr” For higher overtones, move the tongue forward. Vowel sounds and lip shapes are important in fine-tuning the harmonics. The lowest harmonics are emphasized with tight “oo” sounds, while increasingly higher harmonics can be heard as vowels change through “oh…awe…ah…ay…ee,” and everything in between.
Cosi breaks down the science, “the tongue is raised so to divide the vocal tract in two main resonators, each one tuned on a particular resonance. By an appropriate control, we can obtain to tune two separate harmonics, and thereby to make perceptible, not one but two (or more) pitches at the same time.” In the below video, Hefele demonstrates how to do this, and what it should sound like when you are doing it correctly. Of course, it should be noted that Hefele has been training for years (she has been studying the technique since 2005), so you shouldn’t expect results like this any time soon. (The most amazing parts occur around 3:25).
WATCH: Overtone Singing—Singing Multiple Notes At Once
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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.
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Please Click on each single video thumbnail to listen and watch all eight videos how Tran Quang Hai gave teachings, exercises and explanations in overtone singing.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 1.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 2.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 3.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 4.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 5.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 6.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 7.
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai Video 8.
Click on this link to see video clips
Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai @ 6th World Choral Symposium in Minneapolis 2002Teachings in overtone singing by Tran Quang Hai @ 6th World Choral Symposium in Minneapolis 2002