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  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.


n Conversation with… Michael Ormiston (featuring Candida Valentino) Khöömii (overtone) singing, UK


Uploaded on May 19, 2009
Michael Ormiston is one of the only non-Mongolians able to sing Khöömii a type of overtone singing. He tells us what it means to him…

For more information on Michael and Candida and other Khöömii singers please go to:

Performance recorded at a Alternatives event:

Workshop recorded at a Singing Knives event: