A Two Voiced Song With No Words by Lauri Harvilahti circa 1981
Overtone singing, which is often referred to as biphonic or pharyngeal singing, is a style of singing within the framework of which it is possible to produce two (sometimes three) tones which are distinct auditory experiences (1). Singing in this style involves having the vocal cords produce a low tonic which is then normally used in the same manner as a pedal point. Utilizing a specific technique a voice based on the same series of overtones is also produced. Altering the shape of the oral cavity by movements of the tongue, the singer is able to shift from one overtone to another and thus present melodies. (2) The area which can be profitably exploited extends from the 5th to the 13th harmonic.
first acquaintance, this type of singing leaves a striking impression;
nevertheless it is known to several peoples of
Overtone singing (khöörnii) is most common in the western parts of the Mongolian People's Republic.(4) According to the information I have been able to obtain from Mongolian scholars, in the western aimak of Kobdo there are places where the entire male population knows this type of biphonic singing which is not accompanied by any text.
C. Erdenebilig mentions that one of the amateur groups in this region has twenty gifted khöörnii singers. The state folk song and dance ensemble also employs overtone singers. One of them, Dovčingiin Sundui, the most famous master of this style, has a repertoire of more than 70 folk songs and other melodies.(5)
Some of the peoples who once knew this style seem to have forgotten it. With respect to the Bashkirs, for example, the only accounts that I know of are V.I. Dal’s interesting description from the middles of the last century, S.G. Rybakov’s “notes of an unfortunate fieldworker”, from the year 1897, and L.N. Lebendinsky’s article in which he provides a description of his meeting with Sayfetdin in 1939. Advanced in years, Sayfetdin was the only Bashkir he could told find who knew overtone singing. Of primary interest, however, is the fact that Sayfeldin claimed to have learned how to sing without any instruction and he tried to convey the impression that he had never even heard anyone perform an özläü Song, özläü being the term used by the Bashkirs refer to this type of Singing. (6)
Overtone Singing and Shamanism?
Lebendinsky did not consider Sayfetdin's claim
described in the preceding section to be reliable, and he surmised that the
Singer was attempting to conceal the evidently shamanistic origin of this type
of singing. Lebendinsky connected özläü singing with the imitation of animal
cries used by the shamans, and he linked this style of singing with the
technique used to play the Jew’s harp. According to him, an additional factor
supporting this is the other term the Bashkirs use to refer to the özläü type
of singing. Specifically, the Bashkir word for "Jew's harp" is kurai,
while the term tamak kurai 'throat
Jew's harp' is one of the terms used for overtone singing. (7) This is
definitely an apt association: playing the Jew's harp and the type of singing
depicted in this article are both based on the amplification of overtones in
the oral cavity. Naturally, the most important difference is the actual sound
source: in the Jew's harp this is the string of the instrument, in overtone
singing it is the vocal cords. The Jew's harp was one of the most important
instruments used by the shamans. (8).One of the better descriptions is the
article about the Shamanism practiced by the Buriats of the
A. Aksenov also links the type of singing to playing the Jew's harp, but he claims that the overtone singing of the Tuvins has no connection with Shamanism. (10) In contrast to this, Crossley‑Holland notes that the type of singing may have become secularized and thus lost its links to Shamanism and the use of the Jew’s harp. As an example of the ritual use of overtone singing he mentions the type of singing used in Tibetan
dGe-lugs-pa monasteries in conjunction with Tantric rituals. Typical of this type of singing is the presence of a superimposed 5th or 6th harmonic on top of a low fundamental. (11)
Ter Ellingson-Waugh’s extensive article, “Musical flight in Tibet” takes up the question of the influence of shamanism on Tibetan Buddhism connects tile glissando technique used In the Tibetan db yangs song corresponding technique of rapid transition between a low and high register used by shamans and described by E. Širokogoroff and J. Yasser (12)
There are many descriptions of the imitation of auxiliary spirits and animals during Shamanistic séances. (13) It seems probable that overtone singing would have been one of those techniques of singing which have been used to produce this effect. Erdenebilig notes that Mongolian Traditional lore connects khöömii singing with the whistling of the wind, the murmuring of flowing water, and imitating the cries of birds and other animals. He does not, however, mention tile connection with shamanism. (14)
The analogy with the Jew's harp provides some verification for this theory: descriptions exist according to which at least the Yakuts and the Turkmenians used the Jew’s harp in order to imitate birds as well as animals in general. (15)
remarks concerning the method the peoples of the upper Altai use to perform
epic poems found by B. Šul’gin in the notes left by A. Anokhin, a geographer,
are also interesting. According to Anokhin the
peoples of the Altai sing epic poems
in a voice the tonality of which resembles the buzzing of a flying beetle.(16) I have personally made the same
observation when listening to an epic
poem recorded in western
A Mongolian khöömii Performance
I spent a month in
The melody consists of a series of harmonics and in this case they are the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and twelfth harmonics. The scale of the song corresponds to the anhemitonic pentatonic scale which dominates in Mongolian music. This performance differs from the normal version which is sung with respect to rhythm as well as, in places, melody. The style of singing has its limitations: in practice, the melody can only move between the 5th and the 13th harmonics. The 11th harmonic is not used since it is not included in the anhemitonic pentatonic scale (17)
The following table depicts the series of partial harmonies when the tonic is ‘Ab’, this situation being analogous to that in the song serving as our example. The area used in the melody is indicated by transversals. In some cases the harmonic is a level lower (↓) than is indicated by the notation. I have written the note corresponding to the 7th harmonic as ‘F’ in accordance with the pentatonic scale. In actual fact, the seventh tone of the series of harmonies emanating from ‘Ab’ is essentially a low ‘G#. (18)
As a prerequisite to the analysis, samples of the song were recorded on a Revox B77 tape recorder, the tape was an Agfa Professional PEM468: the microphone was AKG CK 22 (linear).
The result of the analysis was a spectrum which is a visible model of the singing voice as a function of both amplitude of the harmonics and the frequency. In the following paragraphs I present a few examples of the various types of analysis which can be obtained. It is my intention to make a more precise comparison based on a wider selection of material of the sonorgrams used by Walcott and Guillou as well as of Gunji’s spectrographs in a more detailed article.
As the subject of my comparison I have selected the vowel ‘i’ produced using the overtone style of singing and compared it with a normally sung ‘I’ vowel at the same volume and level, as well as with the same vowel produced using a normal speaking voice. All of the samples were played at a moderate volume (mp-mf).
A 30 MS period is visible in each of the following spectra. The amplitude of the harmonics is compared on the vertical axis. The value which is used for comparison is the amplitude of the strongest harmonics (indicated by 0dB on the graphs).
The frequency can be read from the horizontal axis (kHz). Using the technique of overtone singing a 13th harmonic can be clearly distinguished by the naked ear and which clearly has the highest amplitude, is produced above by singing the vowel ‘I’. The frequency of the tonic is 189 Hz, while that of the 13th harmonic is 2513 Hz. (in this connection it should be noted that when performing overtone singing, front vowels produce vowels which give an auditory impression of being higher, while back vowels give an impression of being lower).
The above is a representation of the ‘I’ vowel presented using a normal singing voice. We note that the 1st and 2nd harmonics have the highest amplitude and that no other harmonics form peaks which are as powerful as in the foregoing. The frequency of the tonic is 195Hz.
On The Technique
The term which is often used for the type of singing in question is throat singing or guttural singing; the use of such a term refers to the fact that both of the audible sounds have been imagined to originate in the "throat" ‑ either in such a manner that the vocal cords produce two sounds or for example, in such a manner that a harmonic could be made audible with the aid of the windpipe or tile uvula. (19).The suggestion has also been made that when the tonic is formed the glottis is "extremely tense", for which reason singing requires a great amount of physical effort and learning the entire technique requires several years of practice (20) At most, only the last of these views is justified. When learning this type of singing the same criteria are important which are significant when learning to control a style such as that used in singing western classical music: everyone who has studied singing knows how much time is needed to learn such things as to breathe correctly, this being a function of the proper control of the diaphragm and the other abdominal muscles, as well as to practice both maintaining the proper resonance and controlling the muscles in the region of the glottis. The basis of overtone singing is provided by a normal, well supported singing voice which is used in order to produce the tonic. In practice, the choice of the harmonics which are heard above the tonic is affected in such a manner that the form of the oral cavity is altered primarily with the aid of the tongue, although the lips and slight movements of the lower jaw are also involved. When singing, the tip of the tongue is pressed against the palate, and the sides of the tongue are supported so that they rest against the molars in the same manner as when producing an ‘L’
After this it is possible to begin to search for the correct
"location" by combining this lateral articulation with a normal
singing voice (21). In
“Reinforcement of partials is achieved by characteristic changes in the shape and volume of the mouth cavity. This is reminiscent of the principle of the Jew's harp,' where a vibrating tongue sounded at the lips produces a drone fundamental which the player modifies by shaping his mouth cavity so as to‑form a resonance chamber of critical volume. The volume of this chamber, functioning on the principle of a Helmholtz resonator, reinforces a narrow frequency band area within an existing spectrum. This band is sufficiently narrow to enable the singer to select a given single partial above the drone in accordance with the degree of modification made by him. The principle involving the reinforcement of discrete partials by a specific shaping of the mouth cavity is thus common to both chöömij and the Jew's harp. A difference, however, lies in the physical origination of the fundamental. In the Jew's harp it is produced at the lips, in the chöömij it originates in the throat region.”
Walcott conjecture's that physiological limitations prevent the singer from going below the. 6th or above the 13th harmonic (24) Badzardaran used the 5th harmonic in his performance ‑ i myself have been able to attain this as well as the 14th, 15th, and 16th harmonics (with ‘G’ as the tonic). Nevertheless, the last mentioned are already difficult to filter, for which reason they cannot be used for purposes such as performing melodies.
Walcott also notes that the tonic is usually selected from within the range of ‘G’ and ‘d’, and he supposes that it is specifically this area which makes it possible to produce a composition of harmonics which can tie effectively filtered by the oral cavity.(25). The optimal height of the tonic is evidently greatly dependent on the singer's voice. For example Badzardaran has ‘Ab’ as the tonic in both songs, and I myself have attempted to produce even higher tonics with good results (25).
On the possible spectral analysis of overtone singing
Not too much can tie learned about this type of singing if its study is restricted solely to the descriptive level. For this reason I have used a computer to carry out a so‑called FFT or Fast Fourier Transform analysis. The pertinent data for this is as follows:
Computer used for the analysis: EXORset 30
Computer program: VOCOM Speech Processing System
Analysis performed by: Hannu Kaskincen, Phil. Mag., whom I thank for the technical realization as well as for the friendly advice and guidance he provided me with when I was writing this part of the article.
department of Phonetics,
The foregoing is a representation of the vowel ‘I’ with normal speaking voice. Compared with the previous examples the individual harmonics can only be distinguished from one another with difficulty (tonic=106 Hz).
The preceding three figures demonstrate quite graphically how resonance frequencies with a powerful amplitude form clearly distinguishable peaks in the spectra. These peaks are called formants. The differences between the formants of overtone and normal singing are clearly evident in the spectra reproduced below. In figures 1 and 2 one period of the glottis(~ 6MS) is visible as a superimposed pattern.
The following table is a representation of the frequency of three formants (F1, F2, and F3) of overtone and normal singing, as well as of their divergence in intensity from the standpoint of that formant which has the strongest intensity (-dB). In these examples the variation in the frequency of F2 is a consequence of differences in the tonality of the ‘I’ vowel.
On the basis of the above it seems that the differences in amplitude noted in the formants of overtone singing are smaller than they are in normal singing. With respect to both what is heard by the ear and what is shown by the spectrum the increase in the resonance of the supraglottal cavity, which is a characteristic of overtones singing is achieved by making use of a constricted articulation not unlike that used when pronouncing a lateral sound. This involves the tongue dividing the oral cavity into two resonating chambers (27). Maximal exploitation of resonance is also demonstrated by the small amount of respiratory air needed to produce a sound: using a normal voice I am able to sing for approximately a half minute without having to pause for breath, but if I perform a song using overtone singing not even a minute of uninterrupted singing results in any major difficulties.
1. With respect to the name and definition of the style of singing see e.g. Tran/Guillou, pg 162.
2. Cf. e.g. Hamayon, pg. 484; Aksenov, pg. 12; Crossley-Holland, pg. 65-66; erdenebilig, pg. 29.
3. Aksenov, pg. 12‑ 13; Tran,pg. 162 and pg. 165.
4. Vargyas propose (pg. 71) that the style of singing concerned is particularly widespread in the eastern parts of the Mongolian People’s Republic. This information might be based on a misunderstanding.
5. Erdenebilig, pg. 29.
6. Lebedinskiy 1948, pg. 50‑51; 1965 pg. 82‑86; Rybakov, pg. 271
7. Lebedinskiy 1948, pg. 51. For some reason the references to shamanism are not included in Lebedinsky’s later work (1965).
8. Cf. e.g. Emsheimer, pq. 19‑22, and Rouget, pg. 187 and 189.
9. Agapitov/Khangalov, pg. 43.
10. Aksenov, pg. 12
11. Crossley-Holland, pg.66
12. Ellingson-waugh 1974, pg 13-14. Cf. also Ellingson 1979, pg. 44:”In western terms their melodies ‘db Yangs’ consist of sequences of smoothly and continuously varying intonational contours including changes in pitch, loudness and/or configurations of resonance (overtone) mixtures.
13. Anna-Leena Stikala gives a thorough assessment of the shamanistic descriptions in her dissertation, cf. e.g. pg. 236, 5L‑5P1N; pg. 266, 3G-3H 51; pg. 294, 3H. Cf. also Rouget , pg. 192.
pq. 29. The only musical transcription of this type of singing as used for
imitating the sounds of nature that I have been able to find is in Smirnov's
book, pg. 225‑229, cf. also the commentary on page353. Smirnov has made a
musical transcription of the imitation of flowing water (usnii sorgio) produced
by Čimitosor, who is from the Gobi‑Altai region. This imitation
occurred in a secular context. Cf. also Musical Voices of
15. Cf. e.g. Emsheimer, pg. 20, Serosevskiy, pg. 592
16. Sul’gin, pg. 459.
17. Cf. Walcott, pg. 56. Examples of use of the 13th harmonic: Smirnov pg. 226‑2227 and Vargyas, pg. 72.
18. Cf. Walcott, pg. 56... "The melodic style would seem to dictate the selection of tones agreeable to an anhemitonic pentatonic scale widespread in Mongolian music, and this would naturally require the lowering of the7th partial…” a lowering of the harmonic would require a corresponding reduction in the drone. However, nothing like this is to be heard. Cf. Gunji, pq. 135.
19. Lebedinskiy 1965, pg. 83‑84, Rybakov, pq. 270‑272. Erdenebilig, pg. 29.
20. Lebedinskiy 1948, pg. 51; Vargyas, pg‑ 71
21. B.P. Cernov 1982, pq. 87‑92, notes in his article which deals with overtone singing of the Tuvins and the Khakas that Soviet researchers have carried out tests using a laryngoscope and x‑rays, the results of which demonstrate that the Tuvin singers produce the constriction in the anterior portion of the glottis between the arytenoid cartilages and epiglottis. Use of this constriction to produce overtone singing varies according to the type of singing in question. Evidently the Kargyraa and borannadyr singing of the Tuvins is based on the use of this technique asdoes the resonating type of the Khakas and the Altais. The slit between the arytenoid cartilages characteristic of Tuvin singing is 1 ‑ 1.5 mm, while that used in the style used for recitations by the Khakas is greater, measuring from 3 to 5 mm. Cf. MasLov/Cernov Pg. 157‑159
22. Tran mentions, pg. 163, that he needed two years to learn overtone singing.He also gives instructions, more detailed than those presented by me above, concerning the physiological mechanisms involved. I think that many people would be able to produce Overtone singing ‑ the quality will, of course, depend on each person's musical talent. I have also noticed that some people working as professional musicians and inusic teachers cannot distinguish the various harmonies. Guillou is, without douht, right in saying: "The western ear may need a certain amount of trainging before becoming accustomed to the sound quality” (Tran/Guilou pg. 168)
23. Walcott, pg. 55, Cf. also Crossley-Holland, pg. 65-66
24. Walcott, pg. 56
25. Walcott, pg. 56
26. Cf.Tran/Guillou, pg 164.”favourite fundamental tone varies according to the tonal quality of the singer’s voice and his windpipe” Cf. also ibid. pg. 169
27. Foe more details Cf.Tran/Guillou, pg 170-173.
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