Overtone singing, also known as overtone chanting, or harmonic singing, is a type of singing in which the singer manipulates the resonances (or formants) created as air travels from the lungs, past the vocal folds, and out the lips to produce a melody.
The partials (fundamental and overtones) of a sound wave made by the human voice can be selectively amplified by changing the shape of the resonant cavities of the mouth, larynx and pharynx. This resonant tuning allows the singer to create apparently more than one pitch at the same time (the fundamental and a selected overtone), while in effect still generating a single fundamental frequency with his/her vocal folds.
Another name for overtone singing is throat singing, but that term is also used for Inuit throat singing, which is produced differently.
It is believed the art of throat singing has originated from south western Mongolia in today’s Khovd and Govi-Altai region. Today, throat singing is found throughout the country and Mongolia is often considered as the most active place of throat singing in the world. The most commonly practiced style, Khöömii (written in Cyrillic as Хөөмий), can be divided up into the following categories..
- uruulyn / labial khöömii
- tagnain / palatal khöömii
- khamryn / nasal khöömii
- bagalzuuryn, khooloin / glottal, throat khöömii
- tseejiin khondiin, khevliin / chest cavity, stomach khöömii
- turlegt or khosmoljin khöömii / khöömii combined with long song
Mongolians also sing many other styles such as “karkhiraa” (literally “growling”) and “isgeree”.
Many of these styles are also practiced around neighboring regions such as Tuva and Altai.
Tuvan throat singing is practiced by the Tuva people of southern Siberia. The history of Tuvan throat singing reaches very far back. There is a wide range of vocalizations, including Sygyt, Kargyraa (which also uses a second sound source), Khoomei, Chylandyk, Dumchuktaar, and Ezengileer. Most of these styles are closely related to the styles and variations in neighboring Mongolia.
Altai and Khakassia
Tuva’s neighbouring states, the Altai Republic to the west, and Khakassia to the northwest, have developed forms of throat singing called ‘’kai’’, or ‘’khai’’. In Altai, this is used mostly for epic poetry performance, to the accompaniment of topshur. Altai narrators (“kai-chi“) perform in kargyraa, khöömei and sygyt styles, which are similar to Tuvan. They also have their own style, a very high harmonics, emerging from kargyraa. Variations of kai are called karkyra, sybysky, homei and sygyt. The first well-known kai-chi was Kalkin.
The Chukchi people of Chukchi Peninsula in the extreme northeast of Russia also practice a form of throat singing.
Tibetan Buddhist chanting is a sub-genre of throat singing. Most often the chants hold to the lower pitches possible in throat singing. Various ceremonies and prayers call for throat singing in Tibetan Buddhism, often with more than one monk chanting at a time. There are different Tibetan throat singing styles, such as Gyuke (Tibetan: རྒྱུད་སྐད་, Wylie: rgyud skad) – style with the lowest pitch of voice; Dzoke (Tibetan: མཛོད་སྐད་, Wylie: mdzod skad) and Gyer (Tibetan: གྱེར་, Wylie: gyer).
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan
The oral poetry of Kazakhstan and the Uzbek region of Karakalpakstan sometimes enters the realm of throat singing.
Balochi Nur Sur is still a popular and one of the ancient form of Overtone singing in parts of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan espcially in the Sulaiman Mountains.
The Ainu of Hokkaidō, Japan, once practiced a type of throat singing called rekuhkara, which has since become extinct. The last singer of rekuhkara died in 1976, but some recordings exist.
In the Barbagia area on the island of Sardinia (Italy), one of the two different styles of polyphonic singing is marked by the use of a throaty voice. This kind of song is called a tenore. The other style, known as cuncordu, does not use throat singing. A tenore is practiced by groups of four male singers each of whom has a distinct role; the oche or boche (pronounced /oke/ or /boke/, “voice”) is the solo voice, while the mesu oche or mesu boche (“half voice”), contra (“against”) and bassu (“bass”) – listed in descending pitch order – form a chorus (another meaning of tenore). Oche and mesu oche sing in a regular voice, whereas contra and bassu sing with a technique affecting the larynx. In 2005, Unesco classed the canto a tenore among intangible world heritage. Among the most well known groups who perform a tenore are Tenores di Bitti, Tenores de Orosei, Tenores di Oniferi and Tenores di Neoneli.
The Sami people of the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, have a singing genre called yoik. While overtone techniques are not a defining feature of yoik, individuals sometimes utilize overtones in the production of yoik.
The Bashkirs of Bashkortostan have a style of overtone singing called özläü (sometimes spelled uzlyau; Bashkort Өзләү), which nearly died out. In addition, Bashkorts also sing uzlyau while playing the kurai, a national instrument. This technique of vocalizing into a flute can also be found in folk music as far west as the Balkans and Hungary.
The resurgence of a once-dying Inuit tradition called katajjaq is currently under way in Canada. Inuit throat singing was a form of entertainment among Inuit women while the men were away on hunting trips. It was an activity that was primarily done by Inuit women, though men also did it. In the Inuit language Inuktitut, throat singing is called katajjaq, pirkusirtuk or nipaquhiit depending on the Canadian Arctic region. It was regarded more as a type of vocal or breathing game in the Inuit culture rather than a form of music. Inuit throat singing is generally done by two individuals but can involve four or more people together as well. In Inuit throat singing, two Inuit women would face each other either standing or crouching down while holding each other’s arms. One would lead with short deep rhythmic sounds while the other would respond. The leader would repeat sounds with short gaps in between. The follower would fill in these gaps with her own rhythmic sounds. Sometimes both Inuit women would be doing a dance like movement like rocking from left to right while throat singing. The practice is compared more to a game or competition than to a musical style. In the game, Inuit women sit or stand face-to-face and create rhythmic patterns.
Blind Willie Johnson is not a true overtone singer, according to the National Geographic, but his ability to shift from guttural grunting noises to a soft lullaby is suggestive of the tonal timbres of overtone singing.
Xhosa women of South Africa have a low, rhythmic style of throat-singing called eefing that is often accompanied by call-and-response vocals.
Canada, United States and Europe
The 1920s Texan singer of cowboy songs, Arthur Miles, independently created a style of overtone singing, similar to sygyt, as a supplement to the normal yodelling of country western music.
Starting in the 1960s, some musicians in the West either have collaborated with traditional throat singers or ventured into the realm of throat singing and overtone singing, or both. Some made original musical contributions and helped this art rediscover its transcultural universality. As harmonics are universal to all physical sounds, the notion of authenticity is best understood in terms of musical quality. Musicians of note in this genre include Collegium Vocale Köln (who first began using this technique in 1968), Michael Vetter, David Hykes, Jim Cole, Ry Cooder, Paul Pena (mixing the traditional Tuvan style with that of American Blues), Steve Sklar and Kiva (specializing in jazz/ world beat genres and composing for overtone choirs). Composer Baird Hersey and his group Prana with Krishna Das (overtone singing and Hindu mantra), Canadian songwriter Nathan Rogers has become an adept throat singer and teaches Tuvan Throat Singing in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Paul Pena was featured in the documentary Genghis Blues which tells the story of his pilgrimage to Tuva to compete in their annual throatsinging competition. The film won the documentary award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2000.
Tuvan singer Sainkho Namtchylak has collaborated with free jazz musicians such as Evan Parker and Ned Rothenberg. Lester Bowie and Ornette Coleman worked with the Tenores di Bitti, and Eleanor Hovda has written a piece using the Xhosa style of singing. DJs and performers of electronic music like The KLF have also merged their music with throat singing, overtone singing, or with the theory of harmonics behind it.
A capella singer Avi Kaplan also exhibited overtone singing during his group’s( Pentatonix ) performances. He merged throat singing together with dubstep a capella.
In Ireland Anúna have revived a technique of overtone chanting mentioned in the 8th century manuscript Cath Almaine, the technique uses one held drone with a shifting three or four note overtone series. Expert pitched overtone performer Aengus Ó Maoláin joins Anúna on several numbers.
Several contemporary classical composers have incorporated overtone singing into their works. Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the first, with Stimmung in 1968. “Past Life Melodies” for SATB chorus by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins (b. 1958) also calls for this technique. In Water Passion after St. Matthew by Tan Dun, the soprano and bass soloists sing in a variety of techniques including overtone singing of the Mongolian style.
Ethnomusicologist John Levy recorded a Rajasthani singer utilizing overtones in imitation of either a jaw harp or a double-flute. There is no tradition of this style of singing there.
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