Open Your Ears

A friend sent me a link this week to a video which blew my mind… via my ears! I’ve often heard of ‘throat singing’, normally among musicians as the punchline to “Well, it’s not like you can just sing both notes, is it?”

Standard response? “Not unless you do Mongolian throat singing!”

I laughed, along with the other musicians, with only the vaguest idea of what that might be. This video I’m going to share below was the first time I’d actually seen and heard it for myself. Without further ado, check out Alexander Glenfield’s wonderful demonstration of different types of throat singing:

A demonstration of seven styles of Tuvan throat singing by Alexander Glenfield

What Alexander is demonstrating in the video above is ‘Tuvan’ (i.e. from the Tuva region of Siberia) rather than Mongolian throat singing, but the principles are the same. Both are forms of what’s scientifically referred to as overtone singing.

Once you’ve watched the video once (and probably gone “wow… what the$%£$ ?!”) – watch again! The first time I watched it I heard enough to impress and confuse me. But repeated listenings revealed far more detail. It can take a while to tune your ear into the overtones. Close your eyes and listen carefully, dissecting what you hear in your mind.

What is ‘throat’ or ‘overtone’ singing?

‘Overtone singing’ is a general term for a variety of sophisticated singing styles which create multiple pitches at once, by manipulating the overtones of the main sound. If you’re a student of our Frequency Fundamentals series, you will have learned about harmonics which is another term for ‘overtones’. You’ll know that manipulating those harmonics has a significant effect on the overall sound. But you might not have known that they can be used to actually create additional heard pitches!

How is this possible?

Taking the example of a drone of C, we know that the overtones/harmonics of C will be a multiple of its frequency. We also know that doubling a frequency will give the same note an octave above, which accounts for multiples like 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. of the original note (overtones #1, #3, #7, #15). But what about the other multiples? For C:

Overtone Frequency (Hz) Note (approx.)
(Fundamental) 130.81 C
1 261.62 C
2 392.43 G
3 523.24 C
4 654.05 E
5 784.86 G

So already we can see that some overtones of C are at the notes of E and G! Normally these blend in with the fundamental as part of the timbre of the instrument, but if you can emphasise particular overtones audibly…

Most of the seven styles demonstrated in the video consist of a pair of parts: A low bass ‘drone’ which generally stays on the same pitch throughout, and a higher part which varies in pitch to create a melody. The low drone is created in approximately the normal way, by singing: making the vocal chords vibrate as air passes by them, to create a pitched sound. The higher part is the overtone part, created by changing the shape of the resonant cavity which is your mouth and throat. Different shapes and sizes will resonate with different overtones, amplifying them. Learn to amplify the right ones, and you can make them distinctly audible to your listener as notes!

There are many varied styles of overtone singing, from different countries around the world. Tuvan and Mongolian are probably the most prominent styles, but there are folk traditions in numerous countries, and a rising popularity in learning overtone singing. See the links at the end of this article for more information.

What can you hear?

I’m going to talk a bit about what I hear in the video. Hopefully this will help you discover things you perhaps hadn’t noticed before, and give you an idea of the kind of things to listen for in future. But I must preface all of this with two disclaimers:

  1. As with the article on Burmese music, I have to confess to a lack of knowledge! As I said above, this was my first contact with real throat singing, and most of what I now know I’ve learned to write this article! If there are any experts in the audience, please leave a comment with any corrections or additions below.
  2. This isn’t intended to be a guide to each style – just some notes on this particular demonstration of each style. The comments are intended to help teach active listening, not throat singing!

Here are my notes on what I hear in each segment of the video. If you’re having trouble hearing the overtone melodies and have an instrument handy you might find it useful to play the notes mentioned, to help your ear know where to expect the melody. ‘C4’ is middle C, ‘C3’ is the C one octave below, ‘C5’ one octave above, etc.

1. Khoomei Style (00:10)

  • Low, croaky bass drone
    (note is B2 – about an octave below middle C)
  • Overtones create a kind of whistling melody above
    (using C#6, D#6, F#6 – about 2 octaves above middle C)

2. Sygyt Style (01:08)

  • Higher, more nasal drone than Khoomei
    (F#3 – in the octave below middle C)
  • Overtone melody still a whistling/wood flute timbre, but higher than the Khoomei
    (in the octave running up from C#6 – 2-3 octaves above middle C)

3. Dag Kargyraa (02:12)

  • VERY low croaky drone
    (B1 – about two octaves below middle C)
  • Melody harder to hear than the previous styles. Lower in pitch
    (using B3, C#4, D#4 and F#4 around middle C)
  • Drone’s vowel sound noticably changes as the pitch of the melody changes

4. Steppe Kargyraa (03:12)

  • Higher croaky drone
    (C#3 – about an octave below middle C)
  • Melody hard to hear again, but low (around middle C), similar to Dag Kargyraa style

5. Ezenggilleer (04:05)

  • Really different bass drone, with vowel sound changing rapidly
    (C#3 – about an octave below middle C)
  • High melody
    (in the octave from C#5 to C#6 – 1-2 octaves above middle C)
  • Overtone pitch likewise changing more rapidly than before

6. Khoomei Borbangnadyr (04:47)

  • Low croaky bass drone, like Khoomei, but then lips start vibrating rapidly, creating a third tone!
  • Now there’s:
    • a bass drone
      (B2 – about an octave below middle C)
    • a middle note one octave higher
      (B3 – just beside middle C)
    • and the high melody
      (around C#5 – about an octave above middle C)
  • The three notes span about 2 1/2 octaves at once! Listen at 05:30 for the three Bs together.

7. Chylandyyk (05:33)

  • VERY low drone again
    (B1 – about two octaves below middle C)
  • Overtone melody is now not so high! It has a different timbre: broader, airier
  • It sounds like it’s around B3 (beside middle C), so still two octaves above the drone

Your turn!

What can you hear? Have I missed something, or misheard something? Do you disagree about the octaves of the pitches?

Some other things to think about while listening:

  • What’s the timbre of each part of the singing?
  • How many different notes can you hear being used in the overtone melody?
  • What type of scale is used for the melody? (hint: count the notes)
    Is there a relationship with the bass drone note?
  • If you’ve been doing Frequency Fundamentals, can you identify which octave bands are primarily being used for each style?
    Where’s the drone? Where’s the high melody?
    Can you hear noise in any other band (hint: listen high up!)
  • Can you hear a relationship between vowel sounds in the drone, and the pitch of the overtone melody?

If you disagree with any of my notes, or you want to share what you hear in these unusual sounds, please leave a comment below.

I’ll leave you with this fun video which playfully combines a few impressive vocal techniques, and prominently features overtone singing:

Learn more

Hopefully this short look at some examples of throat singing has inspired you – both to find out more about this remarkable vocal technique and art, and to keep listening actively whenever you hear something your ears aren’t familiar with.

UPDATE: Alexander Glenfield (the singer in the main video above) has started a new blog on the topic of throat singing, and his first post is all about learning this skill by listening more carefully! Well worth a read.

Have an idea for a future Open Your Ears article? Let us know!