The Voice Can Do What?!

The voice is truly an amazing mechanism that is capable of so much more than just talking or singing a melody, although these are both complicated processes in themselves. I’m going to introduce you to some interesting ways of using the voice from different parts of the world that you may not know about, or if you do, you may not understand how it’s done. (Be sure to follow the links I have included and listen to the examples so you’ll actually hear the sounds I’m describing.) First, let me give you some background about how I was introduced to some of these methods of using the voice.

I grew up in Connecticut and my mother introduced me to the piano. By the time I got to high school, I started teaching myself how to play the guitar, began writing songs, and then went on to perform solo with a guitar in small venues in Greenwich Village and elsewhere in the New York City area. I left the East Coast after college and headed west in 1976. I ended up in California and it was a good fit. This whole period of my life was a time of exploration, discovery and opening myself to new perspectives. What better place to do that than in San Francisco? I signed up for a workshop called “Extended Vocal Techniques” because it sounded interesting and I thought it might be a good way to meet new people. The instructor for the workshop was a woman named Bonnie Barnett. She had worked with Pauline Oliveros, a composer of electronic art music and the one who coined the concepts “deep listening” and “sonic awareness.” Bonnie went on to create public vocal rituals in San Francisco in the 1980s that were called “The Tunnel Hum Project.” Hundreds of people would gather inside a designated tunnel and hum the same note in unison (the resonant frequency of the tunnel) while other groups gathered throughout the country to do the same thing at the same time. I participated in a few of these events and they were wild and crazy experiences.

Back to the workshop…only two of us showed up but Bonnie decided to go ahead anyway. The three of us had a wonderful time playing with our voices in new ways. In fact, we had so much fun that we continued to meet every few weeks over a couple of years. We sang, harmonized and tried new ways of vocalizing, like overtone singing (vocal multiphonics; more below). Sometimes we had so much fun and laughed so hard that we all just fell in a heap on the floor. It was completely captivating and in the process we became good friends. At one point we decided we needed to give ourselves a name, and came up with “The Women’s Sonic Collective.” (This may have been overstepping a bit considering that we never performed or did anything other than get together and experiment with our voices. We did create a harmonization to a song called “Bright Morning Stars” which I have taught to several of my singing classes over the years.) Clearly I was hooked and this experience launched me on a vocal journey that continues to this day. Beyond the fun of experimenting with my voice, what I came away with from these meetings was an insatiable curiosity about the vocal instrument, new ways to navigate my voice and an immensely increased love of singing.

This is how I was introduced to overtone singing. At first it may not sound like “singing” to your ears because some of the sounds are quite unusual, but just as languages are different, so are singing styles.
Overtone singing in its basic form is the sounding of two or more notes at a time. How is this possible? One note is voiced, meaning you are singing this tone. The other tone (overtone) is made by moving your mouth, lips and tongue to create different shapes in your mouth as you exhale while singing. (It’s similar to when you whistle and you make different pitches, only with whistling your lips are not as open.)

1. Example of overtone singing:

2. MRI of overtone singing of Beethovens’ 9th:

You may be asking yourself: What are overtones?” Good question. Every sound we hear is actually more than just one tone and contains other pitches (or overtones)  that “color” the sound, along with the main tone (the fundamental). Each sound has a distinct quality that enables you to tell what is creating  the sound. This is called timbre. The timbre of a sound is determined by which overtones it emphasizes. It’s the quality of the sound that distinguishes one instrument from another, like a piano from a trumpet. It’s also why you can often recognize a person’s voice on the phone without seeing them.

Spectogram of overtone singing:

Tibetans, Mongols and Tuvans are known for their style of overtone singing called throat singing. It’s like chanting on a very low tone and manipulating sounds in the throat. The tone is so low in fact, that the vocal cords are extremely loose and this enables the singer to sing two or more tones at once.

Examples of two kinds of throat singing:
1. Tibetan –

2. Tuvan –

A different type of throat singing is Inuit throat singing. Originally this was a form of entertainment among Inuit women while the men were away on hunting trips. It was a kind of breathing game in the Inuit culture rather than a form of music. Here’s how they did it: Two women face each other in a standing position while holding each other’s arms. One singer leads by creating a short rhythmic pattern and this pattern is repeated with a brief silent interval between each repetition. The other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. The sounds used include voiced sounds through both inhaling and exhaling. The first one to run out of breath will usually start laughing and will then be eliminated from the game. It generally lasts between one and three minutes. Interesting factoid: at one time, the lips of the two women almost touched, so that one singer used the mouth cavity of the other as a resonator.

Examples of Inuit throat singing:


So, we’ve just scratched the surface of exploring singing styles from around the world. I hope this has begun to expand your hearing and your awareness of exactly how much the voice is capable of. Try experimenting with your own voice…and have fun with it!

One thought on “The Voice Can Do What?!

  1. Ellen is magnanimous for her expertise in music! The elaboration regarding “overtones” is amazing and very intriguing. I was literally fascinated with her description of two women making beautiful music together! I had no idea that our voices had the ability to release such incredible power.

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