Ever heard of overtone singing? Learn more about the intriguing technique in this guest post by Ann Arbor, MI voice teacher Elaina R…
How many pitches can a singer sing at once? If you said one, that’s generally correct; most singers can only produce one audible pitch at a time. However, some can sing two pitches at a time, creating an eerie, ear-catching sound. Here’s a good example:
How is that possible? What is overtone singing, and can anyone learn to do it? The answer has a little to do with science, a little to do with anatomy, and a lot to do with practicing.
What are Overtones?
Typically, singers (and other instruments) focus on the fundamental pitch. The fundamental pitch is the main pitch you hear when you sing a note. If someone is singing off tune, that means they are singing the wrong fundamental pitch.
Overtones are the higher partials of a fundamental note. Nearly all musical pitches have overtones, whether you hear them or not. Overtones occur because of the way sound waves work and are based on the harmonic series – a sequence dividing the fundamental pitch into smaller and smaller pieces. This sequence was used to develop the Western musical scale.
What is Overtone Singing?
In overtone singing, the singer focuses on the overtones rather than the fundamental pitch. Some singers can jump from partial to partial, creating scales and melodies with overtones. Since the overtones are always there, overtone singers aren’t working to produce them; they just make them louder and learn to move around the overtone scale.
Many cultures, particularly in Asia, have been using overtone singing for generations. Probably the most famous example of this is throat singing, in which the fundamental pitch is extremely low. However, overtone singing doesn’t have to involve an uncomfortably low fundamental pitch. All you need is a consistent fundamental pitch and a little patience.
How Can I Learn Overtone Singing?
To bring out the overtones in your sound, practice changing your resonator (mouth shape) by manipulating the lips and tongue.
- Find an area with some background noise, such as a bathroom with the fan on. Background noise helps mask the fundamental pitch so you can hear the overtones better.
- Place the tip of the tongue directly behind the front top teeth so that your tongue forms an upward curve inside your mouth.
- Sing a comfortable low pitch in chest voice (speaking range) on an “ee” vowel.
- While singing the pitch, slowly shift from an “ee” vowel to an “ooh” vowel and back.
Experiment with this until you start to hear overtones. Once you do, you can continue to slightly change the shape and positioning of your tongue and lips to bring out the overtones.
What is overtone singing? It is a result of the natural overtone scale inherent to pitch. As with any kind of singing, overtone singing can hurt your voice if you don’t do it correctly. To get really good at overtone singing, it’s important to understand how singing works in the first place.
If you ever experience discomfort or get hoarse trying to bring out overtones, stop what you are doing! To learn how to sing well – and maybe learn to incorporate overtones – the smartest thing to do is consult a professional. Search for teachers in your area here!
Elaina R. teaches singing in Ann Arbor, MI. She earned a Bachelor of Music from the University of Southern California, and she is currently working on her Master of Music from the University of Michigan. Learn more about Elaina here!
Photo by Susanne Nilsson