TRAN QUANG HAI : About the terminology used in overtone/undertone for the throat singing /overtone singing


Tran Quang Hai (UMR 8574, National Center for Scientific Research, France)


“KHOOMEI” or “THROAT SINGING is the name used in Tuva and Mongolia to describe a large family of singing styles and techniques in which a single vocalist  simultaneously produces two (or more) distinct tones . The lower one is the usual fundamental tone of the voice and sounds as a sustained drone or a Scottish bagpipe sound . The second corresponds to one of the harmonic partials and is like a resonating whistle in a high, or very high register . We transcribe in the simplest way the Tuvan term, for the lack of agreement between the different authors :









Throat Singing has almost entirely been an unknown form of art until rumours about Tuva and the peculiar Tuvan musical culture spread in the West, especially in North America, thanks to Richard Feynman, a distinguished American physicist, who was an ardent devotee of Tuvan matters  (today, partly because of Feynman’s influence, there exists a society called „Friends of Tuva“ in California, which circulates news about Tuva in the West.


This singing tradition is mostly practised in the Central Asia regions including Bashkortostan or Bashkiria (near Ural mountains), Altai and Tuva (two autonomous republics of the Russian Federation), Khakassia and Mongolia . But we can find examples worldwide in South Africa between Xhosa women, in the Tibetan Buddhist chanting, in Rajasthan, and also among the Dani tribes in Papu Guinea


The Tuvan people developed numerous different styles . The 5 different techniques are :

Sygyt (like a whistle with a weak fundamental)

Khoomei ( general term for throat singing and a particular style)

Borbangnadyr (similar to Kargyraa with higher fundamental)

Ezengileer ( rercognizable by the quick rhythmical shifts between diphonic harmonics)

Kargyraa (with very low fundamentals obtained by undertones)


In Mongolia, most throat singing styles take the name from the part of the body where they suppose to feel the vibratory resonance





XARKIRAA XÖÖMI (similar to Tuvan Kargyraa)

ISGEREX (rarely used style it sounds like a flute)


The Khakash people practise three types of Throat singing

KARGIRAR                                 like KARGYRAA (Tuva)

KUVEDER or KILENGE            like EZENGILEER (Tuva)

SIGIRTIP                                     like SYGYT (Tuva)


The peoples of the Altai Mountains use three terms

KARKIRAA                                like KARGYRAA (Tuva)

KIOMIOI                                    like KHOOMEI (Tuva)

SIBISKI                                      like SYGYT (Tuva)


The Bashkiria musical tradition uses the throat singing  UZLAU similar to Tuvan EZENGILEER) to accompany epic song


The Tibetan GYUTO monks have also a tradition of diphonic chant, related to the religious beliefs of the vibratory reality of the universe . They sing in a very low register in a way that resembles the Tuvan KARGYRAA method . The aim of  this tradition is mystical and consists in isolating the 10th harmonic partial of the vocal sound.




There are in the literature many terms to indicate the presence of different perceptible sounds in a single voice. If you have a look at the motor of reaearch ( ) , you will be astonished by the number of websites linked to throat singing KHOOMEI . I am going to establish a listing of unmbers of sites linked to each term according to GOOGLE motor research (28 December 2003 , date of consultation of GOOGLE)


KHOOMEI                                   1,710 sites

KARGYRAA                                883 sites

SYGYT                                         673 sites

EZENGILEER                            141 sites

BORBANGNADYR                     129 sites

THROAT SINGING                    8,980 sites

OVERTONE SINGING               2,500 sites

DIPHONIC SINGING                     65 sites

BIPHONIC SINGING                   121 sites

OVERTONING                            615 sites

HARMONIC SINGING               901 sites



MULTIPHONIC SINGING         158 sites


DIPLOPHONIA                          190 sites



CANTO DIPLOFONICO             27 sites

CANTO DIFONICO                     138 sites


OBERTONSEGANG                    256 sites


According to the pioneer work in the domain of the vocal sounds made by the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble (EVTE) of San Diego University and bearing in mind that there is little agreement regarding classifications, the best distinctive criterion for the diphonia seems to be the characterization of the sound sources that produce the perception of the diphonic or multiphonic sound


Following that principle, we can distinguish between BITONALITY and DIPHONIA


BITONALITY : in this case, there are two distinct sound sources that produce two sounds. The pitches of the two sounds could be or not  in harmonic relationship. This category includes DIPLOPHONIA, BITONALITY , and VOCAL FRY


DIPHONIA : the reinforcement of one (or more) harmonic partials produces the splitting of the voice in two (or more) sounds. This category includes KHOMEI, THROAT SINGING, OVERTONE SINGING, DIPHONIC SINGING, BIPHONIC SINGING, OVERTONING, HARMONIIC SINGING, HARMONIC CHANT




Diplophonia :

The vibration of the vocal folds is asymmetrical. It happens that after a normal oscillatory period, the vibration amplitude that follows is reduced. There is not the splitting of the voice in two sounds, but the pitch goes down one octave lower and the timbre assumes a typical roughness. For example, assuming as fundamental pitch a C3 130.8 Hz, the resulting pitch will be C2 65.4 Hz . If the amplitude reduction happens after two regular vibrations, the actual periodicity triplicates and  then the pitch lowers one octave and a 5th. The diplophonic voice is a frequent pathology of the larynx (as in unilateral vocal cord paralysis), but can be also obtained willingly for artistic effects (Demetrio Stratos was an expert of this technique)



The two sound sources are due to the vibration of two different parts of the glottis cleft . This technique requires a strong laryngeal tension . In this case , there is not necessarily a harmonic relationship between the fundamentals of the two sounds. In the Tuvan KARGYRAA style, the second sound is due to the vibration of the supraglottal structures (false folds, aryepiglottic folds that connects the arytenoids and the epiglottis, and the epiglottis root). In this case generally (but not always) there is a 2:1 frequency ratio between the supraglottal closure and vocal folds closure. As in the case of  Diplophonia, the pitch goes down on octave lower (or more)


Vocal fry

The second sound is due in this case to the periodic repetition of a glottal pulsation of different frequency . It sounds like the opening of a creaky door (another common designation is “creaky voice”) . The pulse rate of vocal fry can be controlled to produce a range from very slow single clicks to a stream of clicks so rapid to be perceived as a discrete pitch . Therefore vocal fry is a special case of bitonality : the perception of a second sound depends on a pulses train rate and not on the spectral composition of a single sound .




Diphonic and Biphonic  refer to any singing that sounds like two (or more) simultaneous pitches, regarless of technique. Use of these terms is largely limited to academic sources . In the scientific literature the preferred term to indicated Throat Singing is Diphonic Singing .


Multiphonic Singing indicates a complex cluster  of non-harmonically related pitches that sounds like the vocal fry or the creaky voice. The cluster may be produced expiring as normal, or also inhaling the airflow .


Throat Singing  is any technique that includes the manipulation of the throat to produce a melody with the harmonics. Generally, this involves applying tension to the region surrounding the vocal folds and the manipulation of the various cavities of the throat, including the ventricular bands, the arytenoids, and the pharynx .


Chant generally refers to religious singing in different traditions (Gregorian, Buddhist, Hindu chant , etc…). As regards the diphonia, it is noteworthy to mention the low singing practised by Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Gyutö sect . As explained before , they reinforce the 10th harmonic partial of the vocal sound for mystical and symbolic purposes . This kind of real diphonia must be distinguished from resonantial effects (enhancement of some uncontrolled overtones) that we can hear in Japanese Shomyo Chant  and also in Gregorian Chant .


Harmonic Singing is the term introduced by David Hykes to refer to any technique that reinforces a single harmonic or harmonic cluster. The sound may or may not split into two or mor notes. It is used as a synonym of Overtone Singing, Overtoning, Harmonic Chant and also Throat Singing .


Overtone Singing can be considered to be harmonic singing with an intentional emphasis on the harmonic melody of overtones . This is the name used by Western artists that utilizes vowels, mouth shaping and upper throat  manipulations to produce melodies and textures. It is used as a synonym of Harmonic Singing, Overtoning, Harmonic Chant and also Throat Singing .




In the West , the Overtone Singing technique has unexpectedly become very popular, starting into musical contests and turning very soon to mystical, spiritual and also therapeutic applications . The first to make use of a diphonic vocal technique in music was Karlheinz Stockhausen in STIMMUNG . He was followed by numerous artists and amongst them : the EVTE (Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble) group at the San Diego University in 1972, Laneri and his Prima Materia group in 1973, Tran Quang Hai in 1975, Demetrio Stratos in 1977, Meredith Monk in 1980, David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir in 1983 , Joan La Barbara in 1985, Michael Vetter in 1985, Christian Bollmann in 1985, Noah Pikes in 1985, Michael Reimann in 1986, Tamia in 1987, Bodjo Pinek in 1987, Josephine Truman in 1987, Quatuor Nomad in 1989, Iegor Reznikoff in 1989, Valentin Clastrier  in 1990, Rollin Rachele in 1990, Thomas Clements in 1990, Sarah Hopkins in 1990, Les Voix Diphoniques in 1997, Mark Van Tongeren in 2000, etc… The most famous proponent of this type of singing is David Hykes . Hykes experimented with numerous innovations including  changing the fundamental (moveable drone) and keeping fixed the diphonic formant , introducing text, glissando effects , etc… in numerous works produced with the Harmonic Choir of New York .




All these sounds contain overtones or tones that resonate in fixed relationships above a fundamental frequency. These overtones create tone color, and help us to differentiate the sounds of different music instruments or one voice and another

Different cultures have unique manifestations of musical traditions , but, what it is quite interesting, is that some of them share at least one aspect in common: the production of overtones in their  respective vocal music styles .

The diversity of terminology designating this vocal phenomenon shows us the interest of people in discovering overtones /undertones .The most used term is THROAT SINGING  (8980 websites linked according to GOOGLE motor of research) more than OVERTONE SINGING (2500 linked websites). This attitude is understandable because the term “Throat Singing” is the correct translation of the Tuvan and Mongolian terms KHOOMEI which means “pharynx”, or “throat”.

Author: tranquanghai1944

Ethnomusicologist, composer and vietnamese traditional musician

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