TRAN QUANG HAI : Throat Singing vs. Overtone Singing / Tradition vs. Experiment : A Case of Harmonic Singing

Throat Singing vs. Overtone Singing / Tradition vs. Experiment : A Case of Harmonic Singing

Tran Quang Hai

Department of Ethnomusicology
Musee de l’Homme, Paris

The Western world discovered overtones during the 60’s in Tibetan chanting of the Gyuto monks. Stockhausen, the first ‘German composer, used overtones in his compostion « Stimmung » in 1968. Mongolian throat voice with 6 different styles in the 70’s and Tuvan throat voice with 5 main styles in the 80’s amazed Western singers, composers and researchers in many fields (acoustics, ethnomusicology, phoniatrics).
Throat Singing from Central Asia (Tuva, Mongolia, Bashkiria, Altai, Khakassia) is characterized by soft fundamental (contraction of vocal folds), loud overtones (suppression of undesired harmonics), and numerous specific styles, while overtone singing from the Western world (Europe / America) is focused on strong fundamental (relaxation of vocal folds), soft overtones (presence of many undesired harmonics) , and only one style.
In Central Asia, throat singing is sung by one person (mostly male) or sometimes a quartet without or with an accompaniment of an instrument (lute, fiddle, flute, drum), and sung melodic overtones in oral tradition. In Western world, overtone singing is sung by one person (male or female very often for healing voice) or by an ensemble ( the Harmonic Choir with David Hykes in New York created in 1975, and the Oberton-Chor Dusseldorf with Christian Bollmann in Germany founded in 1985), without or with an accompaniment of an instrument (Indian lute tampura, Australian trump didjeridu, Tibetan bowls), and polyphonic fundamentals and overtones in written tradition. In South Africa, Xhosa women have the throat singing discovered in 1980 . In New Guinea, the Dani tribe possesses throat singing with three simultaneous levels. Experimental overtone research carried out for 30 years by the author of this paper will show new aspects of overtones and undertones never heard before.
Spectral analyses , sound documents and live demonstration of different experimental examples of overtones/undertones will accompany this paper .


The Western world discovered overtones during the 60’s in Tibetan chanting of the Gyuto monks. K.Stockhausen, the first German composer, used overtones in his composition “Stimmung” in 1968.
Mongolian throat voice with 6 different styles in the 70’s and Tuvan throat voice with 5 main styles in the 80’s amazed Western singers, composers, and researchers in many fields (acoustics, ethnomusicology, phoniatrics, contemporary music).

Khomei Styles

KHOMEI comprises three major Thorat singing styles called Khomei, Kargyraa and Sygyt, two main sub styles called Borgangnadyr and Ezengileer and other sub styles
Khomei means “throat” or “pharynx” is a general term for throat singing and also a particular style of singing. Khomei is the easiest technique to learn and the most practised in the West. It produces clear and mild harmonics with a fundamental usually within the medium range of the singer’s voice. Technically the stomach remains relaxed and there is a low level tension on larynx and ventricular bands. The tongue remains seated flatly between the lower teeth as in the single cavity technique or raises and moves as in the two cavities technique . The selection of the wanted harmonics is the result of a combination of different lips, tongue and throat movements .
SYGYT means “whistle” and sounds like a flute . This style creates strong harmonics .Sygyt is sung with the tip of the tongue under the middle of the roof of the palate . Either the the tongue moves under the roof and is fixed while the lips move to change harmonic pitches .To produce a flute like overtones, one must learn how to filter out the fundamental and lower harmonic components. A very strong pressure from the abdomen acting as a bellows to push the air through the throat . Significant tension is required in the throat as well, to bring the arytenoids near the root of the epiglottis. The fundamental and the lower harmonics are consequently attenuated to be softly audible .
KARGYRAA (means “hoars voice”) style emits a very low fundamental; Overtones are amplified by varying the shape of the mouth cavity and is linked to vowel productions. The supraglottal structures begin to vibrate with the vocal folds, but at a half rate . The arytenoids also can vibrate touching the root of the epiglottis , hiding the vocal folds and formoing a second “glottic” source . The perceived pitch is one octave lower than normal, but also one octave and a 5th lower . In my voice’s case, the fibroendoscopy reveals the vibration and the strong constriction of the arytenoids that hide completely the vocal folds
Tibetan Buddhist prayer of Yang style (Gyuto and Gyume schools of Gelugpa monastery) is produced with the vocal folds relaxed completely, and without any supraglottal vibration .The men’s voices are pitched so low that one wonders if this can really be human beings singing. In terms of the Western scale, the pitches sung by the performers fall within the range of an octave with the lowest note situated at A two octaves and a third below middle C. In the Western bel canto tradition, the lowest pitch in the bass tessitura is generally considered to be the E an octave and a sixth below middle C. However, the lowest pitch sung out so resplendently by these Tibetan monks is a full fifth below this. The technique of singing at such subterranean pitches is not one acquired overnight. The monks undergo rigorous vocal training which involves going down to the banks of surging river and producing extremely loud sounds which can be heard above the roar of the water..The use of vowell O is very important. It enables the monks to produce the harmonic 10 The research of harmonic10 (major third of 3 octaves higher than the fundamental) is intentional. Only the vowell O can get the harmonic.Only the monks of the Gyuto and Gyume monasteries could practise the overtones in their prayers.
Borbangnadyr and Ezengileer are a combination of effects applied to one of the three styles mentioned above .

Recent Researches in the West

In the recent years, some researches have been carried out on the analyses of Khomei and more on Overtone Singing. The focus on these researches has been on the effort to discover exactly how overtone melodies are produced. Hypotheses as to the mechanics of Overtone singing range from ideas as to the necessary physical stance and posture used by the singer during a performance, to the actual physical formation of the mouth cavity in producing the overtones .
Acoustically, a vowel is distinctive because of its formant structure. In Overtone Singing, the diphonic formant is reduced to one or a few harmonics, often with surrounding harmonics attenuated as much as possible (filtered vocal style).
In the Western world, the Overtone singing style has suddenly become very popular starting with new ideas in contemporary compositions and later on with meditation, relaxation, music therapy, voice healing. Karlheinz Stockhausen was the first in the West using simple overtones in his composition “Stimmung” (1968), followed by the EVTE (Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble) group at the San Diego University in 1972, Roberto Laneri and his Prima Materia group in 1973, Tran Quang Hai with his electro-acoustical composition (1975) “Vê Nguôn” (Return to the Sources, in collaboration with Nguyen Van Tuong), Michael Vetter in 1976, Demetrio Stratos in 1977, Meredith Monk in 1980, David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir in 1983 with the famous LP “A
l’ecoute du vent solaire” (Hearing the Solar Wind) in 1983, Joan La Barbara in 1985, Christian Bollman 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 Rachelle in 1990, Thomas Clements in 1990, Sarah Hopkins in 1990, Bernard Dubreuil in 1990, Steve Sklar in 1995, Mark Van Tongeren in 1995, Leo Tadagawa in 1995, Todoriki Masahiko in 1996, Les Voix Diphoniques in 1997 .The most renowned overtone singer of this type of singing is David Hykes . He experimented with numerous innovations including changing the fundamental (moveable drone) and keeping fixed the diphonic formant , introducing text, glissando effects, in many musical works with his Harmonic Choir .
Western overtone singers often use soft overtones with combination of polyphonic system, and additional musical instruments (tempura, didjeridu, Jew’s harp, Tibetan bowls) with different purposes (relaxation, meditation, healing, contemporary musical creations) while traditional Siberian singers exploit the filtered overtone voice with strong pressure at abdomen and throat in order to pruduce strong ,crystalized and flute like harmonics

Personal Experimental Research

My experimental research on overtone/undertone productions has lead me to create new possibilities
1. To use one harmonic as a drone and to create a melody with fundamentals
The fundamentals can be sung from 110 Hz to 220 Hz in the diatonic scale while keeping the same pitch of the selected overtone at 1320 Hz. In order to obtain this result, the tip of the tongue strongly touches the meeting point of the hard palate and the soft palate or velum under the roof of the palate and should not make any movement . In that case, the two buccal cavities obtained by the position of the tongue inside of the mouth have the same volume and get the same overtone pitch in spite of the changing pitch of the fundamentals .
2. To create a parallel between fundamentals and overtones
The overtones are always 3 octaves higher than the fundamentals while singing the ascending and descending diatonic scale with the fundamentals . If the fundamental is at 110 Hz , the overtone will be heard at 880 Hz. If the fundamental is moved up to 220 Hz , the overtone will be at 1760 Hz . For this experiment,, not only the tip of the tongue is hardly pressed against the roof of the palate and moves from the velum to the hard palate when the fundamentals moves from A2 (110 Hz) to A3 (220 Hz) in order to create the same pitched distance of 3 octaves in parallel .
3. To create the opposite direction between overtones and fundamentals
In this experiment , when the fundamental is sung at A2 (110 Hz) the overtone is at H16 (4 octaves above the fundamental). When the fundamental goes up to A3 (220 Hz) , the overtone goes down to H4 (2 octaves above the fundamental). Thus, this creates the opposite movement of fundamentals and overtones . To obtain this result, the position of the tip of the tongue touches near the teeth under the roof of the palate (H16 will be heard) and moves back slowly to the velum (H4) while the fundamentals start with low pitch (A2) and ends with high pitch (A3) of the A tonality
1. To write words with overtones (such words like MINIMUM, WIN )
A certain number of words can be written with overtones . With the same pitch of the fundamental , the written words can be obtained by various overtones at three levels (under 1,000 Hz, 2,000 Hz, and 3,000 Hz)
2. To create UNDERTONES (F-2, F-3, F-4 while singing a melody)
Some traditional throat voices like Tuvan Kargyraa, Xhosa Umngqokolo from South Africa, the Tenore voice of the Sardinian Quintina (the fusion of 4 main voices creates the virtual fifth overtone voice) use the undertone going down one octave lower than the real fundamental . Leonardo Fuks from Brazil arrived to go down to F-5 (2 octaves and a major third below the fundamental) but he could not sing a tune with that way . I have succeeded in dividing the fundamental pitch into 2, 3, and 4 . With the use of arytenoids inside of my throat , I could sing one octave lower (F-2), one octave and a fifth lower (F-3) and two octaves lower (F-4) than the real fundamental pitch (between 110 Hz and 150 Hz) . It is not possible to create the undertones above 220 Hz .
3. To combine OVERTONES and UNDERTONES while singing a melody
In Tuvan kargyraa, and Xhosa umngqokolo from South Africa, the combination of overtones (melody) and undertones (real fundamental split into two – F-2) can be produced simultaneously . With my experiment, I could sing an overtone melody with the fundamental divided into 3 (F-3) simultaneously . The perception is consequently not the same
4. To create overtones corresponding to 7 chakras in Yoga
In Yoga, there exist 7 chakras corresponding to 7 vowels, 7 sounds or pitches, 7 overtones and 7 points of the human body. I carried out experimen-tal research in the presence of overtones in Yoga. The result of my three-year study was presented at the International Congress of Yoga in France in 2002 .
According to my research, the fundamental of voice should be at 150Hz .
1 Mulâdhâra coccyx H n° 4 U 600Hz
2 Svâdhishthâna genitals H n° 5 O 750Hz
3 Manipûra navel H n° 6 Ö 900Hz
4 Anâhata heart H n° 8 A 1200Hz
5 Vishuddha throat H n° 9 E 1350Hz
6 Ajnâ between eyebrows H n°10 AE 1500Hz
7 Sahasrâra top of head H n°12 I 1800Hz

The phenomenon “overtones/undertones” has been studied by researchers, acousticians, used by music therapists, composers for contemporary music, at meditation lessons. More and more recordings have been made during the last 10 years all over the world . All musical sounds contain overtones that resonate in fixed relationships above a fundamental frequency. These overtones create tone color, and enable us to understand the sounds of this peculiar vocal style which is KHOMEI or throat singing or overtone singing . This short presentation cannot be considered as an exhausted study, but as a beginning of the new approach of how to develop overtone/undertone research in general. This is what I intend to show you here about my new attempts in research on experimental aspect of throat singing .
Selective Bibligraphy

Adachi, S., Yamada, M. 1999: “An Acoustical Study of Sound Production in Biphonic Singing, Xöömij”, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 105: 2920-2932, USA.
Bloothooft G. Bringmann E., van Capellen M., van Luipen J.B., Thoamssen K.P. 1992: “Acoustic and Perception of Overtone Singing”, in Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, JASA, vol.92, n°4: 1827-1836, USA
Dargie, D. 1993: “Thembu Xhosa umngqokolo overtone singing : the use of the human voice as a type of “musical bow”, paper presented at the ICTM Conference in Berlin. (self publication)
Fuks, L., Hammarberg, B., Sundberg, J. 1998: “A Self-sustained vocal-ventricular phonation mode: acoustical, aerodynamic and glottographic evidences”, KTH TMH-QPSR 3/1998 : 49-59, Stockholm, Sweden .
Grawunder, S. 2003 : “Der südsibirische Kehlgesang als Gegenstand phonetishcer Untersuchungen“ , in Gegenstandsauffassung und aktuelle phonetische Forschungen der halleschen Sprechwissenschaft :53-91, Eva-Maria Krech/Eberhard Stock (Ed), Peter Lang, Halle, Germany .
Grawunder, S. 2003: „Unusual phonetic and acoustic features in certain Tuvan throat singing styles“, Scientific Center of Research „Xoomei“, Kyzyl, Tuva
Leipp, E. 1971 : “Le probleme acoustique du chant diphonique”, Bulletin du Groupe d’Acoustique Musicale , no 58 : 1-10, Universite de Paris VI
Leothaud, G. 1989 : « Considerations acoustiques et musicales sur le chant diphonique », Le Chant diphonique, dossier n°1 : 17-43, Institut de la Voix, Limoges, France
Levin, T.C., Edgerton, M.E. 1999 : « The Throat Singers in Tuva », Scientific American : 80-87, USA
Sundberg, Johan 1987 : The Science of the Singing Voice , Northern Illinois University Press, USA
Lindestat, P.-A, Sodersten, M., Merker,B., Granqvist, S. 2001: “Voice source characteristics in Mongolian “Throat Singing” Studied with High-Speed Imaging Technique, Acoustic Spectra, and Inverse Filtering”, J.Voice 15: 75-85.
Sakakibara, K.-I., Adachi, S., Konishi, T., Kondo, K., Murano, E.Z., Kumada, M., Todoriki, M., Imagawa, H., Niimi, S. 2000: “Vocal Fold and False Vocal Fold Vibrations and Synthesis of Khoomei” Proc. Of ICMC :135-138
Tisato G., Cosi, P. 2003: “On the Magic of Overtone Singing”, in Voce, Canto Parlato : 83-100, Unipress (publisher), Padova, Italy
Tongeren , van M. 2002 : Overtone Singing / Physics and Metaphysics of Harmonics in East and West , 271 pages, Fusica publisher, 1 CD , Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Tran Quang Hai , Guillou D. 1980 : « Original Research and Acoustical Analysis in connection with the Xöömij style of Biphonic Singing “, in Musical Voices of Asia : 163-173, The Japan Foundation (ed), Heibonsha Ltd, Tokyo, Japan
Tran Quang Hai , Zemp H., 1991: “Recherches experimentales sur le chant diphonique”, Cahiers de musiques traditionnelles, 4 (Voix) : 27-68, Ateliers d’Ethnomusicologie, Geneva , Switzerland .
Tran Quang Hai 2002 : « A la decouverte du chant diphonique », in Moyens d’investigation et Pedagogie de la voix chantee : 117-132, with a CD Rom, Guy Cornut (ed), Symetrie publishers, Lyon, France


1990 Le chant des harmoniques (The Song of Harmonics), film 16mm and video cassette , 38 minutes, directed by H.Zemp, co-authors (Tran Quang Hai and Hugo Zemp), CNRS Audio Visuel (prod), France . Contact: Tran Quang Hai, email: or

2003 Le chant diphonique (the Diphonic Song), DVD , 27 minutes, directed by C.Beguinet, co-authors (Tran Quang Hai and Luc Souvet), Centre Regional de Documentation Pedagogique (CRDP), Saint Denis, Isle of the Reunion, contact: Luc Souvet, email :

Weborama (type each of these words : overtone singing , throat singing , biphonic singing, diphonic singing, canto difonico, oberton, khoomei, sygyt, kargyraa, harmonic singing,)

Author: tranquanghai1944

Ethnomusicologist, composer and vietnamese traditional musician

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