WOLFGANG SAUS : What is Overtone Singing?

What is Overtone Singing?

The art of singing two notes at the same time

Overtone singing is a vocal technique that creates the auditory impression of polyphony by filtering individual overtones from the sound spectrum of the voice by controlling the resonances in the vocal tract in such a way that they are perceived as separate tones.

Sound sample: Pianoo – Harmoniversum

Short Version

It is amazing when a single person sings two notes at the same time. A second flute-like tone suddenly sounds about two octaves above the normal voice, which seems to float crystal clear and hardly locatable in space. The sound is reminiscent of a glass harp, exotic and yet strangely familiar. It touches in a peculiar way, has a calming effect and is almost physically palpable.

Can anyone do that?
Yes, anyone who can speak can learn overtone singing.

→ Learning overtone singing

How does overtone singing sound?


Brahms’ Lullaby in bass and soprano at the same time.

→more sound samples

Where does overtone singing come from?
The styles were created independently of each other. Western overtone singing comes from Europe and not from Mongolia, as is often claimed. Altai styles of the Turkic peoples are related to each other. Less well known are overtone songs from Africa, Papua New Guinea and Tibet. Here is a list of styles:

→ Styles worldwide

How does overtone singing work?
The resonance in the mouth and throat are combined with tongue, lip and jaw movements in such a way that individual overtones become so loud that they are perceived as individual tones.

→ see below

The Trick: Double Resonance

The secret of overtone singing is double resonance – the merging of two resonance frequencies that originate in the pharynx and oral cavity (vocal tract). This does not occur in the German language. That’s why overtone singing is not so easy to discover by oneself, although in principle it consists only of exotic “vowels”.

The lowest three resonance frequencies in the vocal tract can be changed in pitch arbitrarily. This is done with mouth-, lip-, tongue- and larynx movements. Vowels are created by the first two resonance frequencies, a special pitch for each vowel.

In overtone singing, the third resonance frequency is added and lowered to the pitch of the second resonance frequency by creating an additional cavity under the tongue.

The resulting double resonator is then precisely matched to an overtone. The effect: the overtone becomes much louder than its neighbours, which gives the impression that you hear two tones, namely the voice and the amplified overtone. If you move the double resonator from overtone to overtone, you get the impression of an overtone melody.

Overtone singers thus produce the melody with the form of the vocal tract, not with the vocal chords. The second resonance frequency determines the pitch. The third resonance frequency is used for amplification.

Actually, you still hear all the partials, not two. But the timbre created by the isolated overtone is so unfamiliar that the brain searches for a comparison with what it knows and thus communicates a flute-like sound and a singing voice to the consciousness. Overtone singing is thus a kind of acoustic illusion.

In fact, everyone hears the overtone singing a little differently. Some people experience more or less vowel character and associate the sound of the Australian didgeridoos. Others hear the sound of the flute so clearly and separately that they cannot believe it comes from the voice. These different perceptions are related to the individual sound processing (cf. How overtones work in the brain).

This double resonator can be varied over more than one octave. Most overtone singers don’t know anything about it. They are still good at overtone singing because they have intuitively learned over a long time to control their resonances. Those who have knowledge of the connections, however, learn overtone singing much faster and can optimize overtone singing in a targeted way. If you are looking for an overtone singing teacher, make sure he has this background knowledge. This saves time and money.

Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator

Voice as a Double Instrument

Our voice consists of two instruments:

  1. The primary sound (singing tone) is formed in the larynx and consists of a chord of partial tones (sine tones) and a noise portion. It generates the keynote pitch.
  2. The resonances in the vocal tract (mouth, throat, nose) modulate the volume of the partials. They produce the timbre. During overtone singing, they produce the melody from overtones.

Voice = primary sound + resonance

This corresponds to the classic source filter model of the voice. The new thing, however, is that in overtone singing the resonances are used as a second melody instrument. The fact that resonances can be tuned to a precise pitch is generally unknown and is not taught in classical singing education.

First Instrument: Harmonics

Teiltonakkord von c mit Spektrum und Spektrogramm

Overtones are a natural part of the voice. They are always present in the voice. A normal vocal sound consists of a bundle of partials (on the difference between partial and overtone, see here).

This bundle forms a special harmonic partial-tone chord, which we normally hear as a single note with a timbre. The timbre is created by the volume distribution of the partials. The volume distribution in the picture results from the vowel æ.

If an overtone becomes much louder than its neighbours, it will suddenly be perceived as a separate tone. This is exactly what happens with overtone singing. Extreme “vowels” are used, which are not found in the language. Overtone singing is in a way an acoustic illusion, because in fact only one note is sung, but because of an extreme “pronunciation” it sounds like two notes. But one could also say that it is an acoustic disillusionment: the tone consists of many tones, and now we hear at least two of them, the keynote and the amplified overtone.


Second Instrument: Resonance Frequencies

The mouth and throat space from the larynx to the lips is also called vocal tract. Like any cavity, the vocal tract has natural resonance frequencies. These resonances are pitches that change with the shape of the mouth. The resonances change the volume distribution of the partials in the voice. This creates vowels. The fact that the resonances can be used as a melody instrument, however, is completely unknown as a concept.

Pharynx Tongue & Second Formant

The pharynx tongue controls the 2nd resonance frequency (2nd formant), the space under the tongue controls the 3rd resonance frequency. The aim of overtone singing is to place the two resonances exactly on top of each other and to meet an overtone at the same time.

During examinations at the University Hospital Aachen we found that the pharyngeal tongue movement together with the epiglottis mainly controls the overtones .

Try it: Let your tongue hang out of your mouth and speak the English we with a creaking voice (vocal fry) and motionless lips, preferably in slow motion. And then the English you, which is the backwards movement. The vowel transition i-u and u-i in these words is now produced exclusively by the pharyngeal tongue because of the inactive front tongue. It’s important that you take time for all the intermediate vocals.

Usa a sound analysis program like Overtone Analyzer to record a spectrogram of the produced sound. You will see in the spectrogram that only the second resonance frequency moves.

Mouth Floor & Third Formant

We don’t move the 3rd resonance frequency in German vowels. Therefore, the associated tongue movements are unfamiliar. If you keep your tongue in the L-position, a cavity will form under your tongue. If you then lower the floor of your mouth and pull back the muscles at the side next to the frenulum of your tongue, you will hear a sound similar to the American “r”  [ ɹ ]. Imagine a small hot potato under your tongue. The larger the cavity, the lower the 3rd resonance frequency.

With a little practice the 3rd resonance frequency can be lowered exactly to the frequency of the 2nd. That’s the basic technique of overtone singing.

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Saus, Wolfgang. 2016. Obertongesang – wenn Formanten zu Tönen werden. In: Stimmstörungen – ein Fokus der Klinischen Sprechwissenschaft: Aktuelle Beiträge aus Wissenschaft, Forschung und Praxis, hg. von Susanne Voigt-Zimmermann, Stephanie Kurtenbach, Gabriele Finkbeiner, Anke Bergt, und Wanda Mainka, 19–23. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 22. August.
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Tsai, Chen-Gia. false vocal fold surface waves during Sygyt singing: a theoretical study. http://www.soundtransformations.co.uk/falsevocalfoldsurfacechengaitsai.htm (zugegriffen: 1. März 2013).
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The first version of this article was published in 2000, the first WordPressverion on 8/3/2013.



3 replies
  1. Claudia Franke says:

    Ganz herzlichen Dank für diese klare, hervorragend strukturierte und überzeugende Darstellung!
    Dadurch wird mir die Hörbarkeit des 2. Tons endlich deutlich.
    Ich werde weiter daran versuchen.


  2. Miroslav Grosser says:

    oberton.org war und ist aus meiner Sicht eindeutig die informativste Webseite zum Thema Obertongesang im deutschsprachigen Raum. DANKE für soviel Informationen und das ganze Engagement und die Zeit, die es erfordert, dieses ständig aktualisierte, wachsende und mittlerweile sogar interaktive lexikonartige Wissen hier zu versammeln und der Öffentlichkeit zugänglich zu machen. Ich bin echt begeistert von dieser Fundgrube für Stimm-Interessierte und Oberton-Fans!!!


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About us

Sygyt Software was founded in 2003 by Bodo Maass and Wolfgang Saus to explore the creation of tools that help people to become better musicians and to realize the full potential of their voice. “Sygyt” is the tuvan word for a specific throat singing technique that creates a very strong, high pitched overtone sound. The name represents the company’s origin in overtone singing.

Bodo Maass

Bodo Maass is the founder and main software developer of Sygyt Software. He first began programming at the age of 11. After studying Cognitive Science (Psychology and Philosophy) at the University of Oxford, he worked on voice based human-machine interfaces for a company called MicroStrategy in Washington D.C. He subsequently returned to Oxford to become the first employee of the newly founded company NaturalMotion, where he was the lead developer for NaturalMotion’s award winning 3D animation software “endorphin”, a commercial product to synthesize human movement based on artificial intelligence research. He discovered Overtone Singing in 1994 and immediately wanted to learn this seemingly impossible art of singing two melodies at the same time. He and his teacher in this method, Wolfgang Saus, talked about the lack of good software to assist teaching overtone singers, and thus “Overtone Analyzer” was born.
This work was later expanded to create the next generation of the software “VoceVista” together with the voice scientist Don Miller.

Wolfgang Saus

Originally trained in Germany as a scientist as well as a classical singer, Wolfgang Saus has gained a profound understanding of overtone singing, both as a performer and a teacher. His unique combination of a scientific intellect and several decades experience as a singer enables him to make overtones accessible to many people by explaining them in simple, intuitive terms. Saus has become one of the leading overtone singers in Europe, and has taught hundreds of students individually and through workshops. He is also an expert in improving the intonation of a choir by training the singers to control their overtones, which he has refined into his new method of “Choral Phonetics”.

Overtone Analyzer and VoceVista Video are the consequent application of his knowledge to the medium of software, which allows the visualization and exploration of voice and sound in an interactive way.

Don Miller

Operatic bass-baritone Donald Miller was professor at the Syracuse Unversity School of Music when, in the 1980s, he began research on the acoustics and physiology of the singing voice with phoniatrist Harm Schutte in Groningen, The Netherlands. Later in that decade he settled in Groningen full time, where he and Prof. Schutte published a number of articles, earning him a PhD with the publication of Registers in Singing in the year 2000. A product of that research has been the software program VoceVista, providing digital feedback for singing instruction from spectrum analysis and the electroglottograph (EGG). In 2008 he published Resonance in Singing, concisely describing the application of the system to analysis of the recorded literature, as well as to live instruction in the voice studio.

Krzysztof Jaros

Krzysztof Jaros, born in Poland, is author, software developer, independent researcher, lecturer. Mainly, his work is focused on soundwork and consciousness exploration. His research touches singing bowls, overtone singing, brainwave entrainment, and spectral signal processing. Over the years, he created several audio technologies, software solutions, methods and verbal programs – designed to support therapies, self-improvement and adventures in the world of altered states of awareness. He worked for Peter Hess Academy in Poland, and inspired by works of Robert A. Monroe, he gives workshops on ways of dealing with expanded perception of inner and outer reality. A few years ago he fell in love with Overtone Analyzer, and now is helping to push it beyond the imaginable.

“Ihr Kinderlein, kommet” – Wolfgang Saus – Polyphonic Overtone Singing / Obertongesang

“Ihr Kinderlein, kommet” – Wolfgang Saus – Polyphonic Overtone Singing / Obertongesang

Ajoutée le 24 déc. 2014

German Christmas Carol by J.A.P. Schulz 1794. Find out more and download the scores for free on http://www.oberton.org/?p=1588 Wolfgang Saus sings bass and melody simultaneously with polyphonic overtone singing technique. It’s an easy version, download the scores and music for free and try singin along. Michael Reimann – keyboards – http://www.michaelreimann.de Wolfgang Saus – overtone singing – http://www.oberton.org Video credit: Falling snow by Matt S – http://vimeo.com/mattsfilms – CC BY 3.0 —————————————————————————- Deutsches Weihnachtslied von J.A.P. Schulz 1794. Mehr dazu und kostenlose Noten: http://www.oberton.org/?p=1588 Wolfgang Saus singt Bass und Melodie gleichzeitig mit polyphoner Obertongesang-Technik. Es ist eine einfache Version, lade Dir die Noten kostenlos herunter und versuche mitzusingen. Eine gute Übung für mehrstimmiges Obertonsingen. Michael Reimann – Keyboard – http://www.michaelreimann.de Wolfgang Saus – Obertongesang – http://www.oberton.org Video: Falling snow von Matt S – http://vimeo.com/mattsfilms – CC BY 3.0


Beethoven “Ode to Joy” with Overtone Singing (MRI) by Wolfgang Saus – see what happens inside the mouth,

Beethoven “Ode to Joy” with Overtone Singing (MRI) – see what happens inside the mouth

Ajoutée le 19 mai 2016

The famous Ode to Joy (Freude schöner Götterfunken) in occidental throat singing style (western overtone singing) by Wolfgang Saus, https://www.oberton.org. What you see in this amazing dynamic MRI (MRT) is the tongue movement building up double resonances along the melody line of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Overtone singing is based on bringing together the second and third resonance frequency of the vocal trakt (also referred to as “formants”) on one frequency to enhance the loudness of a single overtone in the vocal sound spectrum. The second formant is controlled by the root of the tongue together with the epiglottis. The third formant is ruled by the space under the tongue, which is bigger than it seems in the video. Overtone singing is a constantly fine adjustment of the two resonance cavities. You hear the original sound recorded in the extremely noisy environment of the MRI scanner. Recording sound with MRI is tricky. The team in Freiburg developed highly specialized equipment for recording and filtering. Nevertheless, the sound is of course not HiFi. MRI footage with kind permission and many thanks to: University Medical Center Freiburg Medical Physics Dept. of Radiology & Institut for Musicians’ Medicine http://fim.mh-freiburg.de/ Prof. Dr. Bernhard Richter Prof. Dr. Dr. Jürgen Hennig Prof. Dr. Matthias Echternach 2015

Trailer “Der Obertonworkshop – mit Wolfgang Saus”

Trailer “Der Obertonworkshop – mit Wolfgang Saus”

Published on Nov 22, 2009

DVD Workshop für Obertonsingen mit Wolfgang Saus – http://oberton.org DVD bestellbar unter https://www.traumzeit-verlag.de/shop/… DVD Workshop on Overtone Singing with Wolfgang Saus – http://oberton.org You can order this DVD via https://www.traumzeit-verlag.de/shop/…

Love Song by WOLFGANG SAUS in Prague at the Overtone Festival Prague 2009

Love Song by WOLFGANG SAUS in Prague at the Overtone Festival Prague 2009

Published on Sep 8, 2009

Wolfgang Saus http://www.oberton.org sings his “Love Song” accompanied with a sansula (created by Peter Hokema http://www.hokema.de) live in Prague at the Overtone Festival Prague 2009 http://www.alikvotnifestival.cz/en_in…

Pachelbel’s Canon – Overtone Singing by WOLFGANG SAUS

Pachelbel’s Canon – Overtone Singing by WOLFGANG SAUS

Published on Oct 27, 2014

Wolfgang Saus sings two melodies at the same time: bass & soprano of Pachelbel’s Canon simultaneously. It’s a short demonstration of polyphonic overtone singing skills (sometimes referred to as throat singing) used in special new classical compositions. The interesting thing about doing this with overtone singing is: the melody was always hidden in the overtones of the bass voice. Many ancient composers intuitively created “harmonic” melodies out of overtones of a basso continuo. Painting: „Aachener Farbflügel-Altar” by Günther Beckers. More information: http://www.oberton.org/pachhelbel-kanon/