The wonderful world of overtone singing

Last week on this blog, we spoke about beatboxing. In particular, we were really impressed by the ability to make more than one noise at a time. Imagine if singers could do the same…

This practice is called overtone singing and not only is it an amazing skill, it’s becoming more talked about.

A talented singer is able to produce a two notes (or even more): firstly a low base or fundamental note is sung before a second, whistle-like note appears about two octaves above the base note.

This occurs due to a mix of tongue placement and the shape of the mouth and even though it seems like a magical talent only available to a very few, it’s actually a skill that nearly anyone can learn and it’s all thanks to physics.

Overtone singing is possible thanks to a concept called resonance. Everything is vibrating all the time, and even though this sounds like new age theory, it’s a scientific fact. When the natural frequency of an object is played, the object will begin to vibrate faster and faster as the new sound waves are added to the existing vibrations of the object.

This is exactly how some singers can shatter glass with their voice. They find the natural frequency of the glass and sing that note. The vibrations in the object will build up until there is simply too much energy in the glass and it violently forces itself apart. Don’t worry though, our bodies are much more flexible than a glass so there’s no danger of your voice suddenly disintegrating your body!

Many cultures have drawn on overtone singing, in Mongolia, Southern Siberia and Central Asia. These different cultures have created different variations of the technique but the underlying principles remain the same.
Overtones are produced all the time, in regular speech, but the skill of an overtone singer lies in being able to isolate and amplify those overtones and manipulate them. This is done by manoeuvring the head, throat, mouth and tongue in order to create resonance. In most examples of overtone singing, you will place the tongue against the premolar teeth to create two chambers in the mouth that each resonate differently.

If overtones have piqued your fancy, our fearless leader Emily Peasgood is partnering with Margate’s premier broken folk duo The Lunatraktors to deliver a workshop on overtone singing on Wednesday 3rd April at the en Choir rehearsal in Whitstable.