Undertone singing

A few weeks ago, we talked about overtone singing in preparation for a workshop with Lunatraktors, but while doing our research, we came across another fascinating extend vocal technique. While overtones are high ethereal notes that dance about an octave above the normal singing voice, undertones are their inverse.

Undertones are low, droning sounds that occur under the singer’s voice. These are normally produced through one of two methods. Firstly, we have the use of strohbass, also known as vocal fry, which you might remember from our article on the death growl. By slowing down the vibration of the vocal cords, the note produced becomes creakier, or fried, and produces the lowest register notes.
This technique can also draw on the tissue that sits above the vocal cords, the vestibular fold sometimes called False Vocal Cords. This tissue optimally vibrates at half the speed of the main vocal cords. For example, if you were producing a note of 440 Hertz, the false cords would vibrate at 220 Hertz simultaneously.

This is the technique used by singers to set world records for lowest notes produced by the human voice.

Actors will also use this technique, adding a growling layer to their speech when they wish to sound menacing. This is called diplophonia, and can sometimes occur due to vocal nodules or other vocal fold pathologies.

The second technique is kargyraa which is found in the Tuvan throat singing techniques (the same technique used by Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.) In this technique, rather than just using the tissue above the vocal cords, we also bring in the aryepiglottic folds. These tissues are thicker than the vocal cords and thus heavier. Because of this, they vibrate at a slower rate when given the same energy.

There are two types of Kargyraa: Dag and Xovu. The Dag style is deeper, while Xovu is raspier and sung at a higher pitch with more throat tension and less chest resonance

These techniques are also often used in beatboxing, as an alternative to bass notes. This is particularly useful when producing a further range of sound.

Despite how widespread these techniques are, there is much less study into undertones than overtones. Perhaps this is due to the potential for vocal damage or perhaps audiences simply prefer the ethereal, calming sounds of overtones. However, as throat singing continues to appear in popular culture, its surely a matter of time before studies catch up.