Also known by the term Harmonic Singing, this is a special vocal technique originating in the Altai – Tuvan – Mongolian region which allows the singer to produce more than one musical note at once. The voice of each one of us (even whilst speaking) produce a range of overtones or harmonics simultaneously. The skill of the overtone singer lies in being able to focus upon each single one of these several overtones at will. The indigenous use of this extraordinary vocal technique resides in producing a basic drone with a melody (created out of the range of overtones – commonly 1st to the 12th) surfing above. These melodies are most often taken from popular songs – e.g. nowadays, after contact with the West, a popular tune to use is “Amazing Grace.” However, there exist a range of such vocal techniques in Mongolia:
uruulyn / labial xoomii
tagnain / palatal xoomii
xamryn / nasal xoomii
bagalzuuryn, xooloin / glottal, throat xoomii
tseejiin xondiin, xevliin / chest cavity, stomach xoomii
turlegt or xosmoljin xoomii / xoomii combined with long song
However, other regions have other terms. For instance, the Tuvans give three basic categories:
sygyt: an imitation of the gentle breezes of summer, the songs of birds.
hoomei: wind swirling among rocks
kargyraa: howling winds of winter; the plaintive cries of a mother camel after losing her calf.
I believe that this form of singing has its origins in shamanism. This being the region where shamanism is said to have begun at the time of the last Ice Age many thousands of years ago. Whilst nowadays the melodies are from familiar tunes, I believe that the first use of this technique was to give expression to transcendent states of consciousness and to act as a vehicle for expressing realities that go beyond everyday speech. I myself use it this way in my own work.
The Mongolian folklore has a beautiful story (Dr. Carole Pegg also relates this story in her book mentioned below) regarding its origins: Rooted in its shamanistic past, the people of the Chandman’ sum believe that xoomii originated there and they explain its origin in several ways. They claim that the unusual features of nature present in their mountains, lakes, rivers and birds together with the intrinsic link to the magical or supernatural gave rise to this style of singing. Chandman sum is surrounded on three sides by mountains and lakes. Its western border is formed by Lake Xar Us Nuur in the north and two high mountain ranges, Zuun Jargalantyn Nuruu and Xuremtiin Nuruu. The eastern border is formed by two lakes, Xar Nuur and Dargin Nuur. The two largest lakes, Xar Us Nuur and Xar Nuur, are connected in the north by a much smaller lake, Dalai Nuur, and by a river called Chono Xaraix. To the south lies semi-desert. Certain birds also feature in this story and chief amongst these is the usny buxl bittern. This bird buries its head beneath the surface of the lake and then sings. Xhoomii is sometimes referred to as “bird’s echo.” These people also stress that the sounds heard in the mountains have a special quality. For instance, Mount Jargalant is said to be able to ‘hold’ the very strong winds which come from the west before releasing them into the steppe below. Sometimes the wind is held for four to five hours whilst at other times the duration is said to last for three days. This gives warning to the people living in that area. During this time the mountain drones or makes a hollow sound. Older people from the area credit the same power to the lakes saying that Mount Jargalant and Lake Xar Us Nuur “attract and digest the sound of the wind”. Some even speak of a musical communication existing between these two. In this region there are many waterfalls and rivers that produce different combinations of sounds depending upon the type of stones over which they run. A particular river, the River Erv, is credited with magical properties and also as being the origin of this style of singing.
The first written records of this style of singing come from the sixteenth century. A few recordings of this vocal technique from Mongolia were released in the West during the early 70s but David Hykes from New York is generally credited as being the first Westerner to actually perform this technique within a musical context. He went on to form The Harmonic Choir of New York under his direction. They met regularly at the Church of St. John the Divine and produced three albums and since then David Hykes has largely followed a solo career albeit accompanied by various other musicians. David experimented with numerous innovations including changing the fundamental (moveable drone), reversing the usual process, introducing text, and others especially in his works produced with the Harmonic Choir of New York.
Overtone singing works best in a friendly acoustic environment. David Hykes and others have recorded at Le Thoronet where the overtones can ring out their lives in the accommodating acoustic space. It is precisely in exploring that which ‘lives’ in the ‘space’ between notes that the spirit of overtone singing resides. It is also necessary to possess a good voice too! – from which to begin the exploration.
There are also a number of schools approximating this vocal style here in the West. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen created a piece in the 60s called ‘Stimmung’ for a form of overtone singing which relied more on the lips. In producing the true hoomii sound lips, tongue, diaphragm, abdominal muscles and other body parts all come into play. In Mongolia the best singers are also often the best wrestlers! It does require considerable strength to perform the technique in a more powerful manner than the ‘easy’ or ‘kind’ Western technique first advocated by Stockhausen. Some Western practitioners state that this ‘kinder’ (or ‘easier’) way has a more healing effect upon the listener and a less damaging effect upon their own vocal chords.
You may wish to listen to a snippet from the CD RAINBOW HEALING PEACE
There are three voices here – Bill Martin, Susan Nares & Frank Perry.
There are no electronics used as it was recorded in a somewhat resonant space.
The overtones follow a Law of Nature known to the ancients. In fact, Pythagoras was able to introduce the rationale of mathematics into the laws of music thanks to the Overtone Law. Whilst the law of overtones exists within the classical stream in the form of timbre, many Western instruments are designed to cut down on these overtones for the sake of ‘harmony’. The human voice, strings and conical bore instruments all follow this law – it is unchangeable. The world of bells and drums does not conform to this overtone law but have laws of their own. They produce more complex overtone series. But the human voice producing overtones from one fundamental has no choice but to follow the law e.g. Fundamental (drone), Octave, Fifth, Fourth, a series of Thirds followed by a series of Seconds. The general unfoldment being one of moving by degrees into ever smaller intervals. This is what is known as a ‘mathematical progression’ in music. For instance, returning to Pythagoras, the fundamental would be produced by the whole length of the string. The first overtone (the Octave) by dividing the string in half (which doubles the speed – as in the table below e.g. C1 = 130cps C2 = 260cps – measured in Cycles Per Second), the next overtone (a Fifth) by dividing the string into three parts, and the next overtone (the Fourth) by dividing the string into four and so on. Pythagoras would have demonstrated this, as we do today, on what he termed the Monochord. This was one string with a moveable bridge which served to divide the string into its several (ratios) lengths in order to sound the new tone and so demonstrate the overtone law and its decreasing intervals.
We could represent the arithmetic sequence of overtones in the following table:
|8 C 1040 cps||16 C 2080 cps|
|7 B 910 cps||15 B 1950 cps|
|6 G 780 cps||14 B 1820 cps|
|5 E 650 cps||13 A 1690 cps|
|4 C 520 cps||12 G 1560 cps|
|3 G 390 cps||11 F 1430 cps|
|2 C 260 cps||10 E 1360 cps|
|1 C 130 cps||9 D 1170 cps|
As a matter of fact, the musical scales of the world are derived from relationships between these several overtones. For instance, our Western scale is taken from the first two overtones; the Octave and the Fifth. By ‘Geometric Progression’ we find that Twelve such Fifths take us to just over Seven octaves (the difference being known as a ‘Pythagorean coma’). We then reduce these twelve tones down into one octave to provide us with our twelve-notes-to-the-octave scale. It might seem confusing that the Third overtone is called a Fifth but the reason for this is because it is the fifth note on the White keys of a piano (in the diatonic Major scale) up from the note C – in which Key the piano is laid out – that gives us our interval of the Fifth i.e. from C to G. However, since the time of Bach we have used alternative tuning systems in order to facilitate modulation (moving between several keys during one piece of music) and in the twentieth century this pathway has evolved into what is termed Equal Temperament whereby all of the intervals that make up our octave (except the octave itself) are out-of-tune with those produced by the Law of Overtones or Nature.
This is a more complex subject than is intended to be discussed in this short article, but we can state that Equal Temperament consists of dividing the Octave up into twelve exactly equal intervals. Prior to Bach’s time, a keyboard instrument would be tuned for playing in one key and, if a performer were to move to playing in another key upon this self-same instrument, then certain of the musical intervals within that new key would sound out of tune and increasingly so as we moved through the keys. It became a case of sacrificing certain intervals for the sake of others e.g. the Third. For a fuller explanation of this complex subject visit Kylie Gann’s site and his article on Just Intonation.
Some modern composers have tried to create scales more in-tune with this Natural Law of Overtones. The Californian composer Harry Partch (1901-1976 – for more on Partch and his music is a case in point for he wrote an entire book, on this issue of Just Intonation, called ‘Genesis of a Music.’ Several composers have tried experimenting with alternative tunings leading to, in the case of Partch, his so-called 43-tones-to-the-octave (in place of our normal 12 tones) and others experimenting with 52 or even 72 notes to the octave. Overtone singing can consequently be seen as a way of producing musical forms arising organically from within the Laws of Nature and, therefore, potentially more healing and harmonious to the human being. Listening to a Major Triad in Just Intonation, as compared to a Major Triad in Equal Temperament, is an interesting experience – for we find that in the case of the latter we have three unrelated notes forced into co-existing together whilst with the former it is more of the case that three related musical notes combine together harmoniously and reinforce one another forming a relationship that communicates far more of a sense of wholeness and unity. This echoes within the soul of the listener something of the spiritual philosophy of wholeness that is founded upon an interrelatedness and interconnectedness between the disparate factors of our complex modern lives and enshrines a sense of the Human Family.
© Copyright 2001 by Frank Perry. All rights reserved. Slightly revised 2004
© Frank Perry, 2001. All of these articles are copyright. They may individually be copied and shared with others in a spirit of knowledge-sharing and fair play, but they may not be sold, printed or reproduced in quantity or changed in form without the permission of the copyright holder. None of this material may be reproduced in workshops or lectures of any kind unless quotes are credited or properly attributed.
Magazine and other editors may e-mail me for permission to reprint. E-mail:
OVERTONE SINGING Mark C, van Tongeren (2002)
Healing Sounds: The Power of Harmonics. Jonathan Goldman (1992)
Mongolian Music, Dance & Oral Narrative (with CD). Carole Pegg (2001) ONLY a chapter on Mongolian Overtone singing.
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