The Curious Musical Technique of Throat Singing

Every now and then, a singer who can sing two notes at the same time is reported in the news.

Musicians are always in awe of this particular event, because the majority of singing is thought to be done with just one note at a time. The ability to sing two seems strange, unnatural, or simply bizarre.

Avi Kaplan, the superb bass from Pentatonix used throat singing in The Lion Sleeps Tonight, bringing this lesser known technique to fans at the group’s 2014 concert at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theater.

As a result of his ability, numerous YouTube videos are now available with his performances of this art.

Another singer who has emerged into the public eye is Austrian Anna-Maria Hefele. She has created a demonstration video of her ability that has gone viral. Many critics refer to her sound as “otherworldly” or even “alien”. As a classically trained singer, she has been training in overtone singing since 2005.

Iconic singers of the past, including Janis Joplin and Karen Carpenter, were known for their varied abilities to use throat singing or overtone singing as part of their heightened musical expressiveness.

In the case of Joplin, her rendition of the popular standard Summertime is mentioned in many historical commentaries about her unique vocal style.

Carpenter is mentioned for her pure pitch, which resulted in natural overtones heard above her purely in-tune singing of the melodic line.

The practice of singing two notes at the same time is often attributed to the Mongolian art known as Khoomei.

The Mongolians call it Hooliin Chor, which means throat harmony. It is considered to be an art reflective of traditional culture and respected as a song form reserved for ritual ceremonies.

The singers who practice it are capable of singing a deep tone which drones low in the voice range while other higher tones are expressed in melodies above.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, inscribed it on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

The fascination with overtone singing in all of its variations includes true appreciation for the technical abilities that each singer has developed in order to be able to sing this way.

The fascination continues as many attribute healing qualities to the sounds and the practice. Monks around the world are known to sing in this way for religious activities.

The sense of mystery often surrounding their lifestyle has extended into the musical considerations of their chanting.

The Smithsonian identifies throat singing as “unique vocalization” and describes this chant form as being one of the oldest kinds of music in the world.

Three cultures, the Tuva from rural Russia, the Inuit from Northern Canada, and the Xhosa of Bantu origin from South Africa each have their own version the throat singing.

The music students and scholars ask the question “How is throat singing done?”. The technical answer is that throat singing is produced when a singer uses vocalization and resonance in the throat to produce two or more notes at the same time.

They are able to produce an array of harmonies by combining movements of their larynx, lips, velum, jaw and tongue.

These are precise combinations, often requiring decidedly non-precise relaxation throughout their bodies.

For this reason, some singers view the technique as a form of meditation. But, regardless of how and when it is sung, throat singing almost always creates dismay, curiosity and respect.