First published in Victory Review, August 2001.
Although few people are aware of this, it is possible to sing more than
one tone at a time — to, in effect, sing harmony with yourself. This
fact runs counter to most people's experiences, but nonetheless,
if you know how to do it, you can produce multiple tones with your voice.
The techniques required can take time to master, but the physics involved
is simple. It's based on the use of overtones, or harmonics, those
higher and less audible, but still very important, tones that contribute
to the overall "flavor" of your voice (or of any musical instrument,
for that matter). The fact is, whenever you sing a tone, there are also
a number of higher overtones "inside" that tone which are harmonically
related to the main pitch (or fundamental tone) that you're singing.
As I'll show you, you can physically "focus" your voice
so that one or more of those overtones are emphasized, creating the impression
that more than one voice is singing.
To focus your voice in this manner, there are two main concepts to work
with: placement, and formants. Both have to do with controlling acoustic
resonance in your body.
Placement deals with what part of your body is resonating the tone(s)
you're singing, i.e. your chest, your throat, your head, etc. For
our purposes, you want to use what's called "forward placement." That
is, you want your voice to resonate in the front of your face — in
your nose, cheekbones, and teeth. To learn to place your voice forward,
sing a long sustained tone, such as an "oo," preferably a higher
pitch in your vocal range, as these are more easily resonated in the head.
See if you can focus the tone in such a way that you begin to feel a buzzing
sensation in the front of your face. As you begin to feel it, emphasize
it further by increasing the forward focus of your tone. It's a phenomenon
better introduced in person than in writing, but if you play with it for
a while, you'll get the hang of it. (TIP: You can test whether you're
achieving good forward placement by touching your front teeth together
very slightly; if they buzz strongly against each other as you sing, you're
on the right track.)
By the way, singing with forward placement doesn't mean that the
rest of your body isn't also resonating and contributing to the sound
— it is. Forward placement just means that the "leading edge"
of your voice is resonating and buzzing in the front of your face. You
need this resonance because it means the higher harmonics are strong,
and ripe for being made stronger.
To make those harmonics stronger, we now turn to formants, the characteristic
frequencies and resonances of the different vowel sounds that we produce
when we talk or sing. How do we produce these different vowels? By changing
the shape of our mouths — both internally (through the relationship
between the tongue and the roof of the mouth) and externally (the size
and shape of the opening of the lips).
This is exactly the same mechanism we will use to sing overtones, but
we're going to slow the whole thing down so that we can minutely
control the changes in vocal resonance. Start by singing a long open tone,
and very gradually alter the vowel sound that you produce. For example,
start with an "oo" sound and very slowly "morph" it
into an "uh," then an "ah," than an "a,"
then an "ee," etc. Find those odd, in-between sounds halfway
between "ee" and "oo," or "ah" and "uh."
Explore all the subtle vowel gradations such as you find in words like
"wood," "car," and "oil." Don't just
read these exercises, try them for yourself — they're fun, and
quite ear-opening. As you experiment, notice the many ways in which you
use your tongue and lips, and how they contribute to the sound.
I find it easiest to produce overtones while singing a vowel somewhere
between "oo" and "ee" (another good one is a sound
halfway between "oh" and "ah"). Again, forward placement
is critical to create the focused "edge" that you need. When
you feel that vibrating edge, very slowly make subtle changes in the shape
and height of your tongue, and listen closely for the presence of high,
bell-like tones in your voice. Keep making slow, subtle changes in your
vowel sound and forward placement until you hear one of those tones. When
you do, focus your attention on it, and see if you can increase its intensity,
either by changing your tongue slightly and/or changing the shape/size
of your lip opening.
Learning these skills is always a process of trial and error. It's
important to pay close attention, listening for and emphasizing those
subtle physical changes that produce the desired results. Only such gradual
changes and concentrated attention will allow you to focus your voice
precisely enough to begin amplifying specific overtones.
It's best to do these experiments indoors rather than outdoors,
because the overtones are quickly carried away and lost in the open air.
The space you sing in can have little or no ambient reverberation, like
a car or small carpeted room, or it can be very "live," like
a tiled bathroom, large open living room, gymnasium or dance rehearsal
Once you've got the hang of it, you can find and amplify a nice
clear overtone for pretty much any vowel sound (though some are certainly
harder, such as long "a"). Once you've found one overtone,
if you keep your tongue position constant, you can produce other overtones
simply by changing the size and shape of your lip opening. As you cycle
up and down through the other overtones, it sounds much like the arpeggio
of a chord because, as I said earlier, the overtones are harmonically
related, both to the fundamental tone and to each other. Some singers
are so skilled at singing overtones that they can actually sing several
at once, enabling them to sing chords! One especially refined example
of this can be found in the vocal tradition known as Tuvan throat singing.
A contemporary example is the Harmonic Choir.
When I sing in this way, I often find myself singing longer and longer
tones, as my breath capacity increases and I lose myself in the experience.
Sometimes, I even feel as though I'm breathing in as I sing rather
than out — a very restful and meditative state. Others who are
listening often have the sensation that the overtones are not coming from
the singer, but from another direction entirely, sometimes from all directions
Give it a try and see what fascinating new sounds you can create. Enjoy!
Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
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is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm"