The purpose of this report is to discuss and compare the production of overtones in four traditions: Gregorian Chant, barbershop quartets, Tuvan throat-singing, and Tibetan Chant, which is technically similar in production to Tuvan throat-singing.  The paper commences with a discussion of the overtone (harmonic) series, followed by background information about each tradition  with explanations of how overtones are produced in each overtone singing style.  Next, I shall discuss Joachim-Ernst Berendt and his writings on overtones.  Finally, I shall discuss the meanings and cultural contexts of Gregorian chant, barbershop, Tuvan throat-singing, and Tibetan chant, with a considerable emphasis on Tuvan throat-singing.

The Overtone Series

     All musical sounds that we hear contain overtones, or tones that resonate in fixed relationships above a fundamental frequency.  It is these overtones that create tone color, and that help us to differentiate the sounds of a harpsichord and a piano, a trumpet and a trombone, or one voice and another. 

     The fixed relationship of overtones (partials) to the fundamental is called the overtone, or harmonic series.  In Western tradition, we credit Pythagoras with discovering the harmonic series; however, other peoples such as the Egyptians, Chinese, and Babylonians knew of harmonics before him (Walker 1990:66-67).  Pythagoras “discovered” that a monochord vibrates not only at its fundamental frequency, but also in partial segments - halves, thirds, fourths, etc., to a theoretically infinite degree.  Humans do not perceive overtones much past the fifteenth partial, because as overtones becomes higher, they become increasingly difficult to hear (Liles, et al 1989:5).

     Referring to plate 1, we note how the harmonic series follows a strict, undeviating pattern.  The first partial, corresponding to dividing Pythagoras’ monochord in halves, sounds an octave above the fundamental, resulting in a pitch ratio of 2:1.  The second partial, corresponding to dividing Pythagoras’ monochord in thirds, is a perfect fifth above the first partial, resulting in a pitch ratio of 2:3.  This series continues on ad infinitum, but for practical purposes the fifteenth partial is the last one that has any practical implications for most musics, as the intervals between overtones become smaller than semi-tones.  The fifteenth partial is four octaves above the fundamental.

Background and Overtone Production in Each Style

Gregorian Chant

     Gregorian Chant is named after Pope Gregory I (the Great), although historical sources indicate that he had little to do with the organization of the style (Le Mée 1994:48).  Chant is monophonic, and sung without accompaniment;  the text is that of sacred Latin texts.  Originally, Chant melodies were passed along orally; however, as the repertoire grew, notation of the music became the standard (Kamien 1992:88-89).

     The overtones produced in Gregorian Chant are the result of many forces working together.  First, the monks usually sing in the middle range of their voices, the baritone register.  In this register it is easier to produce and to hear the nominally perceptible range of the overtone series.  They also make use of what is known as “singer’s formant,” or the resonant frequencies in the range of 2,000-4,000 hz (Le Mée 1994:127); this is what gives trained singers the pleasant “buzz” when they sing (Walker 1990:31).  By utilizing this singer’s formant, and by singing in unison, the chanters are able to reinforce the natural harmonics, producing the overtones (Le Mée 1994:127).  In addition, the long melismatic lines on pure vowels help to bring out an awareness of the sounding of the overtones, as does the architecture of the church or cathedral in which the Chant is sung (Berendt, J. 1993:154).


     The origins of barbershop lie in the art of woodshedding, or the harmonic improvisation of three parts to a fixed melodic line (Snyder 1993:23).  Woodshedding is done purely for the enjoyment of the woodshedders; according to the Ancient Harmonious Society of Woodshedders (AHSOW), one of the purposes of woodshedding is the production of overtones  (Woodshedding Defined 1998:WWW).  Today, the aim of Barbershop is still the same, the production of “ringing” chords (ringing chords is the equivalent of producing overtones (Coffee 1998:interview)); however, the focus is now upon highly arranged music with no improvisation (Brandt 1993:35).

     Barbershop music is similar to Gregorian chant in that the overtones are produced by an interaction of voices; but in the case of barbershop, the four voices of the barbershop quartet sing on different pitches to reinforce the overtones.  The strongest overtones are produced on major/minor 7th chords in root position, as well as on a chord in which the bass sings on tonic, the baritone sings on the dominant, the lead doubles on the tonic above the baritone, and the tenor sings the major third (Coffee 1998:interview).  Examining the overtone series reveals why these are strong overtone producing chords.  In the case of the major/minor seventh chord in root position, the notes line up exactly with the overtone series if we start on the third partial: the chord is major, with the fourth note as the harmonic minor seventh.  By starting on the second partial, we obtain the other strong overtone chord as outlined above.  Thus, the strongest overtones are obtained when a barbershop chord is stacked in a position that follows the overtone series.

     Another reason that barbershop harmony is so tight, and why the chords ring often is because barbershop music uses just tuning, as opposed to the tempered tuning used in pianos and most other musical instruments (Liles, et al 1989:12).  Tempered tuning does not allow the chords to lock into the overtone scale as well as chords tuned to just tuning, which is in alignment with the overtone series.  The appearance of the ringing tones and the overtones is referred to as “expanded sound” in barbershop lingo (Liles, et al 1989:3)

Tuvan throat-singing

     Tuva lies just to the north of Mongolia in south-central Siberia.  A republic of the Russian Federation, Tuva has a population of 310,000; two thirds are Tuvan, and the other third is Russian.  Today many Tuvans live a modern life in houses and apartments, but some still maintain the former way of life: nomadic herding on the steppes, living in yurts (Van Deusen 1996:x).  In the past, the Tuvans were vassals of the Mongols and the Manchus (Alekseev, et al 1990:2). Tuva’s capital, Kyzyl, is located at the geographic center of Asia (Tuva:Voices... 1991:4).

     The initial reaction of some early researchers was not very favorable toward throat-singing.  In 1948, L. Lebedinski said It is unnatural for a human being to carry two voices simultaneously.  The timbres themselves of [khmoomei] are unnatural, as is the ostinato lower organ point, as well as the sounds of the upper register; the necessity of such lengthy breath-holding is unnatural too.         (Aksenov 1974:12)


Today, we would not make such statements, for how can a culture’s practices be unnatural, except from an ethnocentric view?  Throat-singing, or “khoomei” as it is called the Tuvans, is produced by complex manipulations of the mouth, throat, and breath mechanism.  According to a 1975 USSR Ministry of Culture study:

...the vocal cords of the Tuvinian people are anatomically the same as those of other people. But a previously unknown mechanism of vocal cords and larynx was discovered: when air is pressed out, two strictures form in the larynx.  Then one voice is produced normally by the vocal cords; the other voice originates when the gristle of larynx and epiglottis approach each other, cover the vocal cords and leave an opening in the middle of just 1 to 1.5 mm diameter.  By moving the tip of the tongue to and fro on the palate [of the mouth], the different harmonics originate.

                              (Tuva:Voices... 1991:2)


To add to the point, the tongue acts by creating different resonating chambers which amplify different overtones (Brown 1996). In addition, changing the shape of the lips and the size of the oral cavity by raising and lowering the jaw, and by changing the vowels, aids in the production of the overtones.

“Overtones Open the Door”

     The title of this section takes its name from Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s chapter on overtones in The Third Ear.  This book is written from the standpoint of a man who is deeply interested in Eastern thought, and often comes across as “New Age.”  Berendt does make some leaps of faith and some broad sweeping generalizations, but some of his points are interesting and are worthy of reflection in light of this report.

     In the opening section Berendt states that “It becomes strikingly apparent that vocal harmonics are almost always used in a spiritual context” (1988:154).  His referents are overtone singing traditions in Tibet, North India, Tuva, and of Buddhists of Japan and China.  While this may be true for the above named tribes, for Gregorian Chant, and in certain accounts of overtones in Tuvan shamanism, there are also the cases of overtones in Barbershop music, as well as the secular associations of overtones in the Tuvan khoomei tradition.

     Berendt also makes the point, perhaps valid to an extent, that in the “West,” musicians are primarily concerned with the fundamental [pitch], while in the “East” (East is not specifically defined) the overtones are the music.  To the Easterners the fundamentals are important, but they are only a means for obtaining the real music contained in the overtones (1998:157).  I believe that this generalization for the most part is true - in the European tradition, musicians rarely if ever think about overtones; more precisely, they are generally not taught to focus upon them.  All formally-trained singers strive to obtain brilliance by getting their voices to “ring” in the singer’s formant, but rarely is this expressed in such explicit terms.  On the other hand, I have a problem with Berendt’s generalization about “Eastern” music.  What defines Eastern music?  Do all Eastern musics really focus upon overtones as being the ‘real’ music?  Perhaps this is true, but the generalization without documentation is far too over-reaching.

     Further revealing Berendt’s bias toward Eastern thought (perhaps now I err by making generalizations on the concept of   ‘Eastern’) is the following statement: “It’s not just chance that almost all good teachers and singers of overtones also meditate.”  This is almost certainly true for Tibetan monks as well as for monks who sing Gregorian Chant; however, the evidence is scant or nonexistent to support this supposition when referring to Tuvan khoomei or barbershop.

     Another statement with which I take umbrage is thus:

[There is a] link between consciousness of overtones and devoutness - an experience so familiar to ethnomusicologists that it is almost a rule laying down that: The richer and more differentiated the overtones in a culture, the more profound and highly developed its spiritual potential.

                               (Berendt 1988:161-162)


This is a very loaded statement.  I suppose that I did not do sufficient research because I have not yet found any such rule, especially among accounts by ethnomusicologists, associating overtones almost exclusively with devoutness.  While this is most certainly true with Tibetan monks (Smith, et al 1967:1262), the evidence is not universal with respect to Gregorian Chant, and it is especially spotty as we shall see with Tuvan khoomei.  In the barbershop tradition, we currently find no evidence associating overtones with spirituality.  There is much else with which we could quibble in this statement, and  Berendt makes many other statements worth analyzing in an anthropological or ethnomusicological context; however, such an in depth analysis in out of the scope of this paper; the above is merely meant to serve as a jumping off point to examining each overtone singing tradition further.

Overtones in Four Vocal Traditions

Gregorian Chant

     It is apropos to note here that the associations drawn herein vis-à-vis overtones and Gregorian Chant are tentative.  The reason is that there are very few sources that relate Gregorian Chant and overtones; I was able to find but three (Berendt, Le Mée, Tuva: Voices...).  Berendt states that “Scholars point out that overtones were pursued - in a number of schools at least - much more consciously than in today’s Gregorian singing” (1988:154).  The researcher was unable to verify this, as Berendt does not cite any of these scholars or schools.  More research is needed to verify his statement.

     We can safely assert that Gregorian Chant is almost exclusively sung as an act of worship, at least in the context of the monastery (Le Mée 1994:116).  The overtones of Gregorian Chant are produced by perfectly in-tune unison singing (this is also true with organum, a relative of Chant in which the music is sung in parallel octaves - this effectively reinforces the overtone closest to the fundamental (Chanan 1994:63)).  Singers of Gregorian Chant often practice for up to four years before they sing with a group; by this time, they are able to sing the melismatic lines perfectly in-tune with the other chanters.  The chanters must breath in the same places, attend to vowel unity, and articulate consonants in a uniform fashion.  It is minute attention to these details which allows Gregorian Chant to resonate so well, and thus produce and reinforce overtones (Le Mée 1994:127).

     Le Mée does not claim that Gregorian Chant singing and the resultant overtones were designed for healing (1994:140), as does the Dalai Lama about Tibetan Chanting (Two New Hours 1995); however, Le Mée asserts that Gregorian Chant does produce the effect of balancing the mind, body, and emotions.  The proposed mechanism for this is interesting; the story follows.

     Circa 1960, in a monastery where Gregorian Chant had been sung for many, many centuries, the practice of Chant was discontinued as part of a modernization process by the Divine Council.  Soon after its discontinuation, the monks became much more tired, irritable, and prone to sickness than they had been when they were singing; they were unable to work on four hours of sleep as they had in the past.  When Chant was finally brought back late in the same decade, the general health of the monastery improved, and the monks were able to function as they once did with four hours of slumber (Le Mée 1994:123-125).

     Dr. Alfred Tomatis, author of The Conscious Ear, explains this in terms of an ear-brain mechanism.  According to Tomatis, the ear provides charge to the brain, which affects our well being.  In the case of the monks, they were not receiving he stimulation from the ear as they had before, and thus they fell ill and were mal-prepared to go about business as they had previously.  Tomatis asserts that there are two types of sounds - “discharge” sounds, which are low in frequency and fatigue the listener, and “charge” sounds, which are high in frequency and serve to give health and energy to the listener.

     As mentioned earlier, the monks utilize the singer’s formant, which produces overtones in the 2,000 - 4,000 Hz range.  The singer’s formant, according to Tomatis, is considered to be in the “charge” frequency range (the researcher has been unable to ascertain what the entire “charge” frequency range is); thus when the monks resumed their singing, they regained their energy (Le Mée 1994:126-127).

     The researcher has not been able to obtain a copy of The Conscious Ear;however, he considers Tomatis’ theory to be potentially valid.  The researcher has found through personal experience that after particularly intense singing sessions when a body would expected to be quite tired, he instead experienced a “high” or euphoria, a situation in which the energy level is greatly elevated.  More research is needed in this area, but Tomatis’ theory definitely has the potential to bear fruit.  If his theory is correct, it would explain 1) Why the monks lost energy after stopping singing, and then regained it after resuming, and 2) Why people often feel as if they are more energetic after listening to Gregorian Chant (Le Mée 1994:128).  For monks the spiritual aspect of Chant (which to them is prayer (Le Mée 1994:116)) is accentuated by the energy giving effects from the overtones; from an etic perspective this may explain why overtones in Chant are considered spiritual.


     Of all the styles of vocal overtone music analyzed in this paper, barbershop is the only one for a which an argument cannot currently be made for spiritual associations with overtones.  The researcher has not uncovered any sources associating barbershop singing as a spiritual experience, although it has often been described as a natural high or euphoric experience (Coffee 1998:interview, Stebbins 1996:67).  Chris Coffee, a barbershop singer for almost two years, states that music in general, when done well, can be described as a “spiritual” experience, but does not consider barbershop to be in the domain of spirituality, as does the Dalai Lama of Tibetan Chant.

     An important aspect of barbershop is a feeling of camaraderie or brotherhood (Coffee 1998:interview, Kaplan 1993:129).  This is mentioned frequently in the literature.  Coffee suggests that this is due to the excitement that every person in barbershop brings to their art; sharing this experience and sharing well sung music plays a large role in the development of this camaraderie.

     As mentioned earlier, the primary associations with overtones, or “ringing chords” as they are often called (Coffee 1998, Stebbins 1993:65), are those of euphoria.  The following quotes demonstrate this:

When you’re singing, the sound around you is incredible.  You feel like you’re being carried away with it...[When] the chords ring you feel like you’re being swallowed up by the music itself.

                                   (Stebbins 1996:64)


The enjoyment of barbershop singing is [a] powerful reward...It is both fun and enjoyable to be immersed in the resonance of unaccompanied four part harmony...                                                      (Stebbins 1996:65)


There is really no way to describe it, I guess.  The chords are so big and ringing, and they’re all around you as you sing yourself.  I feel this especially in the tags, as we are in the process of ending the more dramatic tunes...At any rate this is what keeps me in barbershop.

                                   (Stebbins 1996:67)


Chris Coffee notes that “resonance,” “ringing,” and “buzz” all refer to the process of sounding overtones (1998:interview).  Chris Coffee reinforces much of what the barbershoppers quoted above say.  He often feels an emotional high or euphoria after a particularly good performance or rehearsal, and also mentions that he experiences “goosebumps” during portions of singing when the overtones are particularly strong, for instance at resolutions of chords, and especially at the ends of tags (the coda of barbershop music, often the most exciting part of the piece).  Chris Coffee  says that overtones can theoretically sound on every chord in a barbershop piece, but it is generally at the resolutions and especially on a root position major/minor 7th chord and a 1-P5-1-M3 stack that the overtones are most noticeable (1998:interview).

     Obtaining the characteristic barbershop “ring” within an ensemble is predicated by obtaining the “ring” within each individual voice (Liles, et al 1989:7).  This is in the range of the singer’s formant, as mentioned in the discussion of Gregorian Chant.  If Tomatis’ theory is true, then the euphoria that barbershop singers and listeners enjoy (Chris Coffee, Researcher’s personal experience) may be a result of the positive charge that the singer’s formant provides to the ear.

Tuvan throat-singing

     Tuvan Throat-singing, or “khoomei” as it is often transliterated from the Tuvan, is associated with many Mongolian or Mongolian-influenced peoples of the region, such as the Altaians, Khakassians, and Bashkirians (Tuva: Voices... 1991:2, Shchurov, V. 1993:2).  Given the long occupation of the region by the Mongols, many ethnographers believe that the art of khoomei was passed onto the Tuvans from the Mongols approximately one thousand years ago (Shchurov 1993:2).

     It is the Tuvans, however, who have the most developed and widespread repertoire of throat-singing, with at least four basic styles and at least ten sub-styles (Aksenov, A.N. 1974:12; Alekseev, E, et al 1990:4-7; Tuva: Voices... 1991:7).  In general, Tuvan throat-singing is characterized by a droning fundamental pitch accompanied by one to three overtones.  The four primary styles are detailed below.


     Khoomei is not only the blanket term for all styles of Tuvan throat-singing (this custom was adopted in 1975 (Hamm, W. (1993:22)), but it is also the name of a distinct style.  Literally translated, khoomei means “throat” or “pharynx” (Tuva:Voices... 1991:7).  There do not seem to be any additional or underlying meanings marked by the khoomei style or by the word itself; the style is characterized by middle to high register overtones (Shchurov, V. 1993:22).


     The ezengileer style is similar to the sygyt style in timbre and sound production, but is unique in its asymmetrical rhythm, recalling the gallop of a horse (Alekseev, E., et al 1990:6).  Ezenglieer is traditionally performed while riding on horseback.  In translation, ezengileer means “stirupped” (A.N. Aksenov 1974:16).


     Sygyt, often translated simply as “whistle,” is marked by a high, whistling overtone, with the fundamental sung in the baritone register (Alekseev, E., et al 1990:5-6).  Sygyt can be further broken down into smaller components: “syg” means ‘to press or suppress’ and “yyt” means ‘voice’, thus “to press the voice” (Shchurov, V. 1993:4).  However, among other Turkish peoples (the Tuvan is is Turkish-based language), “sy-gyt,” “syg,” “sy-t,” and “yg” denote ceremonial lamentation or weeping (Shchurov, V. 1993:4).  The sound of overtones produced in sygyt are also compared to the flute or described as having a “glass” timbre.  Sygyt is often combined with texted music (Alekseev, E., et al 1990:6; Shchurov 1969:WWW).


     Kargyraa, unlike sygyt and ezenglieer, has a very low fundamental, usually in the vicinity of c2 (Aksenov, A.N. 1974:18).  Kargyraa is onomatopoeic in Tuvan for “to wheeze” or “to speak in a husky voice” (Alekseev, E., et al 1990:4).  Additionally, kargyraa breaks down into the following forms: “kargaar,” meaning ‘to curse, scold, be hoarse, chuckle, seethe,’ with a connotation of ‘to conjure;’ “yraa” means ‘song.’  Thus, kargyraa has the connotation of ‘song-conjuration’ (Shchurov, V. 1993:4).  Kargyraa sounds similar to the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks, to be discussed in the next section.  Also, a handful of Tuva researchers have associated the kargyraa style with playing of the “khomus,” or jew’s harp.  A.N. Aksenov remarks that “...the art of [kargyraa] is strikingly close both in musical style and in the character of the sound [of the khomus]” (1974:12).

     An important issue in the study of khoomei is its origins and associations: has it always been a primarily secular activity, or does it have sacred implications?  Thirty years ago, A.N. Aksenov wrote that

The Tuvins (sic) make no connection between throat-singing and shamanism.  They view it in purely every-day aesthetic terms and approximate it to the purely everyday art of playing on the khomus.



Although this view has permeated the view of Tuvan throat-singing for the preceding decades, we shall see that there are historical reasons for this, and that just now we are beginning to discover new information associating throat-singing with shamanism.

     Shamanism and Buddhist Lamanism were widely practiced in Tannu Tuva until 1944, when Tuva was annexed by the Soviet Union (Krueger 1977:9).  The Soviets were not sympathetic to the beliefs of the shamans or of the Lama priests; most were burned, persecuted, or put to death in work camps.  Buddhist monasteries were burned, and instruments, including the jew’s harps, were crushed (Hamm 1993:24).  Lamanism and shamanism became an underground activity practiced by fewer individuals than before; thus, the art of shamanism lost many traditions and some of the deeper understandings.  This is comparable to the loss of cultural knowledge when the populations of Native Americans were decimated by disease and colonialism.  Fear on the part of the populace is one of the reasons why the Tuvans reported to Aksenov that they did not associate throat-singing with shamanism (Kenin-Lopsan 1997:xx).

     Now, however, with the breakdown of the old Soviet Union and with much greater freedom for the Tuvan people, Lamanism and shamanism are experiencing a new fluorescence.  As indicated above, the words “sygyt” and “kargyraa” encode possible associations with shamanism.  This is further reinforced by Zoya Kyrgyz, who states that “[The] Tuvinian melodies sygyt, kargyraa, [and] khomus-playing were the expressive means of shamanic folklore” (1993:42).  This may also explain the association between kargyraa and the khomus.  Furthermore, Kyrgyz states that “Long sounding of such monotonous recitations [the fundamental in throat-singing] influences the nervous system,” indicating a healing aspect of throat-singing (1993:42-43).

     In a symposium held in 1995, Kenin-Lopsan shed new light on the function of sygyt in shamanic ritual:

While preparing for a shamanic ritual, the shaman has to throat-sing a sygyt piece... The symbolic essence of sygyt lies in the possibility for a shaman, with the sole help of sygyt, to urgently call his spirit-helpers... In the old times it was forbidden for the ordinary people to sing sygyt, as they could offend the shaman’s spirits.  This could result in a strong wind, storm, snowing, raining, or even a war.



This is an intriguing passage, as it not only indicates a specific purpose for the sygyt style, but also indicates that sygyt was a purely sacred style, with a cultural taboo for its singing outside the realm of shamanism.  This reflects a distinct difference in today’s perception of throat-singing, which does not mark any particular style as sacred; all are available for learning and singing as one chooses.

     Finally, Kira van Deusen discusses the relationship of spirituality and shamanism:

The spiritual function of Tuvan music is especially clear in relation to shamanism.  The shaman sets up a soundscape using the natural setting: bird calls, rustling breezes, voices of domestic animals, and various other sounds.

     Music operates in the shaman’s world in several ways.  Music helps the shaman and other participants in kamlanie to locate and enter the inner world, opening the inner spiritual ear.  Secondly, musical sounds call helping spirits and transports the shaman on the journey.  And thirdly, both the rhythm and timbre of the musical sound help help the patient through the effects of specific frequencies on the human body.



The main body van Deusen’s above passage reiterates and backs the work of Kenin-Lopsan and Kyrgyz, while the final sentence recalls the work of Tomatis.

     Even though more and more evidence is found associating throat-singing with shamanism, in the lives of ordinary Tuvans, throat-singing is claimed to be a primarily aesthetic activity unassociated with Lamanism or shamanism (Shchurov, V. 1993:3), although there may be traces of animism.  This may be due in part to the historical events discussed earlier; it also may be that secular and sacred throat-singing traditions developed side-by-side.

     Perhaps describing throat-singing as having a secular nature is incorrect; while it is not always performed in a shamanistic or Lamanistic setting, it does seem to have animistic qualities.  According to Ted Levin, a musicologist at Dartmouth College,

Ancient people probably were inspired to [throat sing] by the earthly pleasures and harsh rigors of nomadic life... Men were required to spend long hours wandering the plains on horseback with only their animals for company.  The highly personal songs they created were about nature, horses, love, and loneliness.

                                   (Quintavell 1994).


Additionally, many current throat-singers are inspired to sing overtones by their herding way of life.  Kaigal-ool Khovalyg says that “When I sing, I feel unity with nature” (Quintavell 1994), indicating an animistic belief.

     However, the issue of animism is not a cut-and-dried one.  While songs about nature may indicate a belief in animism, the songs could at the same time be merely a reflection of what the Tuvans are observing in their environment, thus the issue becomes: which came first, the chicken or the egg?  According to the Mongols, the practice of throat-singing was borne of the nomads imitating the sound of the whistling wind in a mountain area of western Mongolia (Broughton, S., et al 1994:458).  This would alone would not mark for animism; however, the Mongols believe that one can communicate with and understand nature by imitating it, indicating a belief in animism.  The literature is not explicit in whether or not the Tuvans have an animistic belief associated with throat-singing. More research needs to be done in this area; the researcher suggests at least two modes of inquiry: analyzing song texts, and discovering what the emic reasons for singing khoomei.

     Many accounts do, however, indicate functional reasons for throat-singing.  As throat-singing, outside of shamanism, is typically sung by herders who tend sheep by themselves, it may have served as simply a way to pass the time - “an internal need” (Brown 1996) (this does not take into account the commodification of throat-singing).  Additionally, some throat-singing herders note that throat-singing is a good method to send “greetings with [their] songs to [their] people who are staying in yurts far away from the pasture,” as sound carries well over the steppe (Shchurov 1969:WWW).  As mentioned earlier, the issue of the origins of throat-singing and associations with animism is a difficult one, with more research needed.  It may be that once all throat-singing had a shamanistic, Lamanistic, or animistic meaning; however, today the throat-singing style may be in the process of obtaining a purely aesthetic function, perhaps as a result of the industrialization of Tuva, the increased number of people abandoning traditional modes of living (e.g. the nomadic life in the “yurt,” or house tent) (Hamm 1993:25), and the commodification of throat-singing.

     Wrapping up the discussion of khoomei in Tuva, we turn briefly to the issue of women and throat-singing.  Until recently, men have dominated throat-singing, and women have been discouraged from participating.  It was thought that if a women sang khoomei, she would become infertile, or if pregnant, have a miscarriage (Alekseev 1990:4).  Many writers intimate that this taboo has existed for a long time; however, the taboo developed relatively recently, having gained currency approximately fifty years ago.  According to Bilchi-Maa, one of the last women to learn to throat-sing before the performance of khoomei by women became taboo, “In the past there were female [khoomei] performers who mastered all styles and substyles of [khoomei] as well as men did, if not better” (Kopka 1996:56-57).  There is scant evidence to explain why the singing of khoomei became taboo for women approximately fifty years ago, although the taboo may be attributable to Tuva’s “annexation” by the USSR in 1944.  This is the theory of the researcher, and needs further investigation to explain this interesting footnote to Tuvan throat-singing history.

Tibetan Chant

     Many ethnographers believe that the Tibetan monks were taught to throat-sing by the Tuvans, although the belief ranges from firm (Quintavell 1994) to ambivalent (Alekseev 1990:5).  That Tibetan Buddhist monks had a presence in Tuva until the early 1930’s suggests that this is the case (Alekseev 1990:5).  The evidence, however, is not incontrovertible.

     One aspect of the overtone-singing of the Tibetan Buddhist monks, especially those of the Gyütö and Gyümë monasteries (Alekseev 1990:5), is clear, and that is that it has a one-to-one spiritual connotation.  The style of throat-singing used by the Tibetan monks is very similar to that of the Tuvan kargyraa style, which is sometimes associated with shamanism (before Tuva was annexed by the USSR, there were many shamans who were also Buddhist lamas (Kopka 1996:23)).

     The overtone chants of the Tibetan monks were once considered secret as well as sacred; however, the Dalai Lama has sent the monks around the world on a “sacred mission.”  He believes that the overtones are powerful and possess a healing quality, and that enlightenment is possible through overtones, especially for Westerners, whom he considers to be living in turmoil (Two New Hours 1995:WWW).

     In an article exploring the cultural and physical mechanisms of the overtone-singing in a Gyütö monastery, Huston Smith makes the following commentary concerning the overtones:

The chordlike chanting effects appeared when the scripture chanting was punctuated by the holiest mantra of Tibetan Buddhism: Aum Mani Padme Hum... Aum and Hum...are evocative syllables, designed to evoke from utterer and hearer a distinctive experience that exceeds powerful aesthetic experience...[,that] fuses and heightens feelings of adoration, awe, and the significance of life and existence generally.


...One reason the syllables Aum and Hum evoke, in context, deep feelings is...because they are rich in overtones.  Overtones awaken numinous (divine) feelings because, sensed without being explicitly heard, they parallel in man’s hearing the relation in which the sacred stands to his life.  The object of the lama’s quest is to amplify life’s “overtones” that hint of a “more” that can be sensed but not seen; sensed but not said; heard but not explicitly.  Peaking to the point of distinguishable audibility, overtones that otherwise would be sensed but not explicitly heard, the lamas’ “chords” place...a magnifying glass over the aural symbolism embedded in the Aum-Hum mantra.

                             (Smith, et al 1967:1262)


     In an interesting parallel to the former Tuvan shamanic taboo of singing sygyt if the singer is not a shaman, Berendt notes that “Tibetan Tantric sources indicate the enormous energy at work in overtone singing.  Warnings are often issued against employment of such energy if consciousness is not aligned” (1988:160).

     Clearly, overtone chanting among the Tibetan monks is a spiritual experience.  That overtones in Gregorian Chant have spiritual meanings is recognized in a handful of texts but not dealt with in most others; overtones are considered in the realm of euphoria but not of spirituality in barbershop; and in Tuvan throat-singing the meanings of overtones are obfuscated by fifty years of Soviet control and by changes in traditional Tuvan culture.  Tibetan overtone singing, when compared to Gregorian Chant, barbershop, and Tuvan throat-singing, is the only style that unequivocally claims a spiritual underpinning.


     Each culture has unique manifestations of musical traditions, and the four discussed in this report are no different.  They do, however, share at least one aspect in common: the production of overtones in their respective vocal music styles.  Each tradition, too, has its own meanings and resultants from overtone singing: overtones in Gregorian Chant seem to be linked with spirituality, and even health and well being; barbershoppers experience a high or euphoria when overtones sound, and thus strive for their attainment; overtones in Tuvan khoomei have at least three different meanings - shamanistic, animistic, and secular (aesthetic); overtone chanting among Tibetan monks is inextricably linked to spirituality.

     The cultural meanings of overtones in these four cultures do intersect in some places, but they do not share an emic common ground in the above analysis.  In light of Tomatis’ research, however, they seems to be a line of research worth pursuing further in which the overtone singing traditions can be linked etically.  Tomatis claims that charge sounds, in the range of approximately 2,000 - 4,000 hertz, give energy to the brain, and provide energy and health along with peace and tranquility (Le Mée 1994:126,128).  With this in mind, the researcher thus draws parallels to each culture studied:

Gregorian Chant

     The issue of the monks who stopped singing Chant and lost their energy has already been discussed and serves to show that in the case of Gregorian Chant singers, the overtones produced by way of the singer’s formant (2,000 - 4,000 Hz) gave the monks their daily dose of energy and health.


     Barbershoppers also make extensive use of the Singer’s formant, which stresses the pitches in the range which sends “charge” energy to the brain.  This energy manifests itself as the “natural high” or “euphoria” that many barbershoppers claim when they sing or listen to ringing barbershop tunes.

Tuvan Throat-Singing

     Tuvan throat singers also claim healing effects (Kyrgyz 1993:42-43; Van Deusen 1996a:4) and a general sense of well-being when practicing khoomei.  The sygyt style utilizes a drone in the baritone register, often around g3 (≈192 Hz); in addition, the singer usually emphasizes the sixth through twelfth partials (Aksenov 1974:15), resulting in a range from 1152 Hz to 2304 Hz - the top of which is clearly in the range of the singer’s formant and thus in the “charge” energy range.

Tibetan Chant

     Tibetan Chant, according to the Dalai Lama, has a definite healing quality (Two New Hours 1995:WWW).   However, this style does not fit with charge energy idea as well as the other three styles; the style of overtone singing which the Tibetan monks utilize is a relative of the Tuvan kargyraa style, whose fundamental is usually in the vicinity of c2, or 64 Hz.  The top partial is typically the twelfth; even if the eighteenth is sounded, as some Tuvans can do (Tuva:Voices... 1991:7), the pitch reaches only 1,152 Hz - well below Tomatis’ “energy” sound range of 2,000 - 4,000 Hz, and thus making the connection between Tomatis’ theory and healing slightly more tenuous than the connection between Tomatis’ theory and the other three styles.

     Although there is an apparent anomaly with the Tomatis correlation drawn with the four styles above, there is enough intriguing evidence to warrant further investigation into the etic connection between “charge” sounds and health, well-being and tranquility in the four discussed styles.  This unexpected association is the result of the research of four very different, but equally fascinating cultures that uniquely utilize the natural harmonic series in their vocal music traditions.

























Plate 1


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