Overtone Singing

Overtones“OOOOOOOOWAAAAAAAA YEEEEEEEE”. I am in the chapel of a Tudor manor house. The man sitting cross-legged opposite me looks normal enough. The noise coming from his mouth, however, sounds anything but normal. “Weeeeeeeeyaaaaaawoooooooooo”. Imagine, if you will, a Buddhist monk singing in the shower. Then superimpose a high-frequency whine, like a radio tuning in to some sort of intergalactic static. “Woiiiieeeeeeeeeo”. The sound echoes around the chapel. This is emphatically not a medley of show tunes from the ’50s. This is the strange and wonderful world of Overtone Singing, and I’m here to learn how to do it for the good of body and soul. It’s singing, Jim. But not as we know it.

Big in Mongolia

I’ve never been known for my singing voice. It has, in fact, been unfavourable compared to a sheep in labour. Consequently, I’ve tended to keep it to myself. A spot of Gilbert and Sullivan in the bath. The odd Phil Collins number on the way to the golf club. So when Mrs Stress suggested over a pre-prandial vodka and tonic one evening that I might consider learning vocal techniques as a form of stress therapy, I was frankly sceptical. “Nonsense,” replied Mrs Stress. “Voice techniques are becoming more and more popular these days. Been practised by Mongolian herdsmen for centuries, apparently.” I pointed out that if I made a noise like a Mongolian herdsman anywhere round where we lived I’d probably be locked up. But my objections fell on deaf ears. Overtone Singing it was. And she knew just the chap to teach it.

Sound stuff

“You can think of Overtone Singing as mathematics manifested in sound,” says Rollin Rachele, author of The Overtone Singing Study Guide, writer and performer of three CDs of overton vocal music, and a man with a voice that appears to come from Alpha Centauri. “An overtone is a harmonic that sounds above a fundamental note,” he explains, with the easy confidence of a man who is on first name terms with quadratic equations. “Think of a whole guitar string vibrating. That’s the fundamental note. If you touch it in the middle, the two halves vibrate equally and you get a note twice as high. That’s the first overtone, at a ratio of two to one. The next harmonic is at three to one. And so it goes on. The ratios between the overtones are fixed, a mathematical system. If the fundamental note changes, they all move with it.”

These overtones, says Rollin, exist in every musical instrument — in every sound, in fact, including the sounds made by the vocal folds that produce the human voice. It’s these overtones that make it possible for the human voice to sing two different notes at the same time. “Your voice is making overtones all the time. What you have to do is to use your mouth and your tongue to filter them so you can hear them distinctly.” Rollin demonstrates: lips puckered in a widening 0, he sings, nasally, a single steady note. But as his mouth moves, a series of overtones resonate above the note, reaching higher and higher. He counts 20 of them for me. The upper ones may be of interest to passing bats. It’s an extraordinary sound. “Even passively listening to overtones seems to have a soothing effect,” he adds.

Inner Monk

But it’s no substitute for trying it yourself. “First,” says Rollin, “let’s hear your basic sound.” I sing a note. “I notice you’re a bit constricted. Somewhere in there, there’s a kink,” he says, diplomatically. Some tinkering with my plumbing ensues. “Pull your tongue back as far as it will go. Let me push your head around while you sing. Open up more. Relax.”
I sing one long note again. “Close your lips around the sound. Now open them, vertically. Think of the internal geometry of your mouth. Think round, Gothic cathedral.” I think round Gothic cathedral but the noise coming out is more like squat fast-food outlet. Nonetheless, bizarrely and rather wonderfully, I can begin to hear overtones in my voice. “Now,” says Rollin, “for the higher overtones you need to use your tongue. Push it forward in a ball, like you’re saying the word ‘worry’ in an American accent.” Worry is an easy word to say, especially as I am now making a sound like something out of Dr Who. Putting lip and tongue movements together in tiny increments, I begin to hear myself produce, crudely but quite clearly, the range of overtones up and down the scale. It’s not exactly like singing, more, as Rollin says, like tuning my voice.

“I think of it as realining yourself with universal ratios,” says Rollin. Two to one. Three to two. Four to three. The universe is created around those ratios. Overtones are a pure, exact mathematical system of cycles per second. If you are the source of the sound, and it’s vibrating through every part of your body, you’re in tune. And if you’re in tune, everything’s in tune. ”

Practice makes perfect

Taking my newly tuned body home, I find myself practising overtones. In the car. In the shower. In the street. I don’t know about universal ratios or the mathematics of creation, but there is something deeply satisfying about making this peculiar noise. Satisfying, relaxing, even uplifting. It may not be Phil Collins, but there’s something to this Overtone Singing. All together now: Aaaaaaawooooooweeeeeee. .. Oh, good evening, officer. Do you come across many Mongolian herdsmen in Sevenoaks?

Visit Rollin Rachele’s web site at


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