How to Sing Three Notes at the Same Timeby Bernard Dubreuil
/ June 1, 1997
1- Nomadic herders and
In Mongolia, in the Republic of
Touva, in certain monasteries of Tibet and among the Xhosa people of
South Africa, one can hear an amazing vocal technique in which one
singer can produce two stable notes at the same time while a third
note varies on top. In other words, one person can sing in chords
and can also provide a melody. The lowest note is so extremely low
it sounds hoarse and raucous, stretching the limits of the human
In Touva and Mongolia the
nomadic herders call it "Karguiraa" and they have been practicing it
for over a thousand years. The monks of the monastery of Gyütö call
it "Yang" style and the monks in Drepung Loseling call it "Zu-Kay".
The Xhosa women call it "Umngqokolo".
In Touva, it is said that
"Karguiraa" is an imitation of the female Bactrian camel calling out
for a lost calf. Indeed, the similarity is striking. The Gyütö monks
have been practicing ‘’Yang‘’ style since around 1470 A.D. when Je
Tsong Khapa founded the monastery. He was the originator of the
style, said to have been inspired by female deities called Chadruma.
It is not yet known when the Xhosa women started to sing
The reasons why the technique
is used differ widely. The nomadic herders say it helps them kill
time as they watch their flocks of sheep, yaks, reindeer and camels.
They sing odes to the mountains, to the creeks, to the beauty of
their land, to the many spirits surrounding them. For the Tibetan
monks, it is a way to cleanse themselves and commune with their
deities as they recite sacred texts. Xhosa women always sing in
groups and tell simple stories: this person is stingy and will not
share her home-made beer, that person is a thief, so the group
leader criticizes her ways. Unmgqokolo is also used at initiation
ceremonies, during rites of passage for boys and girls.
2 - How do they do it?
The vocal technique is based on
a very precise control over the vocal resonators so as to amplify
specific overtones. The vocal cords are used in a special way that
allows them to vibrate at two different frequencies at the same
time. Western voice specialists are often perplexed by this
In the Occidental tradition,
singing is the production of a complex but unique periodic
vibration. Overtones are amplified as a whole (not individually)
depending on the requirements of the text and of the musical score.
To analyze harmonic singing
westerners must overcome culture shock and develop a theoretical
framework. Western voice specialists were slow to accept that the
human voice can produce two different fundamental tones at will.
Our literature describes three
modes of vibration for the vocal cords: glottal fry, modal singing
(i.e. chest register) and falsetto. Chest and falsetto register are
quite well known. Here is how Hirano and Bless describe glottal fry:
‘’In glottal fry (creaky voice) the closed phase is long relative to
the entire period, and there are occasionally two open phases during
one vibratory cycle. Vocal fry is associated with a very low
fundamental frequency (approximately 30-75 Hz).’’ When developing a
classical singing voice, one goes through exercises meant to blend
modal singing and falsetto. But the literature gives no detailed
description of a mix between glottal fry and modal singing. Perhaps
this is because such a vocal mix was never needed or prized in the
3 - Combining glottal fry and
It is fairly easy to set the vocal
cords into a mode of vibration which has characteristics of both
modal singing and glottal fry. I call the result of this mix the
grommelo mode. In this mode, two
fundamental tones are always present and they are always one octave
When a singer sings in grommelo
mode, one perceives the lowest note
more than any other tone. It is natural to associate the lowest note
with modal singing and to conclude that these singers can sing
extremely low. In reality, the lowest note is always produced with
glottal fry and only the second note, one octave above, is produced
in modal singing. This explains how women and children (not just
trained adult monks) can sing notes which seem extremely low for
them. Because of this, even tenors can reach a B1, just as the monks
do. All they have to do is use their glottal fry, not their modal
singing voice, to reach it.
Among the many different styles
which can be sung in grommelo mode, the
Gyütö monks' style is the easiest to learn. It takes very little
air. The larynx is lowered as much as possible. The lips are rounded
and protruded. Relaxed (low adduction) vocal cords are necessary.
As a result, one gets a chord
of three different notes: 1) one fundamental tone at around 60 Hz,
2) a second fundamental tone, one octave above, at around 120 Hz, 3)
one amplified overtone, stable at about 600 Hz. The amplification
and selection of this overtone frequency is a result of the position
of the lips. When the overall vocal posture is correct the
identification of the elements in the chord is fairly
The Gyütö monks sing a B2 with
their normal voice, create a B1 with glottal fry and also resonate
D#4, two octaves and a major fifth above B2.
Many people have in fact
discovered and practiced the mix between normal voice and glottal
fry. Children, clowns, and artists use extended glottal fry or
grommelo mode for fun and profit. They often do it
unwittingly. In the soundtrack of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan,
for example, one may remember how the Indian chief greets everybody
with an ‘’How!’’ which is pure extended glottal fry. In the East,
the grommelo mode has long been at the core of a
very rich vocal tradition. In the West, so far, it has mostly been
used as a comic turn, but with the increasing popularity of world
music this may soon change.
Bernard Dubreuil studied
Mongolian overtone singing with Trân Quang Hai in Paris. He also
worked with Touvan artists Gennadi Tumat and Vladimir Mongush here
in Montreal. Over the past ten years he has spent quite a bit of
time singing, researching the subject or teaching it. Recently he
created ‘’Caravane formation’’ the company which runs his harmonic
studio (tel 285-2050, fax 285-1139). Every Wednesday morning, 7:00
to 9:00, he hosts a radio show at 5 FM, Radio Centre Ville, 102,3
MHz. He will give a one-day workshop on overtone singing and Tibetan
chant at Usine C Carbone 14 on Sunday June 8. To reserve, call Usine
C Carbone 14 at 521-4198. With Club Aventure, in August, Bernard
will guide a tour of Touva, meeting nomadic herders along the
Discographie sommaire /
Styles tibétains / Tibetan
- Style Zu-Kay : Sacred Tibetan
Chants, Monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery, Music and Arts
programs of America, 1991, CD-736. Rinchen Chogayal, le maître du
choeur nous étonne avec sa voix basse et ses harmoniques. Rinchen
Chogayal, the choir master has an astoundingly deep
- Style Yang: The Gyütö Monks,
Tibetan tantric choir, Windham Hill, 1987 CD WD 2001. Un vieux
classique! A precious classic!
- Deep In The Heart of Touva,
cowboy music from the wild east, Ellipsis Arts, 1996
Plusieurs pièces en style
Kharguiraa, dont une par un enfant de 11 ans et deux autres par un
bluesman américain imitant les artistes de Touva avec une voix
d'outre-tombe! Le livret d'accompagnement est une mine
d'informations et de photos de Touva.
There are several tracks in
Kharguiraa style, among which one sung by an 11-year old child, and
two by an American bluesman imitating his Touvan artist friends with
his naturally grumbling voice. The CD comes with a book. A great
- Jagarlant Altai, Ethic
Series, Pan Records, 1996. Une très belle anthologie, avec une
jacquette détaillée et très bien faite.
- Afrique du Sud, Le chant des
femmes Xhosa, The Ngqoko Women's Ensemble, VDE, CD 879, 1996.
L'excellent livret du CD est
écrit par le Prof. Dave Dargie, le « découvreur » de ces chanteuses.
Les plages 1 et 4 sont des exemples frappants de style Umngqokolo et
Descriptions and explanations
by Dave Dargie, the occidental field discoverer of the style, are
very precise and fascinating. Tracks #1 and #4 are excellent
examples of the style.