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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 2, No. 9

How to Sing Three Notes at the Same Time

by Bernard Dubreuil / June 1, 1997

Version française...

1- Nomadic herders and Tibetan monks

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 voice.

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 ‘’Umngqokolo’’.

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 technique.

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 West.

3 - Combining glottal fry and modal singing

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 apart.

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 straightforward.

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 way.

Discographie sommaire / Discography

Styles tibétains / Tibetan Styles:

- 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 voice.

- Style Yang: The Gyütö Monks, Tibetan tantric choir, Windham Hill, 1987 CD WD 2001. Un vieux classique! A precious classic!

Style Kharguiraa:

- 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 buy.

- Jagarlant Altai, Ethic Series, Pan Records, 1996. Une très belle anthologie, avec une jacquette détaillée et très bien faite.

Style Umngqokolo:

- 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 Unmgqokolo ngomqangi.

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.

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