Bela Discovers Overtone Singing

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Bela Discovers Overtone Singing

Today on Bela Discovers we will learn that a singer can sing two notes at the same time. Or rather, that we are all singing many notes at the same time, but some of us have learned to make those other notes clearly audible.

Almost every sound around us has a series of what we call overtones: notes that exist within that sound and define it, but we can’t hear them. Well, we actually hear them – but we don’t know we do. They help us recognize whether we’re hearing a car’s horn, the voice of a neighbor who had a bad day, or a trumpet coming out of the radio.

Now, while we do indeed hear overtones all the time, they are not necessarily pinpointed to us like regular notes. Overtone singing is the art of bringing out those overtones to such an extent that the listener hears two distinguishable notes being sung simultaneously: the ‘normal’ note and one of its overtones. When you hear it for the first time, it’s a little hard to believe.

The piece below is performed by Kaigal-ool Khovalyg, and represents a tradition known as Khoomei, practiced in Mongolia, Tuva and neighboring countries. The low note that we hear is produced by yet another technique called throat singing, which allows the singer to sing extremly low pitches by inhaling instead of exhaling the note. That high pitch that floats above everything is the overtone! Learning how to control it so beautifully takes a lifetime.

If you didn’t grow up in this part of the world, chances are these aesthetics are new to you. A long time ago, when I heard my first central-Asian piece of music, I could could only think about one thing: how could it be so different? That became my favorite question in the world.

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