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Hannah Knorr
Sandra Guzman
Introduction to Psychoacoustics
3 May 2013
The Psychoacoustics of Harmonic Singing
The first time I heard harmonic singing, I was gobsmacked. Being a member of this
cynical age of technology, I honestly thought it was a trick. However, when finally faced with
live evidence of this phenomenon, I became endlessly fascinated with its mechanics. It could not
be physically possible for the human vocal chords to produce two clear pitches at the same time,
could it? It was not until psychoacoustics class and our lesson on pitch perception, specifically
the perception of complex pitches in human hearing, which I began to piece the possibility or
harmonic singing together. With this background knowledge in mind, I began a journey through
numerous professional sources with a handful of questions in mind. For one, what is the history
of this art? Then, how is harmonic singingor any singing for that matterphysically possible
and is it healthy to attempt? Finally, how does this connect to psychoacoustics and our perception
of complex pitches?
Depending upon which part of the world you are looking at, the origin, technique, and
timbre of singing may be slightly different. These variations in style are based on cultural
diversity such as climate, geography, language, racial physical feature, religion, musical
structure, and so on (Sakakibara, et al.). Where throat singing is concerned, the most prominent
examples exist in rural communities located around the Altai Mountains in Asia. The most
prominent of these groups are the throat singers of Tuva, a small Siberian culture. Their style
involves a low frequency drone with a moving line of higher frequencies in a sort of melody
above the drone. Initially, I had not expected to find a wide selection of scholarly sources on
these singers or their history. My preliminary searches mostly turned up biographies for current
groups; however, with some digging I managed to find an article that addressed nearly all the

questions I had about harmonic singings history. Although the modern history of harmonic
singing is a bit obscure, I managed to get some insight into the original history of this style.
According to this article, harmonic singing in this culture began when people first learned to
sing. They claim, The very rst throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicate natural sounds
whose timbres, or tonal colors, are rich in harmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing
winds (Edgerton, Levin). In my own choral adventures, I have encountered songs attempting to
duplicate nature sounds through percussive mediums such as whispering or snapping, but never
had I thought of actually manipulating my vocal timbre to make more literal sounds. Another
interesting point about the Tuvan style is how spiritually significant these sounds can be. I have
heard of religions that worship nature sights or spirits, but rarely the actual sounds. Overall, the
sources I encountered were able to offer theories on the origin of harmonic singing; however, I
wish I could have been able to find more recent historical events in this style. I managed to find a
few modern harmonic singers, yet very little on their own history besides being self-taught. I
wish more historical sources were available on this style other than the occasional anecdote
before a scientific how explanation.
Before this paper, I obviously took singing for granted. It seems like a natural step from
talking, yet I discovered singing requires a large amount of intuition and luck. Speaking is fairly
straightforward: when your lungs are holding air, it is released in puffs that cross vibrating vocals
chords to produce sound waves. Singing, however, employs four different mechanisms based
upon muscle tension, pressure, the shape of the larynx, and other physical attributes. (Garnier, et
al) In order to make our voices as efficient as possible, we must utilize vocal track resonances.
Normally, these resonances only boost lacking parts of a voices spectrum while maintaining a
single tone. Harmonic singing differs in that these singers can deliberately emphasize different
harmonics to the point that it seems to become a new separate pitch above the initial fundamental

drone. They generally do this through many hours of practice and using their articulators cause
different physical reactions in the throat. (Henrich, et al) I was able to find a few good sources
about harmonic singing, and the Henrich article even showed spectral maps of normal singing
versus harmonic singing, pointing out how many more resonance points appear on the harmonic
singers map. I also attempted to find any long term effects of singing harmonically, but no
credible sources where available. This leads me to wonder if anyone has ever done a long term
study of this style and how it can affect the voice over time. Thus, I assume harmonic singing is
like any other singing in that as long as one is using the proper technique, one will see very few
ill effects over time. I was also surprised by how many untenable sources there are on harmonic
singing. I am glad I stuck to professional journals for my information, as whenever I strayed, I
found many irregularities.
Finally, I attempted to connect the dots between harmonic singing and psychoacoustics.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any sources directly dealing with this phenomenon. The only
article I found with both subjects clearly stated was a man touting his use of a singing bowl
then linked it to a psychoacoustics lecture he guest attended where a film of overtone singers was
shown. His summary of the events was, a group of people are playing some whacky eastern
instruments and singing at a cliff face the point is sufficiently made, especially when the
unseen guy at the end brings out his overtone singing...like a boss, I might add (Heartly). So,
not a whole lot of credibility obviously. However, I did find some sites explaining the
psychoacoustics of complex pitches. Combining these with the spectral maps from the Henrich
article, I decided to draw the parallels on my own. Complex tones cause sensation at their
fundamental frequencyF-naught, even when this frequency is not actually present in the
original signal. We refer to this as the phenomenon of the missing fundamental. This occurs
because of our auditory system attempting to resolve all the harmonics of the signal into a single

unit. It then assumes a logical fundamental and plays it to our brains. (Cendolin, Delgutte) I
find this interesting because harmonic singers sort of do the opposite of this. They stress a single
harmonic so much that our auditory system no longer assumes it is a resolvable harmonic and
perceives it as a whole separate pitch. Looking at a spectral graph of a harmonic singer, one
easily notices the numerous resonant spikeshighly uncommon compared to normal singing.
The way these singers the gullibility of our hearing is simply amazing.
In summary, harmonic singing is a singing style that utilizes the resonances of the vocal
passage along with our perception of harmonic complex signals to produce a unique albeit
slightly strange music. Based upon my findings from credible sources, I believe there is more to
be explored in this style, especially over long terms.

References
Cendolin, L., & Delgutte, B. (2005). Pitch of Complex Tones: Rate-Place and Interspike Interval
Representations in the Auditory Nerve. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94(July), 347-362.
Retrieved May 14, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2094528/
Garnier, M., Smith, J., & Wolfe, J. (n.d.). Voice Acoustics: an introduction to the science of
speech and singing. School of Physics at UNSW, Sydney, Australia. Retrieved May 14,
2013, from http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/voice.html
Heatley, A. (2012, February 13). Ethereal particle connections, psychoacoustics and my singing
bowl.. Esoteric Online. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from
http://www.esotericonline.net/profiles/blogs/ethereal-particle-connections-

psychoacoustics-and-my-singing-bowl
Henrich, N., Smith, J., & Wolfe, J. (n.d.). Harmonic singing. School of Physics at UNSW, Sydney,
Australia. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/xoomi.html
Levin, T., & Edgerton, M. (1999). The Throat-Singers of Tuva. Scientific American, September,
80-87. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from
http://www.uvm.edu/~outreach/ThroatSingingArticle.pdf
Sakakibara, K., Konishi, T., Murano, E., Imagawa, H., Kumada, M., Kondo, K., et al. (n.d.). First
Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics

-Observation of Laryngeal Movements

for Throat Singing-. Acoustics.org. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from


http://www.acoustics.org/press/144th/Sakakibara.htm
Wolfe, J. (n.d.). Sopranos: resonance tuning and vowel changes. School of Physics at UNSW,
Sydney, Australia. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from
http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/soprane.html