Composing for Overtone Singing

Tools for Composers

Composers will find here information about the “instrument” overtone singing and templates that simplify composing.

If questions remain unanswered, I will be happy to support. I am delighted with every commitment to this new instrument. Feel free to contact me.

Melody or Timbre?

For western overtone singing there are two fundamentally different compositional approaches: Melody overtones or timbre overtones.


Nori Jacoby – Jerusalem Dream – Scene II Perfumed with Myrrh (part)

Melodies are sung with overtone singing technique. They sound like a spherical mixture of glass harp and flute. The sound material is the natural harmonic series. Natural melodies have a calming and meditative effect.

Melody overtones are to be considered as a second instrument in composition. Both overtone and fundamental melodies simultaneously enable real polyphony – a singer can sing in a canon with himself. Flowing transitions into vowel overtones and normal singing are possible.


Harmonic Timbre Choir

Timbres are sung with vowel harmonics. It is little known that timbre can be composed down to the last detail. Vowel harmonics are the link between speech and overtone singing (see choral phonetics). Synchronous timbre shifts are a new stylistic element for choral music.

Interesting sound scape effects result when a choir sings several overtone melodies in a jumble. The effect is often perceived as a lively synthesizer sound (cf. Glenn Keiles’ film music to “The Life of Buddha”, or Bernat Vivancos’ “Obriu-me els llavis, Senyor”). Smooth transitions from speech to overtone singing are also possible.


Ambitus of singable overtones, different techniques.The range of overtone singing varies according to the singing technique. The NG technique is suitable for lower overtones, the L, R and J whistling techniques are suitable for higher overtones. There are two limits for overtone singing: The absolute limit of possible frequencies, and the relative limit of the position in the harmonic series.

Frequency limits: For physiological reasons, harmonics can only be sung from about A4 to D7 (approx. 440 to 2500 Hz). NG technique: approx. A4 to B5. L/R/J technique: approx. E5 to D7. The limits are set by the resonance frequencies, i.e. by the shape limitations of the vocal tract.

Limits of the harmonic series: At the same time only the harmonics 3 to 16 can be used for melodies. For most singers, clear overtone melodies are only possible up to the 12th harmonic, a few sing up to the 16th. In Tuwa and Mongolia, singers do not sing beyond the 13th harmonic. Depending on the desired timbre, partials up to 20 can also be sung, which then have a strong fundamental in the sound. The upward limitation is due to the narrow spacing of harmonics from 12 upwards. The 2nd and 1st harmonics are not heard as separate overtones.

The combination of both results in a specific overtone ambitus for each fundamental.

Ambitus of fundamentals

I use G2 as the lower limit for the fundamental voice. It is possible to sing clearly isolated overtones on G2. The upper limit is C5, on which a soprano can still sing the harmonics 3, 4 and 5. With G5 the tone is reached on which only the 3rd harmonic (D7) would be singable.

In theory, 7 overtones could be sung on C2, provided that the singer still applies enough pressure to his vocal cords in this low register to produce loud overtones. C2 is an extreme position that does not occur in any composition I know of.

Tessitura of Vocal Registers

The comfort zone, which many western overtone singers find pleasant to sing, is marked green. This range is suitable, for example, for choir compositions that can easily be performed by experienced amateur choirs. Professional singers can occasionally sing beyond the specified range. Since there are only a few professional overtone singers, more complex solo works are more likely to be adapted individually.

The ambitus of the overtones is almost the same for all registers. Women’s voices have a slightly shorter vocal tract and are about 2 to 3 semitones higher than men. However, the fundamental ranges usable for female overtone singing are much smaller than the normal singing range.

Tessitura of Overtone Singing

Rule of Thumb for Whistling Overtones

  1. The lowest singable overtone is either E5 or the 3rd harmonic, whichever is higher.
  2. The highest singable overtone is either D7 or the 16th harmonic, whichever is lower.

Singable Harmonics in Notes

An overview of all singable overtones in notes. From G2 in bass to C5 in soprano all overtones in L-, R-, and J-technique are notated, which are suitable for melody formation. The comfort range is green again.

All Singable Harmonics

Diagram of Overtones

This scheme summarizes all essential information about the relationship between singing pitch and overtone singing. For the singing notes (lower keyboard) from B1 to the F6, the overtone series can be read vertically upwards. The pitches that can be achieved with overtone singing are highlighted as grey (NG technique) or orange zones (L, R, J technique). Those overtones that lie in an overtone zone and simultaneously between the 3rd and 16th harmonic are well singable.

The Overtone Slide

The overtone slider is the predecessor of the “Overtone Analyzer/VoceVista Video” software. It consists of the piano scheme plus the harmonic slider. It contains all essential information about the range of overtone singing.

The piano scheme shows the pitch ranges of the different voice sections, the range of the formants (resonance frequencies of the vocal tract) and the range of the singable overtones (the range of the double resonances in the overtone technique). If you place the harmonic slider onto the piano scheme, you can immediately read off the singable overtones.

The harmonic slider represents the sound produced by the larynx, the chord of harmonics that make up the voice. This partial chord interacts with the resonances represented in the piano scheme. You place the fundamental note of the harmonic slider on the singing pitch and you can then read off the singable overtones.

Finding Fundamentals for an Overtone

Overtone Analyzer makes it extremely easy to find all fundamental tones for any overtone: The undertone series of an overtone contains all the fundamental tones with which this overtone can be produced. All undertones in the range of the desired pitch can be used as the keynote for the targeted overtone.

Example 1: Assuming that in a composition C6 should be sung as an overtone by a bass singer. Each undertone of C6 can be used as a fundamental if it is in the vocal range of the singer. The range of a bass is approximately between E2 and E4. There are the 4th to 13th subharmonics of the target overtone C6 within this range. This means that e3 can be sung as overtone by a bass from the fundamental notes E2, F2, F2#, G2#, A2#, C3, D3, F3, G3# or C4.

Example 2: Let us assume that in a composition C6 should be sung as overtone by a soprano. Each subharmonic of C6 can be used as a fundamental if it is within the singer’s range, the soprano having a range of about A3 to E6. There are the 2nd to 4th subharmonics of C6 within this range. The 2nd subharmonic is omitted as a possible fundamental because C6 as the 2nd partial would not be perceived (see section “Tonumfang” above). So only the fundamental notes C4 and F4 are available to the soprano for C6 as an overtone.

Find soprano fundamental notes to sing C6 as an overtone.

Crossing Borders

G#7 is the highest overtone I have heard. It was produced by the throat singing masters Hosoo and Steve Sklar. Throat singing sounds louder, higher and more compressed than western overtone singing. The upper limit of the 2nd formant is D7. Since the whistle overtones are produced by the double resonance of the 2nd and 3rd formant, a different technique is probably used by throat singers in the highest register. I suspect that a double resonance of the 3rd and 4th formants is produced.

Few experts reach the 24th harmonic. The interval to the 23rd is very narrow and is only about 2/3 of a semitone. If the 24th harmonics is to be sung and D7 is not to be exceeded, G2 (98 Hz) or lower must be selected as the fundamental. The harmonics 5 to 24 are then available (the 4th harmonic then is G4 which is below the lower overtone limit A4).

Women Only Use Half the Harmonic

Men and women have almost the same overtone range, because the vocal tract is much less different than the singing range. The voices are an octave apart on average. With high voices, the overtones are less dense, so there are fewer overtones available for overtone singing. Men and women both have a range of overtones from A4 to D7, but there are different numbers of overtones in this interval.

Comparison of the overtones of bass and soprano

While a soprano ( top ) can sing the overtones of the 2nd to 4th octave on D4, i.e. the harmonics 3 to 8, a bass/tenor ( bottom ) can sing the harmonics 3 to 16 on D3. In both cases the frequency range of the overtones is the same, i.e. approx. A4 to D7. But the tenor can sing twice as many overtones as the soprano, so he has a greater choice of steps. For melodies with narrow intervals sopranos have to change the fundamental more often.

Pitch & Ambitus

C2 as the fundamental: From C2, many overtones would be available, but from the 16th harmonic onwards the intervals become so narrow that they can hardly be separated. Since E5 is the lowest singable overtone (L-technique), it is only possible to sing upwards from the 10th harmonic of C2. But C2 is usually too low for normal singers to get enough sound pressure in the overtones.
A2 as the fundamental: On A you can already sing up to 11 partials.
C3 as the fundamental: On the middle position C3 of the tenor there are 12 possible notes.
C4 as the fundamental: The soprano on C4 can still sing 7 harmonics, but these are in the range of the larger intervals. The smallest singable interval in the harmonic series of C4 is the Pythagorean full tone between C7 and D7.

Singbare Obertöne auf verschiedenen Grundtönen.
5 replies
  1. Bazyli Brzoska says:

    Hi Wolfgang, sorry I didn’t get a notification that you replied to me. I will try to find the recording or record a new one when I have some time and send them to you. Just be prepared, I don’t make these notes sound too pretty. ;)
    I’m curious about what you mean by “D8 is above the 5th resonance frequency” – could you explain a little more?

    • Wolfgang says:

      Hi Bazyli, regarding your question about D8: overtone singing is based on the 2nd and 3rd resonant frequencies. The upper limit for this for men is about 2.7 kHz, which corresponds to E7. D8 has 4.7 kHz, so it is far above the usual overtone singing resonances, even above the resonances of the voice box itself. Therefore I am interested in the recordings, to see how you do it.

  2. Bazyli says:

    Hi Wolfgang! Your website is an amazing resource. Thank you so much for these resources.
    I was curious about the upper limits, and started fooling around with overtones on top of very high fundamentals – to my surprise the 5th harmonic on top of B4 is easy and loud (last one you list in your reference), but I was able to pull off a clear 8th and then a recognisable 9th and 10th. Would require a bit more training to sustain, but I got there – that’s as high as E8 (5391 Hz). And I’m definitely no master, I only started overtone singing a few months ago.

    When I tried starting from an even higher fundamental, D#5 (the highest comfortable pitch I could make today), I get a clear 6th harmonic (A#7), up to an 8 (D#8) that’s a bit faint. Note that at this point my mouth has to be so tiny, I’m basically keeping my teeth closed, tongue pressing against them, and moving the back part of the tongue towards the upper palate very slightly each time I go up to the next harmonic. Because it’s such a high fundamental, the overtones come through audibly. Not sure if there’s musical application for this, but it’s anatomically possible – give it a try!

    • Bazyli says:

      Just tried the opposite, lowest note and going up with overtones. It’s true that with normal throat position very high overtones are subdued by the fundamental, but when combined with the Khöömei throat tension they become much clearer. I was able to go up to around 24th – not sure how useful that is musically, I was able to sing melodies that include harmonics above 16th. It’s actually somewhat easier to sing, because the notes are spaced closer together so there is more to choose from .
      With Khöömei the overtones not only are louder in general, but there’s a shift around 20th when they become even stronger:

    • Wolfgang says:

      Hi Bazyli,
      thank you for your exciting contribution. A spectrogram or better still a sound file of your harmonics up to D8 would interest me very much. I am always looking for innovation. The highest harmonics I have heard so far from Khöömii masters go up to G#7. D8 is above the 5th resonance frequency and would therefore be controlled with previously unknown resonances. Could you send me recordings?

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