Composing for Overtone Singing
Tools for Composers
Composers will find here information about the “instrument” overtone singing and templates that simplify composing.
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Melody or Timbre?
For western overtone singing there are two fundamentally different compositional approaches: Melody overtones or timbre overtones.
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.
- The lowest singable overtone is either E5 or the 3rd harmonic, whichever is higher.
- 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.
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
Finding Fundamentals for an Overtone
Overtone Analyzer software allows you to easily find all the fundamental tones for any overtone: The undertone series of an overtone consists of all the fundamental tones that can be used to create that overtone. All undertones within the range of the desired pitch can be used as the fundamental for the target 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.
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.
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.
Tonlage & 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.