Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston's Casebook | Trailer – BBC Two

At the moment (until 4.3.2018 was announced, but so far it still works) you download the German version of the BBC documentation in HD from the ZDF-Mediathek with Mediathekview (Wunder der Anatomie – Krankenakte X – Grenzfälle der Wissenschaft). The link only works in Germany.

Surgeon Gabriel Weston has spent many years studying the functioning of the human body. In the new series “Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook” she introduces people from all over the world with the most unusual bodies and abilities.

Also the unique body control required for overtone singing is illuminated (from 11:11 min.). In November 2016, a film team from the BBC Science Production, Emma Hatherley (production, direction) and Alexis Smith, shot this part of the series at the Institute for Musician Medicine at the University Hospital of Freiburg with Prof. Bernhard Richter and myself, Wolfgang Saus.

Impressive live images from the magnetic resonance tomograph show the complex motions in the mouth and throat, which take place during overtone singing. Interviews explain the scientific background of the phenomenon.

BBC Seite der Serie

This hearing test (it takes only 3:20 minutes) opens your hearing to a second listening level that is perceived by only about 5% of the musicians: The perception of overtones. This ability is essential for learning overtone singing. And it is a prerequisite for the practical implementation of singing phonetic and choral phonetics.

At the university hospital Heidelberg Dr. Peter Schneider and his working group found in 2004 that people perceive sounds differently, according to which half of the brain processes the sound. They developed the Heidelberg hearing test to find out whether someone perceives fundamental tones or overtones in a sound. →Here you can take the Heidelberg test

My hearing test is different. It tests whether someone recognizes more vowels or overtones in a sound. In the second part, it teaches how to shift the threshold between vocal and overtone perception in favor of overtones.

Saus’s Hearing Test

Listen to the first sound sample in a relaxed way. I sing a series of meaningless syllables on a single note. If you recognize a classic melody in it, then congratulations, you have a pronounced overtone hearing and belong to the 5% of people who have this perception spontaneously.

Sound sample 1

If you can’t hear the tune, don’t worry. At the end of the hearing test you will hear the overtones.

In the following sound examples, I will extract more and more sound information from the voice, which is interpreted by the brain as part of speech. Next, I sing the syllables by changing only the 2nd vocal formant. I hold the first one in a lower position, motionless. The syllables then only contain /ʉ/ sounds, the melody becomes clearer for some now.

Sound sample 2

If the tune’s clear now, congratulations. Here the melody is heard by 20-30%. Maybe you just suspect the melody and don’t know if you’re just imagining it. Trust the imagination. Your hearing picks up the melody. Only a filter in your consciousness says that the information is not important. Speech recognition is much more important.

I want to reveal the melody at this point: it is “Ode to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. In the next example I whistle it tonelessly. Thus your brain will learn better what to listen to. Listen to sound sample 3 and then to sound sample 2 afterwards.

Sound sample 3

Does it work better? If not, listen to the next sample.

In sound sample 4 I leave out the consonants. Now the Broca Centre, the brain region for speech recognition, has nothing left to do and passes the hearing attention on to other regions.

Sound sample 4

Now about 60-80% hear the melody clearly. If you don’t hear the melody here, you are probably classified as a fundamental listener in the Heidelberg test. This has nothing to do with musicality. You are in the company of some of the best flutists, percussionists and pianists.

In the next example I completely alienate the sound. I lower the third formant by two octaves with a special tongue position until it has the same frequency as the second. This results in a double resonance, which does not occur in the German language.

Sound sample 5

The technique is called overtone singing. The ear now lacks information from the familiar voice sound, and individual partial tones become so loud due to the double resonance that the brain separates the sounds and communicates them to the consciousness as two separate tones.

You will probably hear a flute-like melody together with the voice now. Overtone singing is an acoustic illusion. Because in reality you hear more than 70 partials. Physical reality and perception seldom coincide.

In the last example I walk the whole way backwards to the beginning. Try to keep the focus on the melody all the time. Listen to sound sample 6 more often, it trains the overtone hearing and makes you feel safer in the perception of the sound details.

Sound sample 6

Our reality is created within ourselves. And it can be changed.

On ConcertHotels you will find a test that measures your precision of rhythm feeling. Take the test first. Then try singing overtones while you’re doing the test and write your results in the comment below if you like. I look forward to it.

Enlarged right auditory cortex, Wolfgang Saus.

Overtones are usually sung slowly and meditatively, rarely fast and rhythmically (there are exceptions). Overtone singers process sound more in the right hemisphere, drummers more in the left, says Dr. Schneider from Heidelberg University Hospital. Test here how your brain processes sounds.

Is that one of the reasons? An interesting question that has not yet been examined. I suspect that focusing on overtones, at least for the untrained, draws attention away from rhythm.

In my advanced courses, I experience that at first the intonation and sound quality of the keynote suffers when the focus goes entirely to the overtones. Conversely, concentrating on the keynote causes a poorer overtone quality or even complete loss of control of overtone singing. I can immediately recognize from the sound what a student is concentrating on.

If you want to sing polyphonic overtones, i. e. a fundamental melody and an independent overtone melody at the same time, then both tones must receive equal attention. I have developed special exercises for this purpose, which improve the clean control of both notes after a few hours. It would be interesting to examine whether these exercises have an effect on the feeling of rhythm. I will do the rhythm test in my courses as a before-and-after comparison. I’m curious to see what happens.

What are your experiences with rhythm and overtones?


“Ode to Joy”, overtone singing by Wolfgang Saus inside an MRI.

This spectacular dynamic MRI video shows how the tongue moves during overtone singing. The melody of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is created by double resonances which are shaped by the tongue in the mouth and throat. Overtone singing is based on the combination of the second and third resonance frequencies of the vocal tract on a single frequency to increase the volume of a single overtone from the vocal sound.

The second resonance frequency is controlled by the base of the tongue along with the epiglottis. The third resonance frequency is regulated by the space under the tongue, which is larger than it appears in the video, because it also spreads to the side of the tongue frenulum, which covers the space in the image. Overtone singing requires constant fine tuning of the two resonance chambers.

It is not easy to sing in the very loud magnetic resonance tomograph and even record the sound. The noise level is so high that I had to wear hearing protection and couldn’t hear my own overtones. I had to sing by feeling. That the right melody came out is spectacular in itself. It shows that it is possible to develop a body feeling for the exact pitch of the resonances that also works without acoustic control through the ear.

The team in Freiburg has developed highly specialized equipment for recording and filtering. Of course the sound is not HiFi.

MRT footage with kind permission and a big thank you to:
University Hospital Freiburg
Clinic for Radiology – Medical Physics & Institute for Music Medicine
Prof. Dr. Bernhard Richter
Prof. Dr. Dr. Jürgen Hennig
Prof. Dr. Matthias Echternach
(c) 2015

Do now also the new hearing test by Wolfgang Saus!

The effect of overtones in the brain seems to be of great interest. That’s why I would like to introduce the corresponding hearing test here. Dr. Schneider, the head of the study, provides on his website a hearing test developed by him, with which I have been testing my Masterclass students for years in order to develop an individual and optimal learning strategy for everyone.

This short test plays a series of tone pairs in which you are asked to decide spontaneously whether the second sound feels higher or lower than the first. At the end you get an evaluation of the degree to which you are fundamental or overtone listener, i. e. whether your hearing processes the sound more in the left brain half (fundamental listener) or more in the right brain half (overtone listener). If you are interested in the background of the work of the Heidelberg researchers, you can download the specialist article here.

On some computers this alternative link seems to work better:

Leave your result in the comments. I’m curious how overtone singers cut off. My result is: extreme overtone listener.

Sources & Links

Why One Plays Violin and the Other Cello

First published at Universitätsklinikum Heidelberg on 21.08.2005 (Repost with kind permission)

The ability to perceive fundamental and overtones is anchored in the brain / Scientists from Heidelberg publish a study of orchestral musicians in “Nature Neuroscience”

→ Here you can do the Heidelberg listening test yourself

The same sounds can be perceived very differently by different people. The cause resides in the brain. Because the sound of a tone depends on structures in the cerebrum: Those who hear more overtones and thus rather long-lasting, deep sounds have more neuronal cell substance in the hearing centre of the right cerebral cortex, the so-called Heschl’s gyrus (transverse temporal gyrus). Those who hear the root more strongly or prefer short, sharp tones show this characteristic in the left half of the brain.

These are the results of a study published on August 21, 2005 as an online publication of “Nature Neurosciences” and in the September print edition . Scientists from the Department of Biomagnetism at the Neurological University Hospital in Heidelberg, together with colleagues from the Universities of Liverpool, Southampton and Maastricht, examined a total of 420 people, the majority of whom were music students and orchestra musicians.

Musicality independent of hearing type / connection with rhythm recognition

Extensive listening tests were used to determine whether the test persons belonged to the group of “fundamental listeners” or “overtone listeners“. (For each natural tone, a multitude of higher tones are produced in addition to the fundamental tone, which determines the pitch. These overtones complement the frequency spectrum of a tone and give it its individual timbre.) In 87 subjects from both groups, additional brain structures were visualized in the magnetic resonance tomogram and their functions were measured with magnetoencephalography (MEG). MEG is a very sensitive method for measuring brain activity. It measures low magnetic fields generated by active nerve cells in the cerebral cortex.

Overtone and fundamental pitch listeners in the orchestra (c) Neurological University Hospital Heidelberg
The Heidelberg study has shown that the seating arrangement in a modern symphony orchestra follows the individual ability of sound perception, which is anchored in the left or right hemisphere of the brain. Fundamental listeners with high instruments (e.g. violin, flute, trumpet) are located to the left of the conductor and overtone listeners (e.g. viola, cello, double bass, bassoon, tuba) to the right. Image source: Neurological University Hospital Heidelberg

“These two types of hearing also exist among non-musical people,” explains Dr. Peter Schneider, physicist, church musician and MEG specialist in the Heidelberg research group. However, the processing of music is also linked to the ability to hear the fundamental or overtones.

“Overtone listeners can perceive long-lasting sounds and tones better,” says Schneider. This ability is located in the right hearing center. The fundamental listeners, on the other hand, stood out due to a more virtuoso playing technique and better processing of complex rhythms, which is linked to the faster processing in the left hearing centre.

Singers and cellists are “overtone listeners”.

Orchestral musicians have also selected their musical instrument according to their listening type, according to another study recently presented by Dr. Schneider at a specialist congress. Fundamental listeners prefer drums, guitar, piano or high melodic instruments, overtone listeners prefer deep melodic instruments such as cello, bassoon or tuba. Singers also belong to this group.

Musicality has nothing to do with the types of hearing, but it can also be found in the brain structures. In a publication in August 2002, again in “Nature Neuroscience”, Dr. Schneider and his colleagues from Heidelberg have already discovered that professional musicians have more than twice as much brain mass in the primary hearing centre as non-musical people. In addition, as MEG measurements have shown, their brains react more strongly to sounds.

For further information please contact:

Dr. Peter Schneider


Further information on the Internet:

Image source: Neurological University Hospital Heidelberg