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Overtone Singing - A Western Therapeutic Perspective

Nestor Kornblum is co-founder and co-director of both the Spanish and the International Associations of Sound Therapy. He has worked tirelessly over the last 10 years to promote the use of Sound and Overtone singing as a healing modality worldwide. It has also been a personal desire of his to bridge the gap between the more spiritually and esoterically focused Overtone singers, and those focused mainly on using it as a musical art form. His new instructional book with CD “Overtone Chant: the Practical Guide”, with text in 6 languages, was written in response to requests from his students in the many countries where he conducts workshops. Together with his wife Michêle Averard he has published several CDs of music with overtone singing and ancient acoustic instruments for healing and relaxation.

Overtone singing is an ancient technique that enables a singer to produce 2 or more sounds simultaneously with his or her voice. Although the origins of this technique are partly cloaked in mystery, recent investigations have revealed an enormous amount of information regarding the present uses of the technique and some information regarding its origins in different parts of the world.

Overtone singing as a technique and cultural or spiritual musical art form, developed in Mongolia, Southern Siberia and Central Asia, in Tibet, and in South Africa. It also is used to a lesser degree in Sardinia, the only ancient form of European overtone singing that is still practised. Many theories exist that overtone singing once had a ritual and spiritual use in Kabbalistic ceremonies, Masonic lodges, Mystery Schools and in Sufi practices. Some theories go as far as to say that it was used as long ago by the civilizations of Atlantis, Ancient Egypt and Mayan Central America. Unfortunately there is scanty information in this regard.

Overtones, known also as harmonics, were first discovered in the West by Pythagoras some 2 600 years ago. The famous Greek philosopher and mathematician was also a master musician, and together with his students spent years studying sound and vibration. He found, after studying the monochord, a single stringed instrument, that all sounds were composed of multiple vibrations or frequencies, not just one, as our ears generally perceive.

In much the same way that white light is made up of a wide spectrum of colours, which become visible when the light is refracted through a prism, sound too can be refracted so that its constituent parts can be perceived. Just as the rainbow is made up of the colours that the human eye sees as white light, overtones (harmonics) are the colours of sound. These overtones, which usually go unnoticed, are actually vitally important for all human beings, and allow us to differentiate between one sound and another. It is the richness of the overtones in certain parts of the infinite spectrum of sound which help us to tell the difference between one musical instrument and another, even when they both play the same musical note.

Our brain can tell immediately whether a certain note has been played by a flute, a guitar or a piano. If the overtones are filtered out, we become unable to distinguish between these instruments.

The human voice is the musical instrument richest in overtones, due to our ability to make the tiniest of adjustments at will, thus fine-tuning the voice beyond the capacity of most musical instruments.

Most music students and musicians learn about the theory of overtones, and some are even able to produce overtones with their instruments. The guitar will produce overtones when the strings are strummed while the finger of the other hand dampens the strings along one of the frets. A flute, saxophone or other wind instrument will often produce an overtone when over-blown, that is, when too much air pressure is applied, the sound will jump a whole octave higher, or more. The bass guitar is perhaps the best-known producer of overtones in modern, amplified music. Jaco Pastorius, who played bass for avant-garde jazz group Weather Report, played whole melodies using just the high-pitched harmonics of his bass, as in the song “Portrait of Tracy”.

It is the overtones of the human voice, however, that are the most interesting, magical and mystical to hear. The singer produces a single, powerful humming sound, and then, through a variety of techniques, converts his whole upper body into a vibrating resonance chamber. Using the cranium, nasal passages, pharynx, chest, abdomen, and diaphragm, as well as all the parts of the mouth: tongue, lips, palate, soft palate, glottis and epiglottis, cheeks and jaw, the singer begins to channel the sound differently to a singer in the “normal” singing traditions.

The sound that follows must be heard to be believed, in fact, many people do not at first believe what they are hearing, as a clear, beautiful, flute-like sound appears above the voice of the singer. An accomplished overtone singer is able to sing up and down the Harmonic Scale (Overtone Scale), reaching, in the case of a singer with a deep voice, up to the 16th harmonic or higher. These overtones follow a fixed arithmetic sequence, and always conform to the same principle. If the singer sings a note with the frequency of 100Hz (cycles per second) then the first overtone will vibrate at 200Hz, the second at 300Hz, the third at 400Hz etc. This is what Pythagoras discovered when dividing the string of his monochord into equal parts. The overtone scale within each musical note is infinite, although we can hear and produce audibly only the first 5 octaves or so, and this only in the case of an adept overtone singer. 

While the overtones can be isolated and amplified one at a time by a good overtone singer, it is important to realize that each and every one of us has these very same overtones in our own voices all the time, only hidden, like the rainbow inside white light.

Once one has learned to follow the sets of mouth movements, and produce a good strong hum, the rest is really quite easy. Most people can learn to sing some overtones in just a few hours, but some practise is needed to begin to hear your own overtones, and then slowly to increase their volume.

Once one has mastered the scale and is able to sing both up and down the Overtone series, the next step is to be able to select the overtone of your choice, so that a melody can be composed or improvised. Most people can do this within a few months of learning the technique, although I have taught many people who were able to improvise in just a few weeks. It can be as easy and unconscious as whistling. Results depend on how much one practises.

Once one is able to clearly sing the scale and improvise (in much the same way as many people who whistle improvised tunes, made up as they go along), the next level of overtone singing, practised mainly in the West, involves changing the fundamental pitch of the voice, rather than holding one single drone.

A singer is thus able to create one melody line with the voice, and a second, flute-like melody above the voice, in essence a self-accompaniment. Indian “ragas” and Gregorian Chants are musical forms that easily lend themselves to this style of Overtone singing. While this is to be admired as an accomplishment attained by very few people, it can also serve to lose the deeply meditative and spiritual effect of the music. Changing both the fundamental and the overtone is by its very nature a more mental and intellectual exercise, requiring intense concentration, and the resulting music can be robbed of its usual powerful trance-inducing effect. It is also extremely difficult to sing from the heart when everything has to pass first through the intellect.

One of the most healing, meditational and spiritual aspects of overtone singing is the fundamental drone; the unchanging groundnote or rootnote from which the overtones spring. An unchanging drone is the basis of most Indian music, and certain instruments have been designed in India and used for millennia for this purpose, such as the simple harmonium or “shruti box” and the Tampura. A fundamental drone is also the basis for Mongolian overtone singing (called khöömii) and most other forms of overtone singing. Other drone instruments rich in overtones are the didgeridoo of the Australian Aborigines, the mouth-harp (Jew’s harp or guimbarde) and the overtone mouthbow (known as the berimbao in South America, and as the Uhadi or Umrubhe in Southern Africa, where it originated).

It is important for us to realize that while overtones represent the natural divisions of a musical note, we in the West have adopted in more recent times a musical system which is unnatural. We have chosen to divide the octave (from ‘oct’ meaning eight) into twelve semi-tones. This is how the piano, the basis of all western music, is designed. Johann Sebastian Bach, in the year 1691 chose to use this system, which was rapidly adopted as the standard system in the West.

The ancient instruments mentioned above all have one thing in common:, when played, they all produce the notes of the natural overtone scale. The piano, and most modern Western instruments produce a scale that, while mathematically understandable, does not conform precisely to the natural laws of Harmonics (overtones). This tuning is called “even temperament”. It has allowed us to create classical music for huge orchestras, and music of ever-growing complexity, while at the same time preventing us from resonating in harmony with the beautiful simplicity of creation and the natural overtone scale. This is one of the reasons why we feel musically “lost” and are always searching for something we cannot define.

Even though Western music has dedicated hundreds of years to developing melody, harmony, rhythm, pitch and other aspects of musical structure, the one thing it has neglected is the tone ‘colour’ orharmonics. A musical form that uses mainly the colours or timbre of the sound, sounds foreign to us, and requires a re-education of our ear and capacity for musical appreciation. The strange thing is that our brains are actually responding to overtones all the time, and are tuned in many ways to the ratios of the overtone scale. We have just forgotten on a conscious level what we know on a subliminal, subconscious level. Most people, when hearing overtones for the first time, experience a strange feeling of familiarity, as if they have heard these sounds before.

Overtone singing has been discovered to have many therapeutic applications. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the hypnotic, trance-like effect they have both on the listener and the performer. This effect, essentially a form of deep meditation, relieves stress, balances and clears the chakras (energy centres of the body), and creates a feeling of lightness and wellbeing. The sound of overtones helps to balance the two hemispheres of the brain, as it engages both the logical, reasoning left-brain, due to the mathematically precise proportions of the overtone scale, and the creative, intuitive right brain through the musical expression possible once one has become fairly proficient in the technique.  This may be responsible in part for its attraction to a larger percentage of men than women. Women in general have a better balance between their brain hemispheres than men, both neurologically and conceptually.

The harmonic ratios found on the overtone scale are, not surprisingly, found throughout Nature, and reflect the natural structure of all life on Earth. We human beings are no exception. Another famous Greek philosopher and mathematician, Plato, discovered that all things on this planet are made out of 5 basic building blocks. These shapes, called the Platonic Solids, can be found at the molecular level of all animate and inanimate objects. It is logical, if one believes in a Creator, that the same principles of creation would be applied to ALL of creation, and we are an integral part of it. When listening to, or creating overtones, we begin to resonate in harmony with these primordial vibrations of which we are made, and which reflect our own atomic, molecular and cellular structure.

Most human beings feel as if they are vibrating out of harmony with their surroundings, their fellow beings, and most importantly, out of harmony with some vital aspect of themselves. When we feel out of harmony, very often we suffer sickness and dis-ease, which in soundtherapy terms would be a state of “disharmony”. This occurs when parts of an organism are vibrating at a different or inharmonious frequency from the whole, a frequency that is not “in tune” with the whole. One could compare this to an instrument in an orchestra that is out of tune. Even if 99 out of a 100 instruments are in tune, one badly tuned instrument will affect the whole sound. There are many reasons why human beings experience this discord, one of which is the “tempering” of the musical scale. After all, music and sound is a vital part of human life, and has been since prehistoric times. It is only in the last 350 years of this 50 000 year period that the musical scale has been “tempered” (that is, adjusted so that all musical notes are an equal, yet synthetically created, distance apart, which does NOT happen in Nature).

Other reasons for dis-ease, which Sound Therapy can help are:-

The incredibly high decibel levels to which we are exposed in the modern world, particularly in cities;

The negative belief systems with which we are programmed by our teachers, governments, organised religions, commercial advertising, pharmaceutical companies and the medical and education system as a whole;

Negative belief systems originating with our parents, family and friends;

High intake of toxic foods, chemicals and a lack of proper nutrition.

These are just a few of the reasons why we might vibrate “out of tune” and thus experience ill health or sickness at the physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual levels.

Overtone singing, when practised with intention, can serve as a very powerful tool for vibrational “repatterning”, in other words, a way of re-programming our physical, mental and emotional bodies with a more harmonious, natural, “in tune” pattern.

The beauty of this miraculous technique is that it bypasses the intellectual mind and goes right through to one’s essential being without being first analysed. (I use the term miraculous in the same way as in the book’ A Course in Miracles’ i.e. If you are not experiencing miracles daily in your life then something is wrong!). Analysis is an ancient human defence mechanism that helps us to make decisions based on experience, for the purpose of survival. But what happens when our experience, and the information with which we have been programmed is based on much incorrect information? How do we tell what is good for us or not?

Becoming aware of overtone singing, one begins a journey into the Voices of the Voice and the Sound within the Sound.

When you hear or practise overtone singing you will know whether it is good for you or not. You will know on levels much more profound than analytical deduction. You will feel it resonate deep within you, where other primordial human qualities like intuition, instinct, unconditional love, compassion and joy reside.

You will vibrate in harmony with the Creation and feel one with it. You will come Home, safe and Sound.

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