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Overtone series; singing overtones

I'm working with a student who wants to know more about singing overtones (in the manner of the piece "Past Life Melodies," if you're familiar). I've read and learned about the science of the overtone series before and have held onto the necessary basics, but this will involve some re-learning and new learning for me, particularly when it comes to causing the overtones to ring by singing against a fundamental and modifying the vowel. So he and I will be learning together, which I think will be fun.
Any suggestions on resources that might help me to constitute a good reading (and listening!) list for this student? The student in question is a high school student with a strong musical background, but I'd prefer to avoid any readings that are overly technical, as he's doing this research in addition to his normal academic responsibilities.
I remember thinking that This Is Your Brain On Music had a pretty good, concise explanation of the overtone series. Can you help me build the list? Thank you!
Stuart Hill
Northern Guilford Middle School
Greensboro, NC
on August 11, 2010 4:29am
This is a specialty of ethnomusicology and a cultural study of Central asian musics. For a contemporary, highly creative take contact David Hykes of the Harmonic choir.  He is on Facebook. Strangely,
Few others exploit the effects chorally. One who does is Nicholai Kachanov of the Russian Chamber Singers,[NYC] . They have recorded some.
 In the proper acoustic, an uncanny sensation caused by the shifting phasing creates a -in my imagination- living 'amoeba of sound'- a cloud which expands and moves.
Very cool!
on August 11, 2010 6:25am
Stuart, I first learned of the practical use of "overtones" some thirty-five or so years ago from a prominent bass singer and choral teacher in Texas, Charles Nelson.  He would use a hum based on "ng" around a low bass clef "A"  and begin to shape vowels without changing the "ng" hum.  When he shaped a very closed "OO" vowel the fifth in the overtone series could be heard.  Likewise, with the interior shape of the "UH" vowel, the octave could be heard, with the shape of the "OH" vowel, the third could be heard, with the shape of the "AW" the higher fifth coould be perceived, and with the shape of a bright "AH" the seventh could be perceived.  This generally worked well with the bass or baritone voice.  Tenors can make it happen but it is often less obvious.  Mezzos can make it happen using  the "ng" hum in their chest voice, sopranos less so.
Practical applications:  with practice a young singer can strengthen his vowel placement and create a "ring" or focus especially in "oo" "oh" "aw" and "ah" vowels.
In the choral situation: tuning often improves, especially in Renaissance music.
Getting groups of students to buy into this is less easy than getting individual students to experiment with the concept and experience the overtones themselves. 
It might be worth a cautious try.  Charles Nelson made it work because he had a resonant bass voice. 
Good luck with your investigation.
All the best,
Rolland Shaw
on August 22, 2010 4:11pm
Hi Stuart,
Back in the 70's....yes, I actually got pretty good at this - in the bathroom of course! My singers get a huge kick out of me demonstrating on that low "hong" when I'm trying to get them to hear how a true "u" or "o" vowel rings with precise shape. I was thrilled to discover the overtone series again when I studied with Pamela Layman Quist and joined the faculty of The Walden School for Young Composers in 1981. The series is the basis of the Walden Musicianship Course (
A good beginning exercise is to play the overtone series on a piano, up to say the 9th or 10th partial, letting the huge chord sustain, identify each interval and sing the individual notes as high up as possible. P8 P5 P4 M3 m3 M2 m2...Then depressing the damper pedel, strike only the fundamental pitch and see if you can start to discern the overtones from the sympathetic vibration of the "open" strings as the fundamental pitch fades. I use my violin to demonstrate harmonics too. After the series is in the ear, it's much easlier to isolate them vocally, as then you know exactly what you are listening for.
Happy experimenting!
Carol Thomas Downing
Virginia Children's Chorus
on August 22, 2010 7:01pm
Regarding your student's inquiry about "Past Life Melodies", I am no familiar with the piece but what I will tell you is that your student needs to do some research on formants.
Basically, a formant is when a basic resonant region enhances upper harmonics. These formants are altered depending on many factors specifically pitch and vowel. Your student would probably benefit greatly by talking to a speech pathologist.
For reading purposes, you and your student should look at the first two chapters of  "Introductory Musical Acoustics" by Michael J. Wagner. The fourth edition is what I have which is the newest edition. It begins very basic, talking about what a sound is and how the waves are created; the end of the second chapter has addressed all the things you are asking about. The book is a moderate read (depending on the reader), has simplified definitions in the margins and uses pictures fairly often to help visualize some of the topics addressed.
The previous threads mention some of the ways I was taught about the harmonic series (especially the piano); however, also being a trumpet player I can't help but mention how it relies on the overtone series so that might be a way too.
Best of luck on your research,
Kyle D. Wheatley
Teaching Assistant in Choral Music Education
University of Alabama
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