Singing multiple notes at once
September 23, 2013 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to sing more than one note at a time?

In this video - starting at about 6:10 - the singer appears to hit 2 or possibly 3 notes at once. The band and the audience start to freak out. Is this really possible? Is it shenanigans?
posted by grateful to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: This video.
posted by grateful at 12:18 PM on September 23, 2013

I can do it, but not in a musically useful way. It only works in a limited range, and I can't control the interval between the two notes. I can't really describe how I do it - I kind of get my voice stuck in a croak.
posted by blue t-shirt at 12:21 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Ardiril at 12:21 PM on September 23, 2013

Tuvan throat singing comes to mind.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:22 PM on September 23, 2013

Tuvan throat singing.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:23 PM on September 23, 2013

My middle school choir teacher claimed her mother could sing 2 notes at once.
posted by Safiya at 12:39 PM on September 23, 2013

You can get a similar sort of effect if you sing (well, make a sort of 'oo' sound with your vocal cords) while whistling. The two things tend to come out at very different pitches - the whistle high, the 'oo' low. I think it's possible to change the two tones independently, although I find that part a bit of struggle.
posted by pipeski at 12:44 PM on September 23, 2013

Technically, everyone who sings is singing multiple notes at a time. These notes are called overtones or (formants in the case of speech). All complex sounds are made up of multiple "notes" (frequencies). Now, typically the amplitude of these higher frequencies drop off quickly, and they blend in with the fundamental frequency. You still hear them, but you don't hear them separately. They give the sound its timbre, or characteristic sound. But some people trained in particular singing techniques (as mentioned above) can amplify these overtones in such a way that if you listen carefully, you can hear both. The ability to do this typically involves forcing air through your vocal tract and sinuses in a different way than you typically would when singing or speaking, causing the balance between the frequencies to change.

I can tell you that I'm a classically-trained singer and I tried this for a while, and couldn't get it to work. Or at least I couldn't hear it myself, and I sure as heck wasn't going to try around anyone else.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:45 PM on September 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

This free internet course on Tuvan throat singing is great. Students of mine have used it and gotten really good at singing more than one "note" at once by isolating overtones like Philosopher Dirtbike describes.

Also, here's Kongar-ol Ondar on Letterman.
posted by umbú at 1:41 PM on September 23, 2013

Best answer: The answer depends upon what you mean by "two notes."

Can a person sing two notes at once the way a piano can play two notes at once? Not really. Not in any highly functional kind of way.

What people can do is what Philosopher Dirtbike describes: You can emphasize the overtones in a complex sound so as to give the impression that you are "singing two notes." This is the technique that is used for Tuvan throat singing which, as you can hear, isn't really quite "singing two notes at once."

The trick that Lalah Hathaway uses almost certainly comes from engaging the vestibular folds, aka the false vocal folds. These are capable of a limited kind of phonation in certain circumstances. This is why her voice sounds tense and peculiar and different from her regular singing voice when she produces the phenomenon.
posted by slkinsey at 2:03 PM on September 23, 2013

Pretty well covered here. It's worth noting that certain types of Tuvan throat singing do accomplish two notes by adducting the vestibular folds. But yeah, most types work by isolating overtones in various ways by manipulating the mouth, nose and throat.

Formants are pretty unique overtones because they are really quite strong. Each note of your voice has all sorts of overtones, but then it has these exceptionally notable ones, the formants, which can be sort of highlighted.

It works in part because you actually perceive fundamental pitches even if they aren't there, so long as the rest of the overtones are in place. So you don't have to physically produce the lowest tone of a series in order for you to hear it (why telephones cut off everything below 300 hz).

Three notes is also definitely possible. Here's my favorite multi-note singing. (it's incredible).
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:00 PM on September 23, 2013

Yep, and I can do it! It definitely takes some practice, and my overtones aren't very loud, but I can sing a distinct five note scale over a drone note.
posted by Specklet at 3:19 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a side note (heh), note that it is eminently possible to hum one note and whistle another. Somewhere I read a mention of a celebrated father and daughter -- celebrated for other reasons, that is -- who used to both do this and perform classical quartets as a party trick.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:06 PM on September 23, 2013

Terms you might want to search for: Multiphonic or overtone singing.
posted by Coaticass at 8:47 PM on September 23, 2013

Anecdotally speaking, I know someone with a signature two-tone sigh that sounds a lot like what the singer here is doing.
posted by yoHighness at 10:30 AM on September 24, 2013

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