19. Vowels and Formants III: Formants for fun and profit
(with samples of exotic music)

     Note: This page has more information than can be comfortably handled in one sitting, so be selective about which links you follow up on.


    My father Erwin used to play a mean (sense 5d) harmonica. When I was young, he'd sometimes entertain me by making his harmonica "talk", imitating the famous talking harmonica piece, "I Found My Mama", by Mattie O'Neil & Salty Holmes (Grand Ol' Opry Stars of the '50's), which we used to listen to on an old 78 RPM record. Here it is on YouTube:


     By now you should know how this was done: formants. You form the sounds of what you want to say in your mouth, then blow and draw notes on the harmonica. The quality of the notes will be affected by the shape of your vocal tract (mostly by F2, the formant space closest to the front of the mouth), so a harmonica can seem to be "talking". It's not very understandable as speech unless you know what to expect (it is after all missing the back and other formants), but it is certainly amusing to listen to. Here's another sample of a "talking (and laughing) harmonica" used in a Pepsi commercial (source page).

You can also listen to various harmonica effects in this MP3 file of pieces by "Mr. Harmonica" Lonnie Glosson, especially in the "train" piece. By manipulating the configurations of his vocal tract, the player changes the quality of the harmonica's notes to imitate a train passing.


Jew's harp

     There are many other instruments in the world, especially folk instruments, that make use of formants to produce their special sound. One of the most famous is the Jew's harp. It's also been called the "jaw's harp" or "jaw harp", apparently for reasons of political correctness. But it seems it had nothing to do with 'Jews' or 'jaws' at all in the first place; Webster's says it comes from the Dutch Jeugdtromp 'youth/child's trumpet', though it's now called mondharp 'mouth harp' in Dutch. Here are pictures and short descriptions of the Jew's harp; the second page gives the word for Jew's harp in several languages:


     Go to the following page and click on 'Hroong Jew's harp' (125, 134) from Vietnam for a more exotic kind of Jew's harp music. Also try the 'Dav dav bamboo tuning fork' (131), an instrument using the same principle to produce its twangy sound.


    Here are sound samples of many different kinds of Jew's harps, including the 'morsing' and 'morchang' of Rajasthan, India:


Many other countries and cultures, e.g. Norway (sample 2) and Japan (source page) have Jew's harp traditions. Here's another sample of Vietnamese Jew's harp, the Tran Quang Hai, accompanied by zither; two Finnish recordings, called Maanitus (Persuasion), and Metsäpelto d, with violin accompaniment; another Norwegian recording, called Jesus Thou Sweet Companion; here are photos of Jew's harps from Oceania; and a lovely Medieval piece on the Jew's harp (gimbarde) and medieval fiddle (vièle) called Cantiga de Santa Maria 361 (local file) by the Ensemble Perceval (source page).


     Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Native American protest singer popular in the 60s and 70s, uses the mouthbow in several of her songs. The mouthbow has a sound similar to that of the Jew's harp, and it works in the same way. Here are instructions on how to make your own mouthbow. Here are instructions on how to play it. Go to the following page on the Amazon site and choose the songs "Cripple Creek" and "Ground Hog" to hear Buffy accompany her singing on the mouthbow.


Demonstration of how the mouth bow is played:

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs "Cripple Creek" with mouthbow on Sesame Street:


     A CD of mouthbow music by salmon fisherman and folk musician John Palmes from Juneau, Alaska, has since come out, in 2005 - in fact inspired by Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Ground Hog"; here is an NPR report on Mouth Bow: Small Voices:


Demonstration of how to play a "Ghost Catcher" (a mouthbow from Siberia):

Mouthbow "gongo" in concert:

African mouth bow of Botswana:

Jimmy Driftwood: Run, Johnny, Run, with an Appalachian "pickin' bow":

Pickin' Pete on his picking bow:

A performance on the "Great Island Mouthbow" in Taiwan (2009) by Colin Offord:

     If Jew's harp and mouthbow music is your kind of thing, try some of these MP3 and .wav files. A Google search will direct you to additional interesting sites.






Nose flute

    You may want to play around with this inexpensive formant instrument: the nose flute, available in US music stores for about 99¢. You breathe into it with your nose, and it shunts the air through a narrow passageway into your mouth, which you form into notes as though whistling, and you hear a clean-sounding whistle! Here's a snippet from "New Progression for Nose Flute".



     A relatively high-profile native instrument that uses formants is the Australian didgeridoo (you may see many other spellings of this word). It is a long, stout tube (the far end rests on the ground in front of the player) into which the performer blows, while manipulating formants to alter the sound. Some modern rock groups have incorporated the didgeridoo into their compositions. There are quite a few Web sites devoted to the didgeridoo. The first page is a YouTube video demonstration of how it's played; the second offers tutorials in didgeridoo techniques!

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DC9w4KWEgJE

2. http://www.didgeridoostore.com/didgeridoo_howtoplay.htm

3. http://www.timelessproductions.com/didgeridoo-tutorial/part-1/

     Here is a fascinating series of videos on didgeridoo, including how it produces its particular sound:


Tuvan throat singing (Khoomei)

     Formants are exploited not only in talking and in instrumental music, but also in singing. Of course we are hearing formants whenever a vowel sound is sung. But some national groups have developed a method of singing a melody line (the fundamental frequency) while at the same time producing a different melody at a higher pitch with formants. The most famous of these are probably the Tuvans of Tuva, Siberia in the former Soviet Union. They have performed on tour worldwide, so you may have heard of them. Their CDs are not too hard to find in music stores. Here's a sample performance featured on David Letterman's Late Show in 1999:


     Here are some spectrograms of overtone singing:


     This article from the September 1999 issue of Scientific American, entitled "The Throat Singers of Tuva", will tell you all about khoomei, or Tuvan throat singing (there is also a Mongolian version of this singing style called xöömii). It used to be available for free, but now requires a subscription. Here are the links in any case, if you can access them:


     Here's an article in the Daily Mail Online about formant singer Anne-Maria Hefele, with a link to a video demonstration:


     Enkh Jargal at Musique du Monde at France Huun-Huur-Tu:


   Here is a tutorial on YouTube on how to do formant singing:


     And here's "Amazing Grace" sung with formant singing:


     This site has lots of information on Tuvan singing and culture:


Xhosa and Californian overtone singing

     The Tuvans aren't the only ones who have developed this style of singing. The first URL below links to a page on Wikipedia that lists many of these traditions and styles, e.g. Xhosa; the second links to audio samples of the Xhosa and other traditions of overtone singing.



UMNGQOKOLO - Thembu Xhosa - OVERTONE SINGING filmed 1985-1998 in South Africa:

Umngqokolo - Ngqoko Village - South Africa 1

     It may be hard to believe, but there is even a Californian style of throat singing! This page has some zip files of throat singing by blind singer Paul Pena that you can download:


     Here are two more audio files of Californian throat singing, "Midnight" and "Ballad".

     The Scientific American article mentions that singer Arthur Miles used overtone singing instead of yodeling in his cowboy songs! Listen:


     Here's a discussion on whether it was really overtone singing or just humming and whistling - but in fact the latter basically comes out to overtone singing anyway, and the speaker agrees it is indeed throat singing:


     Direct link:

     If you have a little extra time and a lot of interest, try this broadcast on "diphonic singing" from the Archives for the Secret Museum of the Air with Citizen Kafka and Pat Conte (there's an interesting recording of Bunun millet grinders from Taiwan):


     One more example of multiphonic singing for fun, involving vibration of the lips:

Undertone singing and more

     Here are some interesting audio samples created/collected by Brazilian engineer and musician Leonard Fuks, who received his Ph. D. from the Kungl Tekniska Högskolan (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm, Sweden, and now teaches at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Fuks has studied undertone singing, which he believes is produced by vibration of the false or ventricular folds, just above the vocal folds, at half the rate of the vocal cords. This results in a tone one octave below the fundamental frequency produced by the vocal folds. Overtones can be produced at the same time. Explore this page for more information and audio links:


     Note the Popeye the Sailor link!

     This page has ended up a lot longer than expected, and it's just scratched the surface of overtone music. There's plenty more for you to discover through the Internet, CDs, books, magazines and even travel. So formants are a lot more than just something technical to get through in the phonetics textbook!

     Learning to segment – and even read! – spectrograms has for most of us been a completely new but very exciting kind of challenge. The next page will tell you more about spectrograms, what kind of information they contain, what this information can be used for, and how to read them.

Next: Getting into spectrograms: Some useful links


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