Singing Chords with Lalah Hathaway & Bobby McFerrin

So this video has been making the rounds, and I figure it really needs to be on this blog.

It’s a great video of a live performance by Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy.  Featuring some incredible musicianship all round, and a very groovy song (this is definitely one of my favourite styles of music) this is worth listening to all the way through.

While I’m not usually a fan of excessively long virtuosic or “show-off-y” vocal solos, this is pretty tight and delicious.  Not to mention she sings chords.

…Yep, you read right.  Lalah manages to sing two notes at once.
Start watching at around 6:00 

My favourite part about this is that the band FREAKS OUT, haha.  It’s super cute… but they keep their heads and manage to come in again with the groove super heavy and funky.  Professional musicians at their best.

The best theory for this I’ve seen going around is that she has learnt how to shape her vocal tract to bring out the harmonic overtones in the note she is singing.  Whenever you sing a note (or play it on the guitar, or piano, etc.) there is the “fundamental frequency” – which is the note you intended (hopefully) to sing… and above it are the harmonic overtones which are part of that sound.  I am capable of bringing out harmonic overtones in my voice when singing lower notes, starting with a perfect fifth above the note, then an octave, then a third above that octave, then the next fifth, and so on.  I adjust these by changing the shape of my mouth and the position of my tongue. But when I do it, it almost sounds like… a whistle?  Or it just sounds like a harmonic overtone, but it doesn’t sound like I am actually singing two notes with my true vocal folds, which is the impression that Lalah’s awesome party trick here gives!

As far as I can tell, true vocal fold body/cover condition wise, she is singing in Stiff folds (that airy, breathy tone).  But that’s about all I can really gather about what she’s doing!  This is some next-level stuff.

I have seen someone else do this kind of thing before (though using a different technique) and that of course would be the true vocal master, the incredible Bobby McFerrin.  If you only know Bobby for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”… prepare to have your mind blown.
If you watch from about 2:00, you will hear him create two notes at once.  He does it again at the end of the song… but the whole thing is amazing and worth a watch!

Again, there’s a lot going on here (and he has the mic to his neck, and his lips are buzzing too) so it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s doing, but I’m guessing it is a similar bringing out of the harmonic overtone by shaping of the vocal tract.  It also reminds me a bit of the overtone singing or “throat singing” one often hears of being practiced by Tibetan monks.  I did wonder when listening to Lalah and Bobby, and also to various cultures’ overtone singing, if the false vocal folds come into play at all – if constriction is used as a technique to create extra sounds.  According to the wikipedia page on the larynx,  “The false vocal folds are not responsible for sound production, but rather for resonance. The exceptions to this are found in Tibetan Chant and Kargyraa, a style of Tuvan throat singing.”  So perhaps it is possible McFerrin has mastered a similar false fold control!

Fascinating stuff!  If anyone has any more examples of singing two notes or more, please feel free to share!

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9 thoughts on “Singing Chords with Lalah Hathaway & Bobby McFerrin

  1. What Lalah does is something completely different form overtone and undertonesinging.. I can do both, and from the theorie it is not possible to sing the intervalls she sings, and from practical experience with many different singingtechniks, this is something all together different, the vocal chords, or maby also the ventricular folds (?) seem to produce different frequencies at the same time, like a multiphonic.. I would really love to understand what she actually does, but I do understand that it cannt be overtones….

    • I am so glad you posted this David! I did wonder about that because yes, the intervals didn’t sound like normal overtone intervals.
      I think the ventricular/false fold theory is the one that makes sense to me the most so far. I have been curious about the use of those in the context of metal and other distorted vocal techniques too.

      The only other thing I can think of is that she is somehow producing a normal note as well as a whistle tone at the same time. Whistle tones are produced when the true vocal folds are not connecting to form a mucosal wave closed phase, but they are apart in a certain way which produces a whistle when air is moved through. If she’s singing with stiff folds, my theory here would be that she’s got not only the closing of the folds going on to produce the basic note, but perhaps a posterior chink/gap somewhere along the folds is also open creating a whistle tone?

      So fascinating! Can someone please just get a scope down her throat already?!! hahaha… I’m so curious!

      • I would agree with that, because I use whistle a lot and I can bring it down to the C above middle C, and on occasion two notes will be produced at the same time, especially when the tone is very breathy. Naturally by the laws of sound the notes will more than likely be in harmony as well, so even when I don’t try to make it happen it’s always in perfect harmony.

  2. Hello!
    I spent many hours watching this video, trying to understand what she’s doing and still can’t. Those harmonics come so naturally! It’s unbelievable! haha.
    But just today, a friend sent me this video of another brilliant singer harmonizing with herself. And what is fascinating about it (i mean, if when you read ‘harmonizing with herself’ is not fascinating enough!) is that she can manipulate her throat with her fingers so she can overtone. And, like Lalah Hathaway, it’s not a whistle, but it’s even less airy or breathy and beautifully and naturally harmonized. And i’m wondering how it works! Have you guys seen this before? :)
    I’ll be glad to read your comments on this.

    Here’s the video:

    • That’s an interesting video Sara, I watched it a few times and my personal opinion is that one is faked. In the second run one of the notes is not at the exact same time/on the exact same vowels. I’m not 100% sure, I could be wrong, but it really doesn’t seem real to me, nor do I see how it could be possible with my understanding of vocal anatomy. Overtones and harmonics, yes, what Lalah does is breathy for a reason because of the techniques she is using. I am pretty certain that this example is faked. There’s not much manipulating your throat with your fingers would do other than adjust the height of the larynx, which would make her sound quite different.

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