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!