Scattered Thoughts – throat singing (and a bit of Shigurui)

     Did you know that a single person can sing 2 different melodies at the same time? Sounds a bit insane, doesn’t it? How on earth a single person could possess two throats or something? In fact you don’t need to visit Chernobyl (sorry for the bad joke) to be able to perform throat singing, otherwise known as overtone singing. I’ve known about this amusing technique for some time but what did surprise me, was to find it used in the soundtrack of Shigurui, anime I reviewed several weeks ago. As far as I know, no other anime soundtrack uses the technique so it is pretty obscure to say the least. Well, going into details about it doesn’t really concern neither anime, nor manga, nor Japanese culture (for the most part) but I think the more people will hear about some obscure trivia (that to me is quite interesting), the better. Don’t fear some basic physics stuff ahead, I hope I’ll make it comprehensible enough.

     To start, we need to know what love sound is (go out of my head, Violet Evergarden references). Basically sound is defined as vibrations of air that propagate from the source of vibrations to the receiver – an ear, then is registered and decoded by brain for us to understand it. To better visualize the vibrations you can think of them as a sandwich of compressed and expanded regions of air that a speaker throws to the listener.

Sound is made as the air vibrates

     If we ignore the intensity of the sound, its other main characteristic is the frequency of said vibrations. The frequency is described as a number of vibrations per second – 1 vibration per second equals to 1 Hz. Typically humans are able to sing in the range from about 80 Hz (a low sound) to 1 KHz (a high sound). Our hearing is more diverse – humans can perceive frequencies from as low as 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Bats, for example, can hear up to 100 kHz and beyond. Yeah, bats may have secret conversations and we wouldn’t know.

     Let’s move on to timbre (don’t confuse it with timber). For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, think about it as a color of a sound. Anyone can distinguish a sound of a violin from a sound of a trumpet, even when both of the instruments are playing the same exact note. Why do the notes still sound different? The answer is timbre. What is timbre then?

     Now imagine a string whose both ends are attached. Try to make the string vibrate – what sort of vibrations can you get? It turns out that there is not one precise frequency available but a whole selection of them. For example, a string may vibrate making only one node (the top part of the picture). It might as well make two (middle part), or three of them (bottom part), or even more. Does exactly that happen in real life? Well, it just so happens that the lowest frequency dominates, but there would be a bit of higher frequencies added. How much is that bit?

Vibrations of a string with one, two or three nodes (from top to bottom)

      It depends. And precisely that is what makes the timbre of one instrument differ from another one. Say, we have two different instruments, both playing the same sound, therefore their frequencies are also the same. Yet, the distribution of the intensities of the frequencies is what makes them sound different. Take frequency X. Then, for example, instrument A creates a vibration that is 2 times as strong as the same vibration that instrument B creates. With frequency Y an opposite thing might be happening. Instrument B might vibrate 3,6 times as intensely with a frequency Z compared with instrument A. And so on, and so on, and so on. The bottom line is that different intensities of higher frequencies make instruments sound differently.

Frequency distributions of several different instruments.

     A very similar thing happens when a person sings – we understand the sound as a particular frequency (the lowest one) because other frequencies are of low intensity, but they make the sound seem to have a particular color.

     Finally we can get to the point – how can a person sing two melodies at the same time? You might already have a guess – theoretically one would need to somehow reinforce a particular higher frequency to make it audible. And that’s precisely what happens – after some training a person may learn how to form a sound by their voice apparatus so that a desirable frequency is enhanced enough. And that’s basically it – by taking advantage of the nature of sound humans can make, a trained person may perform a duet without a partner.

     How does it sound and look in practice? Firstly, throat singing not necessarily is used throughout the whole song. It may be employed only in certain parts, but as ever, quality matters more than quantity. As far as I know, there are two main subgroups of throat singing. The first one isn’t what we usually understand as singing. This type usually is performed by two people facing each other – they produce sounds while rhythmically inhaling and exhaling. Thus the sounds sometimes may resemble animal-like growling and roaring rather than singing. Example – Inuits. The second type, which is more relevant to this post, is closer to usual singing, only with added higher frequencies. In this case the second voice sounds similar to whistling. Example – Tuvans.

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Inuit throat singing

     Culturally throat singing is distributed mainly in the northern part of the world – Siberia and neighboring locations. In Youtube you can find quite a few examples of throat singing (some of it rather comical, some quite cool) mainly from Mongolia, Tibet and similar places; Inuits, Tuvans, Chukchi people and some others are known to practice throat singing. To be clear, it doesn’t mean that the phenomenon somehow originated from a single place long time ago and spread out (though the pattern is peculiar) – some South Africans also know how to throat sing.

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Tuvan throat singing

     How does Shigurui and Japan come into play? I honestly don’t really know. Concerning Japanese, the only fact I could find was from my long-term friend Wikipedia that said that in sumo tournaments announcers (yobidashi) announce the names of the wrestlers using throat singing. There’s however a problem with that – the sentence propagates the Internet quite a bit but I couldn’t find the source nor any more information about that. Listening to the announcers singing was fun but I’m afraid I can only say that if they really do throat sing, the technique is not particularly pronounced. And that’s about it. As far as I could find, the Japanese don’t usually practice throat singing nor did that in the past.

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Again Tuvan throat singing

     Actually, sources tell that in the past Ainu people (Yeah, Golden Kamuy, everyone!) did use one form of throat singing called Rekkukara or Rekuhkara but that is now sadly already extinct, though people are trying to revive it. The technique of Ainu throat singing is more akin to Inuit throat singing – Ainu use hands (or other person’s throat) to manipulate sound, not precisely only the voice apparatus. Again, it’s debatable whether such a performance could be called a song as we define it – lyrics aren’t included to say the least.

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Revived Ainu Rekkukara

     Going back to Shigurui, maybe the composer of the OST Kiyoshi Yoshida simply felt some personal affinity to throat singing? I doubt the technique itself has any ties with Edo period when the events of Shigurui unfold. Why was it used then? Probably for atmospheric reasons. It definitely sounds somehow otherworldly, and that works well making Shigurui feel like a historic piece, very different from our contemporary world. Throat singing also adds mystery and, when used in Yoshida’s arrangements, sounds ominous and even foreboding. And that was precisely what the soundtrack needed.

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Shigurui OST: Ankun by Kiyoshi Yoshida

     I hope you learned a bit of obscure trivia and will be able to understand what happens when somebody starts singing weirdly. If not really, of course there’re other sources if you’re interested enough. At least for me the little research was very fun and amusing – I couldn’t even imagine how differently human voice could be manipulated.

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Slightly modernized song with Tuvan throat singing elements

     Have you ever heard of throat singing? Maybe, as unlikely as it may be, you can perform it yourself? Have you ever encountered some random quirks in anime that would encourage you to investigate further, even if it seems like a useless trivia?

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8 Comments

  1. Ooh this was so interesting to read!!! I had no clue about any of the more cultural aspects and differences about throat singing! 😮

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
  2. For someone who loves physics, this post tying in with the OST is an absolute treasure. 😀
    Thanks for the wonderful share!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. This is great! I love learning random facts lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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