Updated: Oct 3, 2022
This article is the third in our four-part series on “The Magic of Vocal Harmony” where we briefly explore an aspect of choral singing that sparks the imagination to learn more about the science behind why we sing together.
The month of October is when we relish in the spooky and scary. Choirs may not boast an abundance of eerie music to mark this annual occasion, but they do encounter unnerving events on a regular basis. This assertion does not refer to the absolute terror that a choir or singer experiences in performance when a mistake occurs. This current conversation surrounds the mysterious sonic happenings in the choral setting, particularly the “ghosting soprano” phenomenon. Within this choral context, being “ghosted” is ultimately a positive experience rather than scary.
Have you ever been in a choral rehearsal when you hear a pitch that is not written in the music score? Instinctually, the rest of the choir may turn their gaze upon the soprano section to ascertain who generated that high note “mistake”. The sopranos likely respond with a head shake that indicates “that was not me.” Was the high pitch generated by a ghostly presence or a figment of the choir’s imagination? In a performance setting, these high notes can be heard by the audience, but most audiences are not privy to whether these mystery pitches were written in the score by the composer. The audience merely experiences the thrill of hearing high notes emerging in a beautifully tuned chord. In these instances, these “ghostly” high notes are not manually generated by any individual voice in the choral rehearsal room or performance space (including that of any supernatural presence). The perceived pitch was a product of the combination of notes being sung by all the voices called an overtone. In the second article of this 4-part series, “Drawn to Vocal Harmony”, the overtone series is explained within the context of each pitch we sing is inherently harmony (you can read it here). Basically, each pitch is comprised of a series of pitches called overtones (or harmonics*) that sound above the fundamental tone we sing and are amplified through the resonance of the voice. In a choral setting, when the overtones of each singer in the choir align on a chord through agreement (uniform intonation, vowels, intensity, dynamics), one of the overtones may become enhanced and sound. This phenomena means we hear a note that is not being actively sung by one of the singers, usually a higher pitch. Here is an example of an overtone sounding by our professional chamber choir, Voices of Concinnity.
In this short video example above, you can hear a high A overtone emerge that I promise was not sung by one of our Concinnity sopranos. This term “ghosting soprano” was coined solely for this article and not a formal designation. But “ghosted” becomes a relevant term in this conversation because a loud overtone can disappear as quickly as it emerges when the formant energy of one of the singers waivers due to breath management or a slight variance in the speed of vibrato. Although this mystery note appears spooky, the presence of sounding overtones can be explained through acoustic science.
In the traditional choral setting, maximizing overtone energy is rarely discussed or consciously employed.
In the traditional choral setting, maximizing overtone energy is rarely discussed or consciously employed. Cultivating harmony to produce high overtones is more often utilized in barbershop quartet groups and is referred to as bell tones, ringing chords, or expanded sound. Here is quick video example of barbershop singing where a loud overtone sounds at 0:38. Producing loud overtones is a goal of barbershop style and is accomplished through singing close harmonies and dominant seventh chords. If you watched the barbershop video linked above, the audience responds immediately. The wild response to the high overtone could be a result of a few factors: sheer surprise that a male voice could sing so high (not realizing it is an overtone and not actually being sung) or applauding a chord tuned so well a high B overtone wails. Lastly, there is a physical component to this audience response that will be explored in the final article to come in this 4-part series called “Choral Goosebumps” where we discuss why hearing very high notes sung might cause us to experience chills.
Some chords are more favorable for producing sounding overtones, ghost notes, or bell tones in singing ensembles. The phenomenon appears more prevalent when the harmony is very close together in all voice parts. Do composers incorporate the possibility for overtones to sound in their concept of the composition? Or are these instances of overtones emerging from the choral texture merely an interesting and mysterious product of the performance? This question could be researched as an entire dissertation, but you can explore it on your own briefly here in this video below. In “Halcyon Days” composed by Melissa Dunphy, a high B overtone can be heard each time the text “Rise up” returns on the second "up". In the final “rise up”, the composer actually writes the high B in the composition. In this recording of this work sung and recorded live by Voices of Concinnity inserted below, you can hear the B overtone quietly sound in the video at 0:54, 1:06, and 2:38, then with high B actually sung by our soprano Liz Bologna at 2:50.
Whether or not these sounding overtones were intended in any composition, it enhances the harmonic fabric, interest, and mystery of the choral experience. The presence of these ghostly overtones may appear mysterious or mystical, but they are a natural occurrence of acoustics, upon which all singing is based.
Overtones are a natural occurrence of acoustics, upon which all singing is based.
Lastly, since this article has spooky and scary undertones in the spirit of the Halloween season, we should briefly address “undertones”. Acoustically speaking, undertones are an inversion of the overtone series. Although a frequency inversion of overtones, undertones or subharmonics cannot be created in the same way as overtones because they occur below the sung note. Often, undertones are a result of an external factor, such as the resonance of a particular room where the singing is happening, which encourages a low harmonic to sound.
In this audio example excerpt of “The Dusk of Thee” composed by Lillie Harris, the basses of Voices of Concinnity are singing a unison B flat at 0:20 while the rest of the ensemble is singing the F's above. If you listen closely, you can hear a low F rumble through the texture, below the pitch the basses are singing.
Now that sounds eerie.
*the term overtone and harmonic are sometimes used interchangeably; however, an overtone is any resonant frequency above the fundamental whereas the harmonic series counts the fundamental.
Articles in our four-part blog series on “The Magic of Vocal Harmony” where each week we briefly explore an aspect of choral singing that sparks the imagination to learn more about the science behind why we sing together.
1 – Choir invites Good Vibrations
2 – Drawn to Vocal Harmon
3 – The Ghosting Soprano
4 – Choral Goosebumps
Disclaimer: these articles may evoke more questions than they attempt to answer.
This series is presented by Sarah Kaufold, Artistic Director of Consonare Choral Community, who holds a BA in Psychology and MM in Choral Music. It was in her undergrad studies where she first began to explore the connections between psychology and music.