According to a 2013 study, the predecessors of modern humans known as Neanderthals may have been able to speak much like we do. Still, one must wonder what role music played in the evolution of human speech. Whatever it was, the vocal techniques that avail the modern human singer are staggering. Here are a few exotic vocal techniques used to make weird music today.
The human voice is capable of singing chords, that is, singing three or more notes at the same time. Singing more than one note simultaneously is called overtone singing, and it is achieved through various techniques collectively called throat singing. The throat is used to drastically alter the voice or even to create overtones. It is practiced traditionally in many parts of the world. Overtone singing is used in Tibetan chants, and a strongly guttural style of singing survives among Inuit people in North America. The latter form was adapted to Western music by the singer Tanya Tagaq. Throat singing is particularly specialized in Central Asia, especially in the Russian republic of Tuva. In the 1990s, a documentary called Genghis Blues was made about a blind blues guitarist, Paul Pena, who learned to sing chords by listening to Russian radio and then travelled to Tuva to perform with other throat singers.
For a long time, the ability to shatter champagne flutes using the human voice was considered a legend. In theory, it was known that the human voice could be used to create the correct frequencies and volumes to cause glass to actually shatter. But not until 2005 was the possibility proven to be fact, in an episode of the Discovery Channel TV show Mythbusters. Singer Jamie Vendera successfully shattered a crystal wine flute with the use of only his voice.
Sprachmusik (Sound Poetry)
Some people use language itself as a form of music, called sprachmusik (“speech music”) in German and “sound poetry” in English. Various early recorded examples can be found in an online lecture by Charles Scholz. In this particularly strange set of vocal techniques, weird music is derived from speech itself. Speech is rendered nonsense, and it relies purely on the intonation and pronunciaton of language to convey meaning to the listener–not verbal meaning, but musical meaning. First invented in the 1890s, sound poetry was later adopted by musicians like the band the Talking Heads in their famous song “I Zimbra,” and the musician Mike Patton. The aesthetics of sound poetry are also present in traditional nonsense rhymes, glossolalia (or speaking in tongues), and ancient magical incantations such as the well-known nonsense word “abracadabra.”
Since recorded sound didn’t exist before the modern era, there’s no telling what types of weird music existed in ancient times. But it can be assured that with the existence of throat singing, glass-shattering vocals, and sprachmusik, new types of singing will evolve in the future. What new uses for these vocal techniques can we expect in the decades to come?
Dada sound poems performed by Anat Pick