Extended vocal technique

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Vocalists are capable of producing a variety of extended technique sounds. These alternative singing techniques have been used extensively in the 20th century, especially in art song and opera. Particularly famous examples of extended vocal technique can be found in the music of Luciano Berio, John Cage, George Crumb, Peter Maxwell Davies, Hans Werner Henze, György Ligeti, Demetrio Stratos, Meredith Monk, Giacinto Scelsi, Arnold Schoenberg, Salvatore Sciarrino, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Avi Kaplan, and Trevor Wishart.

Timbral techniques[edit]


Spoken text is frequently employed. The term “parlando” is a similar direction which is somewhat out of date.


Main article: Sprechgesang

Sprechgesang is a combination singing and speaking. It is usually heavily associated with Arnold Schoenberg (particularly his Pierrot Lunaire which uses sprechgesang for its entire duration) and the Second Viennese School. Schoenberg notated sprechgesang by placing a small cross through the stem of a note which indicates approximate pitch. In more modern music “sprechgesang” is frequently simply written over a passage of music.

Vocal tremolo[edit]

A vocal tremolo is performed by rapidly pulsing the air expelled from the singer’s lungs while singing a pitch. These pulses usually occur from 4-8 times per second.

Vocal trill[edit]

A vocal trill is performed by adding singing vibrato while performing a vocal tremolo.


Vocal sounds or even words can be produced while a singer is inhaling. This can create a strained or even humorous effect.


Main article: Overtone singing

By manipulating the vocal cavity, overtones may be produced. Although traditionally used in the traditional music of Mongolia, Tuva, and Tibet, overtones have also been used in the contemporary compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Stimmung), as well as in the work of David Hykes.


By relaxing the vocal cords, a singer may obtain "undertones" or "subtones," which are produced an inverse overtone series. Although the octave below is the most frequently used undertone, a twelfth below, and other lower undertones are also possible. This technique has been used most notably by Joan La Barbara.[1]


By overstressing the vocal cords, a multiphonic or chord may be produced. This technique features in the 1968 composition Versuch über Schweine by the German composer Hans Werner Henze.


Main article: Yodelling

Yodelling is performed by rapidly alternating between a singer's chest and head voice.


Main article: Ululation

Glottal sounds[edit]

Main article: Vocal fry register

A "frying"-type sound may be produced by means of the glottis. This technique has been frequently used by Meredith Monk.


Main article: Screaming (music)


Main article: Death growl

Buccal speech[edit]

Main article: Donald Duck talk

A form of alaryngeal speech that has a high pitch that can be used for speaking and singing. It is most familiar as the voice of Donald Duck.

Non-vocal sounds[edit]

Besides producing sounds with the mouth singers can be required to clap or snap their fingers. This is usually notated by writing the appropriate word over a note. These gestures are sometimes written on a separate one line staff as well.

Artificial timbral changes[edit]

Inhalation of gases[edit]

Inhaled helium is occasionally used to drastically change the timbre of the voice. When inhaled, helium changes the resonant properties of the human vocal track resulting in a very high squeaky voice. In Salvatore Martirano’s composition L’s GA the singer is required to inhale from a helium mask.

Conversely, an unnaturally low voice may be achieved by asking the singer to inhale sulfur hexafluoride.

Artificial vocal enhancement[edit]

Amplification, possibly with electronic distortion of the voice is frequently used in contemporary composition. Through the use of various electronic distortion techniques the possibilities are nearly unlimited. A good example of this can be found in much of the music written and performed by Laurie Anderson.

Another interesting example of artificial vocal enhancement is found in Robert Newell’s Spirals in which the composers asks singers to use megaphones.

Singing into the piano[edit]

There are a number of pieces which require a singer to lean over a (sometimes amplified) piano and sing directly into the strings. If the strings are not dampened the effect is to start audible sympathetic vibrations in the piano. By far the most famous piece to use this technique is Ancient Voices of Children by George Crumb.

Notable performers using extended vocal techniques[edit]


  • Blatter, Alfred (1980). Instrumentation/Orchestration. New York: Schirmer Books.
  • Read, Gardner (1969). Music Notation. 2nd ed. Boston: Crescendo Publishing Co.
  • Edgerton, Michael Edward (2005). The 21st-Century Voice: Contemporary and Traditional Extra-Normal Voice. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.- ISBN 978-0-8108-5354-6

External links[edit]