A World of Music: Voice

Nov 11, 2020

For the last month or so, we’ve been exploring the wider world of musical instruments. We began with the Spanish guitar, and have since covered keyboard instruments, drums, brass, strings, and flutes. But this week we’re going to explore an instrument that is common to nearly every human culture that has ever existed or will exist: the human voice.

With so many different cultures in the world, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there are countless styles and variations when it comes to using the human voice as a musical instrument.

Let’s dive right in and explore the incredible diversity of singing!

Eephing – or Hillbilly Beatboxing

Eephing, or eefing, can probably best be described as “hillbilly beat boxing” – although it predates what we think of beatboxing today by nearly a century! This fast-paced Appalachian singing style can basically be broken down into three categories of sound: 1/3 saying “eef” (or another vowel + f), 1/3 mouth-farting, and 1/3 gasping. Jennifer Sharpe, who profiled legendary eepher Jimmie Riddle on NPR, described it as “a kind of hiccupping, rhythmic wheeze.”

This unique style of singing originated in rural Tennessee, where eephers would imitate the sounds of their livestock.

Eephing has never quite made it to mainstream success, but it did enjoy its 15 minutes of fame in 1963 when Riddle was featured on Joe Perkin’s single “Little Eefin’ Annie,” which went on to reach #76 on the Billboard chart.


This style of vocal performance is sometimes colorfully referred to as “Indian scat singing,” or “Indian beatboxing,” and the similarities are clear. Konnakol is actually the South Indian art of vocal percussion, and is a component of “solkattu,” the language of drum syllables, along with “tala” (or “taal”), the percussive part done with the hand on a “mridangam” drum. With tala, the performer keeps the meter with waves, claps, and finger counts, while vocalizing the konnakol at the same time.

Performers of this intricate style must learn very complex, systematic, almost grammatical rules and techniques to create the rapid-ride vocal percussion. And just like any advanced musical style, it needs to be seen, as well as heard, to be fully appreciated. John McLaughlin, a British musician and guitar virtuoso who studied kannakol said, “if you can understand kannakol – the most superior system of learning rhythm in the world – you can understand any rhythm from any country on the planet.”


Hollerin’ is about as ancient a singing tradition as they come, with its origins dating back to the earliest days of human language. It has long served a practical purpose: communication over long distances.

One notable, and important, subgenre of hollerin’ is the African-American slave created “field hollerin’,” which is considered a close relative to the “work song.” Thought of as a potential grandfather to the blues, field hollerin’ doesn’t appear on any recordings until the mid-1930s, but it is known to have much older roots. It uses falsetto, portamento (sliding from one pitch to another), and sudden pitch changes.

Today, there are all sorts of different purposes for hollerin’, including distress (danger), communication (usually just a basic greeting), functional (farming calls), and just for the sheer joy of it! Although hollerin’ has become functionally dead for some time, a revival of the art has been underway in North Carolina since 1969, in the form of The National Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner. Held the 3rd Saturday every June, the contest hopes to keep the legacy alive!

Tuvan Throat Singing

Throat singers are able to do something pretty incredible: they can sing multiple pitches at the same time! These performers, from the Siberian region of Tuva, use a vocal technique that is found all over the world called “overtone singing.” Although this technique is common to many cultures, it likely originated in Mongolia, in the regions known as Khovd and Govi-Altai today. Traditionally, these “xöömei” have always been men, but more and more women are now learning the practice as well.

The first time you hear throat singing can be breathtaking! The sound in otherworldly, and unlike the styles and genres we’re more familiar with here in the West. The performer starts with a low, deep droning sound, and then begins to break it up into component tones, and amplifies each one individually so it can be heard as a distinct note.

This style of singing is tremendously difficult to master thanks to the incredible complexity of the technique. Throat singers must use circular breathing to maintain a continuous and unbroken sound, then control different parts of their throat and mouth (lips, tongue, velum, and larynx) to create echo chambers in their vocal folds. Only then can they manipulate the sound to create the distinct, multi-faceted, and wonderfully unique music.


Have you ever heard the legend of the screaming banshees of Ireland? The wailing, unsettling sound the banshee makes is called “keening,” and it is a type of musical, vocal lamentation most commonly associated with Ireland, though it can be found in different forms across cultures.

Although it’s not very common today (most keening stopped in Ireland around the early 1900s), it was once a standard part of Irish funerals. “Keeners” performed “caoineadh” at wakes and funerals as a way of bringing the community together in a display of grief. Keeners would praise the deceased, but also hurl wailed curses at those who had done the deceased wrong in life. The Keeners held an important role by helping the community manage death.

Although keening is most well known in Ireland, the practice may actually go as far back as the Israelites (or even further), who may have passed the tradition along through Eastern civilizations, then through the Greeks and Romans.

Have you always wanted to stretch your vocal muscles and give singing lessons a try? Look no further than The Music Studio!

Every musician, from beginners to more advanced students, can benefit from one-on-one vocal lessons at The Music Studio. There’s no substitute for learning from a professional teacher dedicated to your progress. Call The Music Studio at 416.234.9268, or visit https://www.themusicstudio.ca/vocal-lessons.php to sign up! Our vocal lessons are booked on an individual basis, which means you can start at any time!