My good friend, tubist and author Jack Adler-McKean, will cringe at the title of this post. He rightfully insists that:

“a multiphonic means the same thing regardless of whether its for string, wind, brass, keyboard instrument or voice: making multiple pitches sound simultaneously through the same generative process (i.e. blowing air between reeds, hitting or bowing a string, etc.). Singing and playing is just that, contemporaneous singing and playing.”

Despite Jack’s astute observation, I’m sticking to the term multiphonics! Maybe its because “contemporaneous singing and playing” is just a long and cumbersome title for a blog post, or maybe its because the term “multiphonics” has become generally accepted as also meaning singing and playing at the same time….in any case, sorry Jack!

The trumpet is clearly built to produce one note at a time. However, there are two ways in which a player can create multiphonic(!) sounds. One of these techniques is split-tones (a true mulitphonic sound) , which I covered in a previous post. The other is singing and playing simultaneously. Both techniques are difficult and require much practice.

Do re mi…

It is possible to sing one pitch while playing another. In principle, the range of possible sung notes is the same as the vocal range of the player.

Typical vocal ranges of men and women.

It is important to bear in mind that the sung notes will be significantly quieter than a typical blown note. Without muting the trumpet, the sung pitch will most likely not be heard, but rather some slight distortion or an altered sound color. Adding a quiet mute such as a practice mute or harmon (see my blog post on mutes) will greatly increase the audibility of the sung pitch.

Singing and playing with no mute.
Singing and playing with harmon mute.
Singing and playing with practice mute.

Singing and playing close intervals can produce ‘pulses,’ or ‘beats’ in the sound. Depending on the register, pulses may also occur at larger intervals.

Playing a C, singing below and above.

Make sure your notation clearly specifies which notes are to be sung and which are to be played.

anfár by Arne Sanders (2013) for two trumpets and trombone
Sanders uses two staves per part to notate playing and singing.

Practical Considerations

  • Singing and playing is quite strenuous for the player, meaning long passages using this technique should be avoided.
  • Pitch accuracy is much easier with static intervals, or when only one of the voices is moving. Even simple polyphony can be exceedingly difficult to achieve.
  • The larger the interval between the sung and played note, the more difficult pitch accuracy becomes. Intervals up to a perfect 5th tend to be fairly easy.

Notation Examples

I often see singing and playing notated on the same line. Just be sure to differentiate the note heads, as Elnaz Seyedi does here in her piece for 8 trumpets, Felsen – unerklärlich.

Felsen – unerklärlich. by Elnaz Seyed (2020)
The squiggly line indicates mute movement.
[caption: the voice here is far out of my own vocal range, but the part was played by a woman when I premiered the piece with the Monochrome Project, which worked great!]

Marcelo Toledo notates the voice on a second stave in his trumpet solo Las Soledades Mudas des Mundo. Although the voice part is probably far too high for most players male or female, the wild gesture is very clear!

The first line of Las Soledades Mudas des Mundo by Marcelo Toledo.

In his brass quintet Uns-Apparatus, Timothy McCormack uses unique notation for many things including the voice. The grey geometrical figure represents the players voice. The diagonal line indicates a glissando within a given pitch range.

Uns Apparatus (2013) by Timothy McCormack

Gold Star

This week’s gold star goes to Berlin based composer Arne Sanders for his brass trio anfár. Arne writes for the voice in a way that is very easy for the player produce while creating a beautiful, floating soundscape, like the echoes of distant brass fanfares. You can hear the first two movements of this wonderful piece below!

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