Vocal Cords: The OG Synth

April 11th 2019 by Josh Stovall
Professor Sabine Feisst
Arizona State University

Table of Contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Biographical context
  3. Historical context
  4. Genesis of the work
  5. Orchestration/Instrumentation
  6. Liberation of speech
  7. Timbre Aspects
  8. Tonality
  9. Organization of Musical Time
  10. Notation
  11. Reception & Impact
  12. Conclusion
  13. References


In this paper, I will present an analysis of Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music. I will compare the human voice to a synthesizer. I have chosen to research Dolmen Music because I am very interested in the idea of using the human voice as an instrument, rather than simply setting vocal music to text. I have always loved the piece Stimmung by Karlheinz Stockhausen. In Dolmen Music, Monk expands upon this concept of using the human voice as an instrument—freed from language. Although in an interview, Monk states: “Do you know that I’ve never heard Stimmung?”.12 Regardless of where Monk got the inspiration, she has spent her whole life dedicated to this concept.

Rather than setting text to vocal music, Monk takes a new approach and treats the human voice as a synthesizer. Monk’s style of lyric-less singing can be related to and described using the terminology electronic musicians use to describe synthesis. The larynx is an oscillator generating sound through the rhythmic opening and closing of the vocal folds. This provides the fundamental frequency of the sound. As a person modulates between “ooo” and “aah” the lips act as a low-pass filter sweep. Changing the volume of various chambers can manipulate resonant frequencies. The concept of low frequency oscillators (LFO) can also be applied. A siren vocal sound could compared to a LFO applied to the frequency of a voice. Non-periodic sounds—or “noise”—can also be produced by the human voice. For example, a “shhh” sound can be used to emulate the sound of the wind or white noise. The lips and tongue can even be used to create percussive transients. In my research I will explore the history, genesis, compositional techniques, notation, and reception of Monk’s Dolmen Music.

Biographical context

Meredith Monk was born in Lima, Peru on November 20, 1943. Monk grew up in New York during the 1950s when Manhattan was the center of the American music industry, and Monk’s mother was a pop singer often on tour. Monk studied eurhythmics at Sarah Lawrence College and began a career as a choreographer and singer.7 Monk understands her voice as an extension of physical movement, and her music as a direct expression of the body rather than of the mind. She recalls:

“ One day in 1965, while I sat at the piano vocalizing, I realized in a flash that within the voice were limitless possibilities of color, texture, character, gender, gesture, and ways of producing sound that were universal. From that time on, I began working with my own instrument — trying to discover the voices within. I explored various resonances, ways of using the breath lips, cheeks and diaphragm. I also worked with the extremes of my range and quick changes from one vocal quality to another so that my voice could be a flexible conduit for the energy and impulses that began to emerge. ” source

Monk explores the timbral possibilities of the human voice, freed from speech, often evoking synth-like textures. She describes her own style as “working with the solo voice as an instrument” and over the years she has “developed a vocabulary and style designed to utilize as wide a range of vocal sounds as possible.”12

Historical context

Monk’s Dolmen Music was a very new idea at the time. A few of Monk’s contemporaries, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Harry Partch, had experimented with this concept before. Although Monk is the first composer to explore this concept in such depth. Monk writes that her method “began as one of trial and error” in which she would experiment by “translating certain concepts, feelings, images and energies” and then “refine them into a musical form.”13

The word “dolmen” refers to a prehistoric monument of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab and thought to be a tomb.4 Monk recalls a 1977 trip to La Roche-aux-Fées in France:

“ We were driving through little back pack roads past farms and suddenly there were the huge rocks in the shape of a table. You could feel the energy of those rocks. It had a very mysterious quality because it was hard to figure out exactly how they had been placed that way. Somehow Monica and I just started singing. I later wrote some phrases and realized the connect to these rocks, so I called it ‘Dolmen Music’. I was thinking about Druids, the ancient people who had constructed this table. I was trying to make music that had a kind of primordial quality but also a futuristic quality at the same time. Because when you were there you felt that it could have been creatures from another planet that had constructed that table. That’s what it felt like. ” 12

Genesis of the work

In 1978, Monk formed her chamber group Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble also known as M6. Dolmen Music was the first work Monk created after forming her own ensemble. Monk recalls that working with M6 was very exciting because she could “work with more complex forms in terms of color and texture” and “really play with vocal landscape”.12 Dolmen Music was written in 1978, recorded in 1980, and released in 1981 on the ECM New Series record label.6


Dolmen Music is a piece of chamber music written for six voices: three male and three female, accompanied by a cello. In one section of the piece, a vocalist plays across the cello strings with chopsticks while the cellist bows below. The instrumentation is acoustic, although microphones are often used for amplification during performances. Monk explores the limits of the voice and writes that in her ensemble music, her goal is to “work with the unique quality of each voice” and to “play with the possibilities of unison, texture, counterpoint, and weaving”.13 Monk’s style resembles Native American, Balkan, and Tibetan vocalization techniques, although she suggests one can create music in all styles of the world if they ignore the learned restrictions imposed by Western music tradition.12

Liberation of speech

The evolutionary origins of speech are unknown and subject to debate and speculation. Monk believes that “the voice itself is a very eloquent language” and that singing English on top of it is like “singing two languages at the same time”.13 In any given language, a person’s emotion is codified into syntax, which is bottlenecked by their lexicon, then decoded by the listener. Although, there are many universal intentional speech acts that convey meaning such as declaring, asking, persuading, intonation, and degrees of loudness and tempo. For example, no matter one’s native language, everyone laughs when happy and shouts in fear. Due to these universal traits, emotion can still be expressed in lyric-less vocal music despite the absence of an actual language. Monk writes:

“ I realized the voice could have the same kind of flexibility and range that the body has, and that you could find a language for the voice that had the same individuality as a dance’s movement, that you could find a vocabulary that was actually built on your own voice. ” 8

The result is a sort of pre-linguistic expression, that transcends the limitations of speech. Monk describes language of the voice as a “direct line to the emotions”.8

Timbre Aspects

Once freed from language, the human voice becomes a synthesizer—utilized for its timbral possibilities. Monk herself even states that the voice can “do almost anything that electronics can do”.12 There are many methods to manipulate timbre as air travels from the lungs, through the vocal folds, and out of the lips to produce sound. Monk’s goal is to “extend the voice in as many ways as possible” utilizing resonating chambers, various syllables, positions of the mouth, the tongue, the lips, and breathing techniques.3 In Dolmen Music, Monk was experimenting with different speeds of vibrato. A vocalist singing with vibrato is much like a synthesist using an LFO to detune an oscillator.


Dolmen Music is largely in key of D minor, although many textures and sections could be described as atonal. Monk experiments with microtones typically in the form of glissandi between pitches—similar to turning the oscillator frequency knob on a synthesizer. Monk often uses indeterminate pitch to create tension. Choral music does not need to be limited to tonal repertoire, although typically is due to the limitations of the Western music notation system. In Dolmen Music motives are used—both rhythmic and melodic. Simultaneous sonorities are used to harmonize, often in parallel motion. Melodic lines are imitated between voices creating contrapuntal textures, similar to a delay effect on a synthesizer.

Organization of Musical Time

Dolmen Music is a twenty-four minute epic journey. Form is created through repetition, and ostinatos are used to develop sections. Dolmen Music could certainly be considered “minimalist” or “process” music. Although when asked about minimalism, Monk states “I don’t like the term” and that she utilizes repetition as a “carpet for the voice to fly from and back onto”.12 The large scale form of Dolmen Music consists of six sections: “Overture,” “Men’s Conclave,” “Wa-ohs,” “Rain,” “Pine Tree Lullaby,” “Calls,” and “Conclusion”.13

“Overture” begins as the cello establishes a legato C4-D4-C4-Bb3 motive using harmonics. This establishes the key of D minor. A female voice enters “ah-oo” on A3-D4. After a few repetitions, this is echoed in a second voice. The sections develops as more voices layer, and grow into the next section.

“Men’s Conclave” begins with a stoic D minor all-male chord progression. As the section evolves, a lead soprano voice joins and creates tensions and interest by gradually changing from a round “choral” sound to a very bright nasal technique. This could be compared to the manipulation of a low-pass filter on a synthesizer.

“Wa-ohs” begins with a male voice singing a rapid sequence of “wa-oh-oh-wa-oh-wa-wa-oh-wa-oh-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah”. The difference between the two sounds creates a mixed-meter rhythmic effect which can be compared to synthesist using a sequencer. Monk uses the placement of stress on certain syllables to create a sense of rhythmic phrasing. After the first declaration, a second voice enters one octave lower. More voices layer in and each singer adds slight unique variations, resulting in a thick interesting texture.

“Rain” begins with legato cello ostinato: F1-D1-E1. After four phrases, a solo female staccato “na-na-na” is introduced. Another voice enters and responds with “na- na-na-na”. This evolves and grows as more voices layer. By the end there are four parts hocketing to create a texture reminiscent of Steve Reich’s counterpoint style. This section concludes with a final F1-D1-E1 from the cello.

“Pine Tree Lullaby” begins with choral homophony. A six chord progression is established, and a new voice is added each repetition. In this section, a vocalist strikes the strings of the cello along the neck using chopsticks as the cellist bows the returning F1-D1-E1 motif. The percussive texture sounds “prickly” like a pine cone.

“Calls” is the shortest section in Dolmen Music. It features a male and female conversation consisting of free-form yodeling. Yodeling is a technique in which a singer rapidly alternates pitch between their chest and head voice.4 This could be compared to a square wave LFO applied to the fundamental frequency of a synthesizer.

In the “Conclusion” of Dolmen Music, all previous motives layer building tension to a chaotic explosion. Each voice retains its unique identity by layering “under, not on top of its neighbors”.12 After the climax, Dolmen Music ends with a stoic parallel organum cadential phrase.


Scores for Monk’s early works are unpublished and many do not even exist. Monk herself is dissatisfied with scores, calling them “misleading”. She states:

“ I don't know how you would notate some of the vocal work...and I don't know if I want to or not. I do want to pass my work on. I think that the way it's made comes from a primal, oral tradition that is much more about music for the ears. In Western culture, paper has sometimes taken over the function of what music always was. ” 13

Traditional notation lacks a system it express to timbre. In Monk’s music, a performer can sing all the notes on the page and it may not even resemble the piece due to the lack of a system to notate timbral changes. This is also a problem that arises when attempting to notate synthesizer music.

In 2001, Monk signed a publishing deal with Boosey and Hawkes to distribute her scores.14 Boosey and Hawkes was responsible for transcribing Monk’s music using non-traditional notation symbols, and codifying her vocal techniques to “text” for the first time. Dolmen Music leaves a great deal room for flexibility and improvisation, although the concept of “chance” is not an aspect of the composition itself. Monk emphasizes that referencing audio recordings is essential to performance practice and interpretation.11

Monk's Non-Traditional Notation
Figure 1. An example of Monk’s non-traditional notation.11

Monk’s notation often includes wavy lines—similar to the notation of John Cage’s Aria. Monk writes:

“ I have always thought that sound and space were inseparable so that one could visualize or chart out sonic impulses. Each of these etchings map out of reflects an aspect of the human voice, a particular vocal world. Each etching can be sung or just enjoyed for the marks on the page. ” 9

Reception & Impact

Dolmen Music is often described as “folk music from another planet”.13 New Musical Express reviewed Dolmen Music as the 42nd best album in 1981, and NPR rated Dolmen Music as number 147 of the “150 Greatest Albums Made by Women”.1 Reviews are generally overwhelming positive, although Neil on YouTube writes: “i have tried to listen to it, never managed to play more than the first minute or so. What a load of utter **@*”.10

Monk’s lyric-less style reminds me of popular modern production technique of vocal chopping. This concept of chopping up a vocal recording into seemingly random fragments and playing them back on a sampler is very common in popular EDM music. Much like Monk’s techniques, vocal chopping disregards the concept of language, but still manages to reach the innate attachment to the sound of the human voice.

Monk’s music is certainly inspiration for Icelandic singer, Björk—notably on her 2004 album Medúlla. Various artists have used Dolmen Music as the source material for adaptations. DJ Shadow sampled Dolmen Music on his track "Midnight in a Perfect World" from the 1996 album Endtroducing.2 In 2017, music producer Moa Pillar released Dolmen Music Remix on SoundCloud. Dolmen Music has also been adapted to dance.


Very few have broken as much new ground and challenged the status quo in such a way as Meredith Monk. Monk’s vocal-less style begs the questions: Is this what music sounded like before language developed? Were composers more creative before the constraints of human language? We may never know.

Text setting does provide a meaningful layer of expression, although words themselves may have different emotional context from person to person. Many linguists believe all languages are derived from an innate source—largely genetically encoded.8 If this is the case, Monk may have unlocked the true universal language. Monk will go down in history as the composer to liberate the voice from language.


  • 1. "Albums And Tracks Of The Year: 1981". New Musical Express. October 10, 2016.nme.com.
  • 2. DJ Shadow, "Midnight in a Perfect World,” track 11 on Endtroducing. San Francisco: Mo' Wax, 1996, CD.
  • 3. Jowitt, Deborah. Art + Performance: Meredith Monk. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • 4. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2003.
  • 5. Monk, Meredith. “Biography.” meredithmonk.org.
  • 6. Monk, Meredith. Dolmen Music. ECM Records, 1981. ecmrecords.com.
  • 7. “Monk, Meredith.” American Mavericks, edited by Susan Key and Larry Rothe, 106-108. San Francisco: The University of California Press, 2001. sfsymphony.org.
  • 8. Monk, Meredith. “Notes on the Voice." Art + Performance, edited by Deborah Jowitt, 56-57. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • 9. Monk, Meredith. Vocal Gestures. Santa Monica: Edition Jacob Samuel, 2003.
  • 10. Neil Paisnel, 2009, comment on thestandingroom, "Dolmen Music: Meredith Monk Music Third Generation," YouTube, 2008. youtube.com.
  • 11. Siadat, Fahad. “Exploring Timbre in Choral Music.” New Music Box. March 26, 2018. newmusicusa.org.
  • 12. Strickland, Edward. "Voices/Visions: An Interview with Meredith Monk." Art + Performance, edited by Deborah Jowitt, 56-57. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • 13. Taruskin, Richard. “Millennium’s End.” Music in the Late Twentieth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music, 473-528. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • 14. “Meredith Monk”, Boosey and Hawkes. Accessed April 10 2019. boosey.com