Radio GoGo Episode 7: The Lucifer Rising Soundtracks

•August 15, 2017 • 3 Comments

Radio GoGo Episode 6: Talkin’ Kerry Thornley w/ Allen Greenfield & Synchronos23

•August 15, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Occult Icons & The Matrix: PK Dick, Ken Anger, R.A. Wilson, Manson, LaVey

•June 24, 2017 • 2 Comments

Radio GoGo Episode 5: John Judge’s Unidentified Fascist Observatories

•June 2, 2017 • 7 Comments

Radio GoGo Episode 4: The Sean David Morton Chronicles

•June 1, 2017 • 1 Comment

Radio GoGo Episode 3: In Search of the Phantom Tone

•May 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In Search of the Phantom Tone

•May 15, 2017 • 4 Comments

David Crosby & Graham Nash

“On a couple of occasions, we’ve listened to playback of us singing together, looked at each other, and gone: “Who the fuck is singing that third voice?” When we isolate our voices, there is no third part! Together, the air and wave generation of our voices created a ghost harmonic, a third harmony that is only sometimes evident when we sing duet.”
– Graham Nash, Wild Tales

A couple years back I stumbled upon this passage in which Graham Nash referred to a “ghost harmonic”; in essence a third harmony or voice created by singing duet with David Crosby. Reading this was one of those “a ha!” moments that brought to mind a couple of experiences I’d had with a related phenomenon. The first instance occurred in the late ‘70s when a band of musician friends decided to drop acid (I did, as well) at a practice session, and during the course of their set I observed this ghost harmonic effect, very similar to how Nash described it in Wild Tales, as if the instruments playing together had somehow created another tone—separate and unique on top of the other instruments—adding an extra dimension to the music. It was much more than a subtle sound; it was as prominent as any of the other instruments, perhaps even more pronounced.

During a break—when I attempted to describe to the guys what I’d heard—everyone looked at me funny (not “ha-ha” funny, but “are you crazy?” funny.) Evidently, none of them heard what I had—they probably assumed it was just the acid talking. Attempting to describe this “ghost harmonic” effect was no easy feat—coupled with the fact I was tripping balls only complicated the matter—so I dropped the subject yet afterwards remained convinced I’d heard something.

In 2005, I experienced this again during a performance of Tuvan throat singers—as if some ethereal being entered the room and joined in with the band—it was eerie and sublime at the same time. When I attempted to describe what I’d heard,  my wife gave me that puzzled look I’ve come to know all too well and I realized that whatever I’d experienced was for my own ears only.

Tuvan Thraot Singers in Mongolia 2005.

Tuvan throat singers performance in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, 2005. Photo by Adam Gorightly.

Recently I heard a piece of Tuvan throat singer music and flashed on the passage from Nash’s book, which prompted me once again to look into this phenomenon. But, of course, when I dug up my copy of Wild Tales, I spent several fruitless minutes flipping through the pages trying to locate the particular passage where Nash talked about this, and couldn’t find it right off, nor could I quite remember the exact phrase he had used (ghost harmonic) to describe it.

I wanted to reach out to others to see if this was a common experience, or unique only to a handful of humans with strange brains like mine. However, language remained an obstacle in relating whatever it was I had heard. The best descriptor I could come up with was phantom tone; a search term that led me to an post that sounded  similar to my own experiences.

Afterwards, I surfed to social media—in 140 characters or less—and tweeted:


Shortly after, I heard back from a Discordian colleague, John Fenderson, who informed me: “I’ve not only experienced it, many years back part of my job was to manufacture such sounds.”

As it turns out, Fenderson worked as an assistant for neuroscience researcher Terry Takahashi in the mid 1990s at the University of Oregon auditory processing lab.

“Essentially,” he explained, “what you’re talking about is the ‘missing fundamental’ effect.”

As I soon learned, descriptions of the missing fundamental get bogged down in scientific jargon. Here’s a somewhat ponderous wiki page description which cites several academic sources. I’ll leave it up to the reader if they wish to go there and drill down deeper, but the first two introductory paragraphs sum it up best:

“A harmonic sound is said to have a missing fundamental, suppressed fundamental, or phantom fundamental when its overtones suggest a fundamental frequency but the sound lacks a component at the fundamental frequency itself. The brain perceives the pitch of a tone not only by its fundamental frequency, but also by the periodicity implied by the relationship between the higher harmonics; we may perceive the same pitch (perhaps with a different timbre) even if the fundamental frequency is missing from a tone.
“It was once thought that this effect was because the missing fundamental was replaced by distortions introduced by the physics of the ear. However, experiments subsequently showed that when a noise was added that would have masked these distortions had they been present, listeners still heard a pitch corresponding to the missing fundamental, as reported by J. C. R. Licklider in 1954. It is now widely accepted that the brain processes the information present in the overtones to calculate the fundamental frequency. The precise way in which it does so is still a matter of debate, but the processing seems to be based on an autocorrelation involving the timing of neural impulses in the auditory nerve…”

Here’s a more concise definition from the Collins online dictionary:

“A tone, not present in the sound received by the ear, whose pitch is that of the difference between the two tones that are sounded…”

In subsequent conversations with John Fenderson, he fleshed out the nitty gritty of the missing fundamental effect:

“It’s illusory, but not in the usual way. Your brain genuinely hears it, but it’s an artifact. When the overtones of a sound suggest a chord, but the fundamental frequency of that chord is missing, you’ll hear it anyway. The reason for this has to do with a specialized part of your brain.
“You keep a map of the auditory space around you at all times. I mean this in a rather physical sense: you can literally sink electrodes into this part of your brain and read the spatial map.
“The way the processing of this map works, when a missing fundamental happens, it is represented in the map anyway, and you end up hearing it when the later auditory processing happens. Again, you can literal sink an electrode in there are detect the missing fundamental.
“This is more likely to happen if you are under the influence of certain drugs,  as you discovered, or if you are in a very noisy environment (for certain types of noise), or cacophonies. People often hear them when an orchestra is tuning their instruments, although they rarely notice it. Since all it takes is a certain mathematical relationship between overtones, it’s very easy to make this happen on purpose.”

Once you key into the missing elemental, as Fenderson explained me, it becomes more obvious and you’ll begin to notice it with an increasing regularity. This is exactly what started happening to me recently, most notably when I was practicing a vocal exercise course—basically mimicking piano scales with my voice—and I’ll be dipped if I didn’t start noticing the effect.

According to Fenderson, Tuvan throat singers have figured out how to produce the missing fundamental. In modern culture, high-end headphone manufacturers use the ‘missing fundamental’ effect to optimize the listening experience. The effect can actually be “shaped” into a perceived space by the adjustment of frequencies to induce the phenomenon, or at least give someone a better chance of ‘hearing’ it.


For more on the ‘missing fundamental’, feast your ears on the latest episode of Radio GoGo.

Also check out this episode of Greg Bishop’s Radio Misterioso featuring Mr. Fenderson and yours truly discussing not only the ‘missing fundamental’ but a whole lot of other stuff related to consciousness and perception.

Fenderson’s illuminating blog can be found here.