Howling — it’s probably one of the first noises that come to mind when you think about wolves. A loud siren call echoing through the woods betraying the presence of wild canines. This cry is used by wolves to communicate over large distances and alert other packs to territory, and serves as one of humanity’s clearest signifiers of the Wild.
Whether you seek to join in the Canine Chorus, need to learn for an acting gig, or simply wish to liven up a night around the campfire, we’re here to help you announce your wolfish presence to the world. Get ready to howl!
More Than One Way to Howl
This article gives a fairly singular and specific method of imitating a wolf howl. But you don’t have to be accurate or precise. There are many different varieties of howls. Different wolf species have a higher or lower pitches, and even individual wolves of the same wolf pack have slight variations in their vocalizations that allow them to identify each other across vast distances.
Even within those individuals, the howl can be altered depending on the situation; Starting a chorus howl, joining a chorus, communicating with other packs (typically about territory disputes), slight variations in the pitching, sustain, and volume throughout the howl can convey different things. So there’s no need to fret if you have trouble repeating the same howl reliably. Consistency comes with practice, and is only necessary in more professional occasions that require continuity.
Something to Howl About
I recently had to relearn to howl for my role in the 11th Hour production, The Hunted. When I was younger and my voice was higher, I could howl with no problem. My voice was well within canine range and I didn’t have to break into my falsetto.
Cut forward several years later though and my vocal range had dropped considerably, and the depressing lack of demand for howling in adult life had left me somewhat out of practice. With three weeks to figure out a passable howl, what do I do?
Well I do what I usually do and watch Youtube.
Joking aside, both wildlife conservatories and animal enthusiasts post videos of wolves howling, frolicking, and playing, partially as a way to reduce societal fear of wolves. Many of these videos include howling, because that’s the action most associated with wolves, to the point of being mythologized in both wolf and werewolf lore.
I spent about an hour every day listening to a handful of these videos until the general tonality sunk in, and then spent the two weeks leading up to the recording making siren noises in the shower, until I was able to smooth the crack in my voice and form a passable howl. Given even more practice and even more intensive listening I could feasibly come up with an even more reliable and consistent howl than the one I rocked at the recording.
The simplest and most straightforward method to perfecting a wolf howl is to start by listening to wolves themselves. Many websites dedicated to educating people on wolves, especially those created by wolf conservatories, include videos or audio samples of wolves howling, mixed in with videos and images of them playing with their handlers. Listen to these videos and mimic the pitches like you’re at a sing-a-long. Videos are better, since you can see the wolf’s mouth shape and work to replicate that in your own vocalizations.
Anatomy of a Howl
To explain the general mechanics of the howl, I’m going to break down the howl into it’s subsections.
Two Canadian scientists, Theberge and Falls, studied the acoustics of wolf howls and divided them into three sections: The Beginning, the Midsection (which I’ll call the Sustain) and the Ending. We will begin with the meat of the howl, the Sustain, and work from there.
The heart of imitating the howl lies around your falsetto range. The sustain will invariably be a few steps above where your falsetto starts, and the break in your voice when you cross into your falsetto actually assists in mimicking the throaty sound of the howl. No matter if you start in your mid range and smoothly transition up, or start high and slur downwards, the Sustain should land roughly in the same place in your vocal range, give or take a fourth.
For me this was the hardest part of learning the howl. Because I never properly trained my falsetto, the gap between my normal range and my falsetto was considerable, my high range was weak, and my voice cracked uncomfortably while transitioning between vocal ranges.
About a week of practicing the vocal shift in the shower got me to a manageable level in time to record my lines, but it was definitely not as smoothed or well pitched as I could have been with even just a month of vocal training.
The Beginning of the howl can start anywhere in your vocal range, and even be the same note as your sustain. The most important part of the Beginning is to choose a note that feels comfortable and doesn’t require a lot of your air supply to hit. The duration of the Beginning is short, only lasting for a couple seconds at most (Flamberge and Falls generalized this to 0.5 seconds), but using more oxygen to reach an especially high or low note can prove to be your undoing in the other portions of the howl, cutting your sustain Short or making your End peter out weakly.
The End of the Howl should be pitched equal to or lower than the Sustain. As you begin to run out of breath (whatever your estimate of a quarter of a tank is), use the last of your air to gradually decrease the volume until the sound fades out. The stereotypical howl will end on a similar pitch that it started on, similar to the sound of an air raid siren. However it’s not uncommon for a real wolf’s howl to end closer to the Sustain.
It is important to note that while I am describing this process in musical terms, and beginning your practice by singing the effective range of the howl is a step in the right direction, applying actual vocal techniques to your howl may not work in your favor, particularly ones designed to improve your tonality. A wolf’s howl is breathy, and a chorus howl has no regard for tonality, musical scales, or proper harmonization. Wolves sing as a form of instinctual communication, rather than a regard for musicality. In fact, heard from a distance, a chorus of wolves sounds like little more than a hellish bacchanalia, and up close, a bunch of emergency vehicles rushing down your street toward some great fire. The vocal techniques you choose to apply should be ones focused on sustaining your breath and smoothing the break into your falsetto, as well as any techniques that improve how you emote your singing.
Your night to howl
Now that we’ve broken down the basics of each part of the Howl, it’s time to string it all back together. The sound you’re going to be using is, as expected, an elongated “how-woo”. The “how” makes up- the Beginning section of the howl, while the “woo” makes up the Sustain and End. You could conceivably use other vocalizations to shape the howl, but the important part is to maintain an O shape with the vocalization.
Get these basics down, and after a while you can start adding your own flairs, such as a triple Beginning (“How-How-How-Woo”) or a double arc, where during the End you make a second run up and down the pitch range. You can even learn to put the right strain in your vocalizations to make you howl sound mournful, whining, excited, or possibly even threatening. However, just by mastering these basic tips, you’ll be able to hold your own in any canine occasion.