Mongolian Throat Singing

A Lesson in Ethnomusicology

The Alash Tuvan Throat Singing EnsemblePhoto Credit

When most think of throat singing, they often insert the word Mongolian in there as well. That’s because they are inseparable, that there is only Mongolian throat singing–no other types. However, that is false. In fact, many continents have some form of throat singing (also more generally called overtone singing). Asia has Tuvan/Mongolian throat singing (from my understanding, the two styles come from a root style, I’ll use the term Tuvan to be more specific), Europe has the Scandinavian kulning (I am not 100% if this is actually overtone singing, or just really high pitched), and North America has the Inuit people’s katajjaq. While these are all interesting (I think my favorite is kulning, but I cannot do it), this blog post will only discuss the finer points of Tuvan Throat Singing.

So why write a blog post about Tuvan Throat Singing? Yes, it seems like a cool semi-distant subject that people would like to know more about, but not necessarily have to do it by themselves. However, I want to write about this today, because I learned how to do it myself. One night I got really bored of doing homework, and then found myself with a weird compulsion of wanting to learn how to Tuvan Throat Sing. It was only a couple weeks later that I was walking around campus throat singing at squirrels like a mad-lad. From that one night full of procrastination came this weird ethnomusicological passion that I have–throat singing.

The Mechanics of Throat Singing

So how does one actually do the deed of singing with their throat? Well it’s not super complicated, and you can learn it for free on YouTube. I can say that confidently because that’s how I did it. However, regarding the physical acoustics of the act, it is quite simple; and I will try to explain it so non-musically inclined people can understand. However, before I can explain throat singing, I must explain regular singing.

Representation of soundwaves from speech (top) and singing (bottom) Photo Credit

Think of any singer you love: Josh Groban, Pentatonix, Taylor Swift, Chinese Opera, etc. When they all sing songs, they produce a constant stream of specific pitches, interconnected to form a melody. This differs from talking everyday, because while talking does produce pitch (some people talk high, and some talk low), it is unorganized. What separates overtone singers and nearly every other person who sings on Earth is the amount of pitches they produce at the same time. While Taylor Swift can produce one tone that changes in pitch across a song, overtone singers can produce the bare minimum of two tones simultaneously (the note the singer focuses the overtones on is called the fundamental). It is this difference that gives Throat Singing its iconic sound, which then varies depending on the style.

In each style of throat singing, the amalgamation of these pitches change so as to produce a different timbre. For our purposes, we will limit the styles to Tuvan Throat Singing which has three fundamental styles. Our first style is called Xoomei (there are some who debate the proper spelling of this, but I don’t want to get caught up in the semantics of this), sounds like what you would stereotypically expect throat singing to sound like. It sound ‘throaty’ and has some whistling pitches that pop in occasionally. Then in Sygyt, we hear a very high pitched whistling noise, where the throaty-ness of the last style has vanquished. Then lastly in Kargyraa, we see the complete opposite of Sygyt, where there is a strong throat sound, and no high pitches at all. There are other style of Tuvan Throat singing, but they are often thought of as just embellishing these three just described.

While you could knock yourself out analysing the pitch relationships between the fundamental note and the overtones of each style, I will try to explain them briefly so you don’t have to (unless you want to of course). In Xoomei, most of the notes are contained within a couple octaves, with some of those whistles going higher. This gives it its more earthy sound, which is supposed to represent wind swirling through rocks. Sygyt on the other hand purifies all the muddiness of Xoomei into overtones that occur only many octaves above the fundamental, which supposedly sounds like birds. Lastly, with Kargyraa, an anatomical anomaly occurs. While all sound is usually produced from the vocal folds, in Kargyraa the false vocal folds are engaged as well. This causes a perfect 2:1 relationship between the fundamental and the ‘overtone’ to occur, causing a note exactly one octave below the fundamental to sound (I’m not sure what indigenous/animalistic sound this is supposed to represent).

It is all of these interesting little facts about throat singing that kept my passion for it alive, beyond just mere procrastination. I hope you all enjoyed learning some neat little ethnomusicological facts. I do understand most people do not want to do it, however if you ever want to talk about or learn, please don’t hesitate to tweet me @KoreaEatsRice!

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