Throat-Singing: Resonating Harmonies

Throat-Singing: Resonating Harmonies

How can anyone describe Tuvan throat-singing? Yes, scientifically it’s that esophagus-defying musical talent of producing two or more tones at once by manipulating the resonance in the mouth, larynx and pharynx – like human bagpipes. To me, it’s magically mesmerizing!

Explaining how to throat-sing in Tuva, Russia </br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Explaining how to throat-sing in Tuva, Russia
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Tuvan Throat-Singing, Montana StyleI first heard Tuvan throat-singing in – of all places – the backwaters of Bozeman, Montana. My next-door neighbor was Honorary Consul of Mongolia, and invited a Tuvan group to Bozeman, performing to a packed, sold-out auditorium. The Tuvan throat-singers stayed next door at my neighbor’s spread, where they practiced shooting rifles with their hands (we all lived in the country) and stomping through deep snow with their feet when they weren’t singing with their throats.

They stopped by my house to chat in Russian and tell me how excited they were to be in Montana, then handed me a “Tuva or Bust” bumper sticker along with their latest CD. Then, to my surprise, they started singing – sounds of rivers, winds, and birds. My cats ran away. In Russian, one singer told me that our Montana cowboys like to sing, and Tuvans do, too. A few days later those Tuvans were singing live on NBC’s “Today Show.”

Tuvan musician in Tuva, Russia

Sounds of NatureSo what does it sound like, these human bagpipes of Tuvan throat-singers? The wind? river? birds? camels? Yes to all. The mesmerizing chant of throat-singing tries to mimic the sounds of nature, but is like nothing you have ever heard, with multiple layers of overtones from one singer alone. This unparalleled art of throat-singing is designated a UNESCO “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” 

Tuvan singers can mimic the sound of a rushing river </br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Tuvan singers can mimic the sound of a rushing river
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Do-Re-MiThere are several styles of throat singing, often accompanied on a horsehead fiddle. They include:

  • Sygyt, the brightest style, sounds a bit like whistling – like a bird.
  • Khoomei, a softer style with slightly muffled tones, is reminiscent of the wind.
  • Borbannadyr, a style producing a very low, growling sound – think camel cries.

It takes more than vocal chords to make this music. It also requires moving the tongue, jaw and lips, with each variation producing a new tone.

Where’s Tuva?Tuva is a tiny autonomous area of Russia, tucked between southern Siberia and Mongolia. Historically semi-nomadic, Tuvans share a cultural heritage with Mongolia, their religions based in Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism. Many Tuvans still tend herds of yaks, sheep, and reindeer, and live in yurts in the summertime. Surrounded by those sounds of nature, Tuvans replicate them in their throats.

Historically semi-nomads, Tuvans are surrounded by nature </br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Historically semi-nomads, Tuvans are surrounded by nature
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

“Republic of Tuva” sign, in Russian
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Presidential PeekEven former Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin couldn’t figure out how these Tuvans sing. When master throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar sang for him in 1994, President Yeltsin insisted on peeking inside his mouth to see if there was something sneaky going on – like a secret device – making that music. Really!

Soviet President Yeltsin once peered into the throat of Tuvan singer Kongar-ol Ondar </br>Photo credit: Bill Loewy, Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Yeltsin once peered into the throat of Tuvan singer Kongar-ol Ondar
Photo credit: Bill Loewy, Wikimedia Commons

Singing the HitsYou’ll hear throat-singing in places like Mongolia and in the South Siberian regions of Tuva and Buryatia, all part of a rich cultural oral tradition. Kongar-ol Ondar, the “Liberace of Tuvan music” and the singer whose mouth was checked out by President Yeltsin, has been featured in Rose Bowl parades, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded with Willie Nelson and Frank Zappa.

Today, Tuvan throat singers are especially popular, filling concert halls in the U.S., making national TV appearances, creating CDs, and even selling “Tuva or Bust!” bumper stickers. Female Tuvan throat singers are growing in popularity as well. Coming from such a cold climate, throat-singing is surprisingly hot!


Travel To Tuva with MIRYou can hear what authentic Tuvan throat-singing sounds like by the popular . Even better, you can listen to throat-singing in person on MIR tours:

(Top photo credit: Martin Klimenta) 

PUBLISHED: June 11, 2014

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