Throat Singing – The Mongolian way

Throat-singing, also called overtone-singing, is a range of singing styles in which a single vocalist sounds more than one pitch simultaneously by reinforcing certain harmonics (overtones and undertones) of the fundamental pitch. In some styles, harmonic melodies are sounded above a fundamental vocal drone.

Originally called overtone-singing in Western scholarly literature, the identification by acoustical researchers of the presence of harmonics below the vocal drone in the deep, guttural styles, as well as overtones in the more melodic styles led to adoption of the term throat-singing (a translation of the Mongolian term höömei).

Throat-singing necessitates activating different combinations of muscles to manipulate the resonating chambers of the vocal tract under sustained pressurized airflow from the stomach and chest. As with operatic singing, the technique requires years of training to master.

Throat-singers usually accompany themselves on the distinctive Inner Asian fiddle, with its pegboard often carved in the shape of a horse’s head. For an epic-narrative performance, however, the fiddle is replaced with a two-stringed plucked lute or a long board-zither. In the past, throat-singing was performed by men in ritual contexts.


Picture from: NIU Mongolian Throat Singer Brings Sounds Of Nature To Retirement Center

Female performance of throat-singing was thought to cause infertility or to bring misfortune on the performers’ menfolk for seven generations. Since the late 20th century, however, a number of female musicians have begun to challenge those taboos.

Here is an example of Mongolian Throat Singing.

Tuvan Throat Singing

To start the throat singing journey they would encourage you to start with Khöömii, basic – begin by producing a long, steady note with an open, relaxed mouth and throat. By altering lip and tongue positions to say vowels, “oooo… ohhh…. ayyy…. ahhh….. eeee….”, you will hear different overtones in ascending pitch. Cupping a hand to your ear may help you to identify these initially. Maintain one tone as you tighten your throat and stomach muscles slightly. If you choke, try a lower fundamental.

If you begin coughing, go into this tightening over a period of time to avoid damage to your voice. Hard coughing is punishing to the vocal cords…

You should now be making “electronic” sounding vowels. If any of these are extended with subtle changes to the tongue, lips, or jaw (changing one element at a time as in any controlled experiment), separate overtones will gain definition. The sounds you create are feedback leading to finer mouth control.

It may be difficult to sort out the overtones created by each position. Discover them as you work out a scale above one steady fundamental. Eventually simple melodies will emerge within a limited range. As you consciously create melody, avoid the temptation to alter the fundamental. This is basic Khöömii.

By now you should have picked up that Khöömii is steeped in Mongolian culture with origins in Shamanism (Mongolia’s national religion) and many songs are dedicated to Genghis Khan himself.

Interestingly enough the kids and I are currently learning about Mongolia and Genghis Khan and one of the stories I stumbled upon is definitely worth sharing.

In The Book of Virtues (Great book btw!) I found this story about Genghis Khan, his merry party of hunters and his favorite hawk.

This hawk was a trained hunter and at a word would fly high up into the air, and look around for prey, and if found, would swoop down upon it swiftly as any arrow.

So after a very long day filled with no success, his party took the nearest way home and Genghis went searching by a longer road for a drink.
His pet hawk left his wrist and flew away, knowing how to get home on his own.
The king searched but the hot days of summer had dried up all the mountain brooks.

At last, he found some water trickling down over the edge of a rock. He knew that there was a spring farther up. In the wet season, a swift stream of water always poured down here; but now it came only one drop at a time.
The king leaped from his horse and took a little silver cup from his hunting bag. He held it so as to catch the slowly falling drops.

It took a long time to fill the cup; and the king was so thirsty that he could hardly wait. At last it was nearly full. He put the cup to his lips, and was about to drink.

All at once there was a whirring sound in the air, and the cup was knocked from his hands. The water was all spilled upon the ground.

The king looked up to see who had done this thing. It was his pet hawk. The hawk flew back and forth a few times, and then alighted among the rocks by the spring.

The king picked up the cup, and again held it to catch the trickling drops and this time he did not wait so long.
When the cup was half full, he lifted it toward his mouth but before it had touched his lips, the hawk swooped down again, and knocked it from his hands.

And now the king began to grow angry and tried again, and for the third time the hawk kept him from drinking.The king was now very angry indeed!

“How do you dare to act so?” he cried. “If I had you in my hands, I would wring your neck!”

Then he filled his cup again. But before he tried to drink, he drew his sword.
“Now, Sir Hawk,” he said, “that is the last time.”

He had hardly spoken before the hawk swooped down and knocked the cup from his hand but the king was looking for this.
With a quick sweep of the sword he struck the bird as it passed.
The next moment the poor hawk lay bleeding and dying at its master’s feet.

“That is what you get for your pains,” said Genghis Khan.
When he started looking for his cup, he couldn’t find it.

“At any rate, I will have a drink from that spring,” he said to himself.
With determination he began climbing the steep bank to the place from which the water trickled. It was hard work, and the higher he climbed, the thirstier he became.

 At last he reached the place. There indeed was a pool of water; but what was that lying in the pool, and almost filling it?
It was a huge, dead snake of the most poisonous kind!

The king stopped as he forgot his thirst. He thought only of the poor dead bird lying on the ground below him.
“The hawk saved my life!” he cried, “and how did I repay him? He was my best friend, and I have killed him.” 

He clambered down the bank. He took the bird up gently, and laid it in his hunting bag. Then he mounted his horse and rode swiftly home.
He said to himself, “I have learned a sad lesson today, and that is, never to do anything in anger.”

Rewritten: By Nadeshda
Source: The Book of Virtues

So what does this story have to do with Mongolian Throat singing? Well not much really but it’s a good story none the less and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Obviously getting angry and cutting up your friends is never a good idea and we already know that you shouldn’t shout as this will stretch and damage your vocal chords.
If you are still curious and want to learn Mongolian Throat singing, here is a fun video on how to practice throat singing in a super easy way.

I think you will enjoy watching this guy!

How to do Mongolian Throat. (Tuvan / Tibetan / Didgeridoo)

Until next time, keep the song alive and make a joyful sound!

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