LINGUIST List 4.1065

Thu 16 Dec 1993

Disc: Tuvan throat-singing

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  1. "Vern M. Lindblad", Q: Tuvan throat-singing

Message 1: Q: Tuvan throat-singing

Date: Fri, 10 Dec 1993 02:55:07 Q: Tuvan throat-singing
From: "Vern M. Lindblad" <>
Subject: Q: Tuvan throat-singing

Ever since I first heard Tuvan throat-singing on NPR's "All Things
Considered" several years ago, I've been intrigued by this extraordinarily
complicated form of vocal gymnastics. For those who haven't experienced
it, you can get a rough approximation for at least some of the five
canonical styles by imagining a man singing a very low, droning sound
while simultaneously someone whistles a melody. But -- it's all being
done by one singer (almost always a man), through exquisite control of
overtones! This musical art is related to the overtone singing/chanting
done (especially by Buddhist monks) in Tibet and Mongolia, but the Tuvans
have taken it further, to the point where some Tuvans can even produce
three audible tones simultaneously.

The most specific explanation that I've gotten is in the notes
accompanying the Smithsonian Folkways CD, "Tuva: Voices from the Center
of Asia." According to them, "By precise movements of the lips, tongue,
jaw, velum, and larynx, singers can selectively intensify vocally produced
harmonics.... Normally ... the numerous harmonics that add "body" to a
tone are less loud than the fundamental frequency that tells a listener
what musical pitch is being played or sung. We hear harmonics only as
coloring, not as distinct notes. In throat-singing, the opposite is true.
Harmonics can be made louder than the drone note from which they arise.
In Tuva, high harmonic pitches are sequenced into melodies and manipulated
with extreme virtuosity in a number of canonized styles." Thereupon
follows a transcription in musical notation of the melody of one of the
tracks on the CD, showing on the bass clef a drone note that is held for
37 beats, while a melodic line consisting mostly of eighth and quarter
notes runs above it on the trebel clef. In addition, above each note on
the treble clef is annotated the number of the harmonic that it
constitutes relative to the drone tone. The sequence of harmonics begins:
9 10 12 12 10 8 9 10 9 10 8 6 8 9 10 12 12 10; then precisely the same
sequence of overtones is repeated with the same durations, excepting only
the last 3 notes, for which a 5-note ending is substituted. I find the
idea of this kind and degree of control of overtones virtually

When three Tuvans performed here in Seattle last January, two other
phonology grad students and a phonetician also attended the concert (along
with an SRO crowd), but none of them managed to help me understand this
vocal phenomenon much better. The emcee at the concert told the audience
that the Tuvans can't explain anything about how they make such sounds (a
claim that is probably best taken with the proverbial grain of salt). So
my primary query comes down to this: Can anybody out there explain any
details of the articulatory mechanism of Tuvan throat-singing beyond the
suggestive comments I've cited from those liner notes? It strikes me that
the sorts of multiple articulations implicated here probably far surpass
in both complexity and requisite precision the sorts of multiple
articulations (mostly of clicks) discussed in Sagey's (1986) dissertation.

Incidentally, if anyone is interested in hearing them in person, two of
those same Tuvans we were privileged to hear last January will again be
touring the USA along with two others in January 1994, performing under
the name of 'Huun-Huur-Tu'. According to the Fall, 1993 issue of the
Friends of Tuva newsletter, their itinerary, with contact phone numbers,
is as follows:

San Diego CA: Thurs, Jan 6. Contact (619) 534-4119
San Luis Obispo CA: Friday, Jan 7. (805) 756-7111
Stanford CA: Saturday, January 8. (415) 723-2551
Ashland OR: Sunday, January 9. (503) 552-6461
Seattle WA: Wednesday, Jan 12. (206) 789-9491
Minneapolis MN: Friday, Jan 14. (612) 338-2674
Chicago IL: Saturday, January 15. (312) 525-7793
Springfield OH: Thursday, Jan 20. (513) 327-7815
Columbus OH: Friday, January 21. (614) 292-5785
Philadelphia PA: Saturday, Jan 22. (215) 387-5125
Washington DC: Sunday, Jan 23. (202) 357-4157
Durham NC: Monday, January 24. (919) 684-6654
Somerville MA: Friday, January 28. (617) 876-4275
New York NY: Saturday, Jan 29. (212) 545-7536

Also,  FoT newsletter, Ry Cooder scored the new film _Geronimo_ (to be
released soon - Dec 10?), and he thought Tuvan music would be more
appropriate than authentic Apache music for the film, because what's left
of Apache music is so irritating to white people that you couldn't use it
for an hour and a half, whereas the music of the Tuvans, with its pure
harmonics and its firm connection to wide open spaces, seemed to be well
suited for the film. The newsletter is unclear about exactly how much
Tuvan music got included in _Geronimo_, but at least during the final
scene, Kaigal-ool Khovalyg sings 'Lament Over a Lost Friend'.

Furthermore, as a footnote to this story that might partially legitimize
throwing together an Asian musical genre and a native American
historical/cultural context, somebody once sent in an intriguing reference
to FoT describing a Sioux chief singing in two voices, but unfortunately
the citation got lost -- does anyone on Linguist List have any references
or insights?.

(And finally, at the risk of entering the realm of wild speculations, does
anyone find this at all suggestive about the Bering land-bridge?
Obviously the Sioux weren't Buddhists like the other practitioners of
overtone singing mentioned above, but isn't it perhaps conceivable that
some form of this vocal technique could antedate Buddhism by millenia, and
go back as far as the last ice age? An older Shamanism coexists with the
newer Buddhism in Tuvan culture, and while various forms of shamanism are
far too widespread around the world for me to be willing to take their
mere presence in two cultures as indicative of a common heritage, it seems
to me that if overtone singing became entwined with shamanistic practise
as a medium of communication with the spirit world, then that might give
it such importance that it could persist for millenia. Is anyone aware of
any (independent or related) development of similar vocal techniques
anywhere else in the world? NB: I am emphatically NOT suggesting that
overtone singing is tied to any particular language, nor that Tibetan is
genetically related to Altaic languages like Mongolian and Tuvan with
which it shares this tradition; I just wonder if throat-singing isn't so
peculiar and special that its appearance elsewhere might suggest cultural
contact. Also, I wonder if there are any references in ancient Chinese
sources to any of their neighbor peoples' doing throat-singing, which
could prove that it existed already in antiquity.)

Vern M. Lindblad

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