Types of Throat-Singing
Tuvan throat-singing, or Khoomei, is the area with which I have the most extensive experience. While I am familiar with other types of harmonic singing and chant, the main focus of this page will be Tuvan. You can find some information/links about other regions below.
All styles of Tuvan Khoomei involve controlled tension in and manipulation of the diaphragm, throat, and mouth. However, there are great differences between the different types of throat-singing; for example, some styles are multiphonic whereas other styles are not. Even this description must take into consideration the hearing, or conditioned hearing of the listener as much as the intention and execution of the singer.
There is no real consensus on Khoomei categories; this is a complicated issue due to a number of confusing factors. For one thing, affecting western scholars, there have to date been very few texts about Khoomei in Western European languages. The most commonly cited source when I began my research in the early 1990s was translated from Tuvan Folk Music, a book published in 1964 by A. N. Aksenov, a Russian composer who surveyed Tuvan Khoomei styles in the 1940-50s. More recently, there have been such resources such as Mark van Tongeren’s quite interesting Overtone Singing, various CD liners of varying quality and accuracies, and WWW sites such as my own Khoomei.com, which also vary greatly in worth.
There are major discrepancies between Aksenov’s descriptions and other older sources, and those of other more contemporary observers, and several plausible explanations. One is that Aksenov’s survey of Tuvan styles was limited in scope, though he was a highly educated and skilled composer and musician, who seemed to take his research most seriously. Although a definite factor, it is also apparent that there has been an appreciable development and metamorphosis of common Khoomei styles since Aksenov’s time. Also, many performances now include mixtures of styles much more extensively than in the past. Whereas many singers in the old days tended to sing mostly in one or two styles, and there was greater regional differentiation, many modern singers perform in numerous styles, hybrids, and develop their own takes on “the classics.”
So, although there is no widespread agreement, many contemporary Khoomei cognoscenti designate three or five major styles:
As noted below, #4 and 5, Borbangnadyr and Ezengileer are sometimes considered to be proper styles, and sometimes to be ornamentations added to Khoomei, Kargyraa, or Sygyt. I would add to the top of the list Xorekteer, as it underlies most of the various styles.
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Coming soon: MP3 examples…
Xorekteer means singing with the chest voice… Now, this can be confusing to beginners: What does “chest voice” mean? And why isn’t it the “throat voice?” This term can carry several meanings. It can be used, like khoomei, to mean ALL THROAT-SINGING, in any style. It can also be used as a metaphor for “with feeling,” as in “more heart.” Plus, it can refer both to the feeling of pressure one feels when throat-singing, and also to chest resonance, which is obvious in person but not on recordings.
In its common sonic sense, “Chest voice” has a totally different meaning than the western vocal context, and the two should not be confused. Those familiar with Tuvan music have noticed that often entire songs are sung with this voice. It usually serves as the springboard to launch into khoomei style and sygyt. Here is an excellent example in MP3 format, the song, Kombu* This solo by Kaigal-ool of Huun-Huur-Tu (accompanying himself on doshpuluur) demonstrates perfectly the characteristic sound of the Xorekteer voice, with its hard, bright tone, and he uses it as a launching pad to sing khoomei, sygyt, and kargyraa.
Khoomei is not only the generic name given to all throat-singing styles, but also to a particular style of singing. Khoomei is a soft-sounding style, with clear but diffused-sounding harmonics above a fundamental usually within the low-mid to midrange of the singer’s voice. In Khoomei style, there are 2 or more notes clearly audible.
Compared to Xovu Kargyraa or sygyt (see below), the stomach remains fairly relaxed, and there is less laryngeal tension than harder-sounding Sygyt. The tongue remains seated quietly between the lower teeth. The pitch of the melodic harmonic is selected by moving the root of the tongue and the attached epiglottis as in my “Yuh!” technique (see Lesson 1). On the upper illustration below, the epiglottis is seen as the light-colored projection rising from the root of the tongue. It is to the right of the hypopharynx, also referred to as the laryngopharynx.
Phrasing and ornamentation come from a combination of throat movements and lip movements. Lips generally form a small “O.” The combination of lip, mouth and throat manipulations make a wide spectrum of tones and effects possible. Video Demonstration: Kaigal-ool Khovalyg
Kargyraa is usually performed low in the singer’s range. There are two major styles of Kargyraa, Mountain (dag) and Steppe (xovu). Both feature an intense croaking tone, very rich in harmonics. This technique is related technically to Tibetan harmonic chanting.
NOTHING feels like Kargyraa; you really feel a “mouthful of sound.” The term refers to all styles of singing which simultaneously use both the vocal and ventricular folds inside the larynx, as dual sound-sources. See the lower illustration below, The Larynx. When the larynx is constricted slightly just above the level of the vocal folds while the vocal folds are engaged, the ventricular folds will usually resonate, producing the second sound source. The ventricular folds’ fundamental vibrates at half the speed of the vocal folds, producing the extra sound one octave lower than the usual voice. The ventricular folds also produce many midrange and upper harmonics. While not yet proved, I suspect that each set of folds produces its own harmonic series, which intereact and are affected by the formants of the vocal system. Careful listeners will note the “constant” sound produced by the vocal folds, and a periodical, pulsating complex of sounds created by the ventricular folds. Kargyraa often sounds more traditional, or authentic, when the vocal folds are in Xorekteer mode, as above, and when the sound is somewhat restrained, rather than freely exiting the mouth.
Kargyraa is the one Tuvan style that I know of that is closely linked to vowel sounds; in addition to various throat manipulations, the mouth varies from a nearly closed “O” shape to nearly wide open. Except for the throat technique, this style is vaguely related to western overtone singing styles that use vowels and mouth shapes to affect the harmonic content. However, unlike most western styles, there is no dependable correlation between the vowel and the pitch. Generally, western overtone singers link pitch to the vowel, so that “ooo” gives the lowest harmonic, and rise in pitch from “ooo” to “o” to “ah” to “a” to “ee,” and so on. In Kargyraa, an “ah” can be higher than “a”, etc.
Dag (Mountain) Kargyraa is usually the lower of the styles in pitch, and often includes nasal effects; this sometimes sounds like oinking! It should feature strong low-chest resonance, and not too much throat tension. Video Demonstration: Alden-ool Sevek
Xovu (Steppe) Kargyraa is usually sung at a higher pitch, with more throat tension and less chest resonance. It also has a generally raspier sound. Video Demonstration (with other styles, see at about :53) Kaigal-ool Khovalyg
Sygyt is usually based on a mid-range fundamental. It is characterized by a strong, even piercing, harmonic or complex of harmonics above the “fundamental,” and can be used to perform complex and very distinct melodies, with a tone similar to a flute. The ideal sound is called “Chistii Zvuk,” Russian for clear sound. Part of achieving this ideal is learning to filter out unwanted harmonic components. Video Demonstration (also with Xorekteer and Borbangnadyr): Gennadi Tumat
For sygyt, you must increase the tension a bit at the same place as in khoomei. The tongue rises and seals tightly all around the gums, just behind the teeth. A small hole is left on one side or the other, back behind the molars, then you direct the sound between the teeth (which produces sharpening effect) and the cheek towards the front of the mouth. With your lips, form a “bell” as in a clarinet or oboe, but not centered; rather off just a bit to the side of your mouth where you direct the sound from that hole in the back. You change pitch with the same technique as khoomei, as in my ‘Yuh!” technique (see Lesson 1), and the rest of the tongue moves slightly to accommodate this action. The raised tongue serves as a filter to remove more of the lower harmonics, and in sygyt, it is possible to nearly remove the fundamental.
Borbangnadyr is not really a style in quite the same sense as sygyt, kargyraa, or khoomei, but rather a combination of effects applied to one of the other styles. The name comes from the Tuvan word for rolling, and this style features highly acrobatic trills and warbles, reminiscent of birds, babbling brooks, etc. While the name Borbangnadyr is currently most often used to describe a warbling applied to sygyt, Sygyttyng Borbangnadyr, it is also applied to some lower-pitched singing styles, especially in older texts. Video Demonstration: Oleg Kuular
Ezengileer comes from a word meaning “stirrup,” and features rhythmic harmonic oscillations intended to mimic the sound of metal stirrups clinking to the beat of a galloping horse. The most common element is the “horse-rhythm” of the harmonics, produced by a rhythmic opening-and-closing of the velum. The velum is the opening between the pharynx and the nasal sinuses. See the upper illustration, The Pharynx. The velum is not named, but is located just to the right of the soft palate, between the nasopharynx and oropharynx. Or, if you prefer, you will recognize it as the location of Postnasal Drip. Video Demonstration: German Kuular
Some other categories include:
Chilandyk is a mixture of Kargyraa and Sygyt. One usually begins with the Kargyraa voice, and then uses Sygyt technique to add a harmonic melody. If one can sing both Kargyraa and Sygyt then Chilandyk is not too difficult; what is challenging is maintaining the base pitch in tune while singing the Sygyt melody. Whew! Chilandyk is named for the Tuvan word meaning “cricket,” and there is a definite cricket-like quality when sung in a high Kargyraa voice.
Dumchuktaar means to sing through the nose (dumchuk). This may mean exclusively nasal with the mouth shut, or may just mean a voice exhibiting an obvious nasal sound. This is especially common in Ezengileer and some forms of dag (mountain) kargyraa, and some singers always sing this way, regardless of style. Video Demonstration (Dag Kargyraa): Gen-Dos
Nasal singing is common among western overtone singers. It is commonly believed that the directing sound through the nasal sinuses enhances the high harmonics. However, my observations indicate that the increased high harmonic components are not the major melodic frequencies in styles such as sygyt and khoomei, and also that open nasal passages provide a passage for some lower frequencies that might be better filtered out.
To control the amount of nasal sound in your voice you must gain control of the velum, as in ezengileer, above. You can feel the velum open when you sing and then close your mouth. The sound will then exit the nose, via the velum and sinuses. To feel the velum closing, sing a sustained note with your mouth closed. Try to stop the sound without moving your tongue (keep it down in the back of the mouth and don’t jam it back into the upper throat to stop the sound. And don’t pinch-off your nose! If you can stop the sound, you will have isolated the velum. When closing it while sounding, you may feel it push up by the airflow. Once you’ve isolated the velum, work on developing its use. Practice opening and closing it rhythmically, even practicing, say, triplets or dotted eighth notes. Also, experiment with opening it in degrees, not just opened-and-closed.
On the first illustration below, the velum, unmarked, is located between the nasopharynx and oropharynx, just to the right of the soft palate.
The low multiphonic chordal of the Tibetan monk’s chanting style is related to kargyraa, with a low fundamental often in the 80 Hz range. The sound is produced by the combination of the vocal and ventricular folds. The larynx is typically held low in the throat, conducive to low tone due partially due to extendind the air column. The lips are extended and nearly closed, also lengthening the air column and serving as a filter to remove the upper overtones. Other fine details vary among individuals, as well as, to a degree, different monastic traditions. The monks most widely known for their multiphonic chanting, known by various names such as Yang, Dzho-Kay, and others, are the Gyume and Gyuto. I have heard others, too, such as the Drepung Loseling monks and others.
It can be difficult finding reliable information regarding more specific details about the monks’ chanting styles. In fact, in my experience, there is more disinformation regarding this cultural variety than any other. If you hear stories about developing this type of voice, and they sound bizarre, and some do, ignore them and don’t try them. Also, while there are often claims cited by outsiders regarding the need to attain certain high levels of spiritual attainment, the evidence in my experience casts doubts. Of course, I cannot deny the possibility that some such spritual development might lead someone to subsequntly aquire the voice. Tran Quang Hai has an interesting piece on Tibetan Chant. Video Demonstration: Myself, with Drepung-Loseling monks
Other Types of Throat-Singing and Overtone Singing
Throat singing is found in other parts of the world. Some are very similar to Tuvan styles, and others are not. Here are some of them:
Mongolia Besides Tuva, Mongolia is the most active center of throat-singing. Many styles, very related to Tuvan singing. Try Michael Ormiston’s site, with lots of info
Khakassia: Just northwest from Tuva, the art is called Khai (or Xai). There are 2 videos of Khai singers at the khoomei.com video page.
Bashkortostan In this southern Ural Mountain republic, the regional throat-singing is called Uzlyau. I have a recording of uzlyau performer Robert Zigritdinov, which I’ll eventually digitize. He does appear on van Tongeren’s book/CD. The performers sometimes simultaneously play flute and sing, as in Mongolia. This is an unusual tradition, as several researchers mention that performers often don’t know any other performers, or teachers. The means of transmission is therefore quite vague.
Umngqokolo Umqang This Xhosa variant is perfomed by women, and sounds very deep and unique. There is very little documentation available, but I have seen a video by South African Ethnomusicologist David Dargie which if I recall correctly, mentioned shamanic connections. Here’s a MP3
Inuit “throat-singing” is a very different vocal art than the others included here, and is not multiphonic. However, it does sometimes use similar vocal timbres which often include the use of both the vocal and ventricular folds (I believe). And, as in the case of the Tibetan monks, it is not true “singing.” It sometimes involve the unsual technique of vocalizing on alternating inhalation/exhalations. Here is an article with an interview with Inuit throat-singer Evie Mark, and a video sample of Evie and Sarah Beaulne. I’m not sure if this tradition extends to other areas of the Arctic.
From Widipedia: The Ainu of Japan had throat singing, called rekkukara, until 1976 when the last practitioner died. It resembled more the Inuit variety than the Mongolian. If this technique of singing emerged only once and then in the Old World, the move from Siberia to northern Canada must have been over Bering Strait land bridge some 12,000 years ago.
Inuit Throat Singing: When the men are away on a hunting trip, the women left at home entertain themselves with games, which may involve throat singing. Two women face each other usually in a standing position. One singer leads by setting a short rhythmic pattern, which she repeats leaving brief silent intervals between each repetition. The other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. Usually thecompetition lasts up to three minutes until one of the singers starts to laugh or is left breathless. At one time the lips of the two women almost touched, so that one singer used the mouth cavity of the other as a resonator, but this isn’t so common today. Often the singing is accompanied by a shuffling in rhythm from one foot to the other. The sounds may be actual words or nonsense syllables or created during exhalation.
New World Terms: The name for throat singing in Canada varies with the geography:
• Northern Quebec – katajjaq
• Baffin Island – pirkusirtuk
• Nunavut – nipaquhiit
The Indians in Alaska have lost the art and those in Greenland evidently never developed it.
Rajasthan, India This is a very interesting example of a unique, peculiar and non-traditional development, as there is no such custom here. The anonymous singer learned to overtone sing by imitating the local double-flutes. MP3
USA – 1920s – The legendary and obscure Arthur Miles was an American cowboy singer who, apparently, also independently developed his own overtone singing style. He also sang in normal voice, yodeled, and played guitar. Almost nothing is know of him or his influences, but the dates of his recordings, believed to be about 1928-29, make him one of the earliest overtone singers ever recorded! Lonely Cowboy Part 1 Lonely Cowboy Part 2 Thanks to John (quaern from the Yahoo group)
You can find more info on some of these in Mark van Tongeren’s Overtone Singing
This video identifies some parts of the interior larynx.
Ever wonder how videos of the inside of the larynx are made? See this video about fibroscopy, used to make endoscopic videos.
Some Throat-Singing Tips:
• Go easy! When learning you’ll be using your anatomy in new ways. Don’t sing too loud, too long, or too often; use common sense!
• Dry throat? Here’s the cure that I developed: All of us suffer from time to time the effects of dry throat. Whatever the cause, whether dry climate, air conditioning or heat, colds, allergies, medications, or nerves, it can be difficult to remedy. The usual “remedy” is to drink some water. This will help to moisten the mouth, but the water will be directed by the epiglottis away from the larynx and respiratory system. Drinking lots of water may offer some help, due to general rehydration of the body, but often will fail to adequately hydrate the vocal system’s mucus membranes. Here’s a technique I developed to remedy this problem, which for some reason some of my students call “The Human Bong Trick:”
1. Take a good mouthful of water.
2. Extend the lips to a point.
3. Leaving a small hole, face the floor and inhale through the water. The air will bubble through the water, becoming moist, and deliver this moisture to the surface of the interior of the larynx, trachea, and lungs in an effective and non-irritating manner. (Editors note: Try this next time you are on an airplane. It is a great antidote to dry cabin air. Just be careful not to suck water into your lungs.)
4. Do this for a minute or two, and you will feel a great improvement in both comfort and voice!”
I’ll try do produce a video demonstrating this hydrating technique. Stay tuned!
• Musical Tip: Remember that any technique or action that changes any sonic parameter, including pitch, tone, texture, etc., can be manipulated in time to produce rhthyms.
• If you attempt to learn kargyraa too low in your vocal range, you have nowhere to go. You need to start in your low midrange, and when you correctly engage both sets of folds the sound will “drop an octave.”
• If you are having trouble getting the basic kargyraa voice, try singing it with your mouth shut. The velum will open, allowing you to sing through your nose. The smaller outlet produces back-pressure, which helps many folks to get the sound.
• To strengthen the kargyraa sound, and to make it easier to “get fresh” each time, practice alternating the sound like flipping a switch: With the vocal folds engaged producing a sustained tone, repeatedly engage and release the ventricular folds.
• Make sure that your mouth is open at least enough that you can hear what you’re doing in your throat! Also, too much constriction in the larynx or elsewhere will kill the sound. Just enough for a good sound, and no more!
• As in many endeavors, the tendency is to OVERDO. To use too much tension, airflow, volume, intensity. More often than not, the answer is to back off. Use only as much effort as necessary, only where it is needed. Too much pressure can also damage your vascular system; there are many stories of Mongolian singers who used too much pressure and broke blood vessels. Don’t blow a gasket!!!
• Avoid hurting your throat. There is a simple equation at work here: Pressure (airflow, powered beneath the diaphragm) meets constriction in the larynx. Too much airflow meeting this constriction will stress the throat. Try this: Close your mouth, and blow hard. Your cheeks will puff out and eventually your lips will give out. Imagine doing this with more delicate, sensitive membranes as in your throat. Don’t do this!
More coming soon…
The Pharynx, Mouth, and Sinuses
Rear-View Coronal Section of Larynx
Links – Voice, vocal anatomy, etc.
Structures of the larynx Good site from Mythos Anatomy/Webmed, with interactive anatomy figures.
Singing and Anatomy Two articles on voice production
The Singing Voice: Anatomy More good info on the vocal anatomy. Lots of useful graphics, videos, and links. Don’t miss the section on Castrati, and remember that it may improve sygyt but at the expense of a good, deep kargyraa. Act accordingly.
Lots of cool links about the voice
A Basic Overview of Voice Production by Ronald C. Scherer, Ph.D. Lots off good definitions of vocal terms.
How the Larynx (Voice Box) Works Charles R. Larson, Ph.D. Good article with good graphics.
Google Search: “singing” and “larynx” Can’t get enough, now, can you?
Last Updated 11-21-05