Daily Archives: November 19, 2021

ROBERT OLIVER BEAHRS: Ph.D. dissertation : Post Soviet Tuvan Throat Singing (Xöömei) and the Circulation of Nomadi Sensibility, 2014


Post-Soviet Tuvan Throat-Singing (Xöömei)
and the Circulation of Nomadic Sensibility


Robert Oliver Beahrs

A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the

requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy



in the

Graduate Division

of the

University of California, Berkeley

Committee in charge:

Professor Benjamin Brinner, Chair
Professor Bonnie Wade
Professor Alexei Yurchak
Professor Theodore Levin

Fall 2014

ROBERT OLIVER BEAHRS: Ph.D. dissertation : Post Soviet Tuvan Throat Singing (Xöömei) and the Circulation of Nomadi Sensibility, 2014



Post-Soviet Tuvan Throat-Singing (Xöömei)
and the Circulation of Nomadic Sensibility


Robert Oliver Beahrs

Doctor of Philosophy in Music

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Benjamin Brinner, Chair

Guttural singing practices in the Sayan-Altai region of south-central Siberia have
been historically framed as possessing “nomadic” qualities linked with pastoral
population groups indigenous to the region. As these singing practices were
incorporated into a genre of national folk music for Tannu Tuva (1921-1944) and
the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (1961-1991)—and then later
reformulated as the centerpiece of an exotic genre of world music—xöömei throat-
singing was shaped by contradictory attitudes towards its purportedly nomadic
characteristics, which have been essentialized at various times, for multiple
reasons, by local and global actors and interest groups. In the post-Soviet era,
xöömeizhi (master throat-singers) from the Tuva Republic (now part of Russia)
express a revitalized nomadic sensibility through xöömei singing practices, which
has come to operate both as an ideology and a disposition for Tuvan traditional
music. Drawing on a selective use of history, cultural memory, and natural
environments, post-Soviet xöömeizhi construct a nomadic sensibility that is
embodied in music and sound-making activities, foregrounded in intercultural
exchanges, and circulated as a social disposition.

CAROLE PEGG: Mongolian conceptualizations of overtone singing (xöömii)


CAROLE PEGG: Mongolian conceptualizations of overtone singing (xöömii)

Mongolian conceptualizations of overtone singing (xöömii)

By Carole Pegg

Radik and Carole Pegg

Return to carole pegg main page

Based on fieldwork in western Mongolia during 1989 and 1990, this paper relates Mongolian xöömii or overtone singing to its social context and to the cognitive world of the performers. It looks at secular performance contexts, theories of origin, legendary/historical development, recent transformation into an art form, traditional training methods and transmission, Mongolian classification of xöömii, and its relationship with nature and shamanism. A brief overview is given of previous non‑Mongolian perspectives, which have either concentrated on acoustical and physiological analysis of the sounds themselves or have made claims that overtone singing is a “magical voice technique” causing spiritual and physical healing. The latter is contrasted with the Mongolian belief that, although consumption of the sounds may be beneficial, the production of xöömii is potentially harmful to the body.


The term “overtone singing” (see note 1) refers to an extraordinary vocal technique in, which a single performer simultaneously produces up to three separate voca1 lines, which can be clearly distinguished by listeners. There are several types of “overtone singing”, but most involve the sounding of a fundamental drone, whilst producing a flute‑like melody by reinforcing a series of chosen harmonics or partials of that fundamental. This phenomenon has been embraced in the West by two groups of people who view it with very different perspectives. On the one hand, there are those who assume that it is linked with ancient religious practices and beliefs, with powerful forces within the universe, that it may be used for meditation or for magical healing. On the other hand, there are those who are curious to understand how one person can physically produce such sounds, and musicologists and others have carried out a considerable amount of research on this over the last ten years. But little has been done to relate the phenomenon to its social context or to the cognitive world of the performers. This has been partly because of the inaccessibility of those Central Asian areas where it occurs and partly because of the orientation of the researchers. This paper attempts to augment these previous perspectives with indigenous ones gained during fieldwork undertaken in Mongolia during 1989 and 1990. It contextualises Mongolian overtone singing in geographical, historical and societal terms and considers the culture bearers’ own conceptualisation of musical sound. It also illustrates the use of xöömii in secular contexts in Mongolia, considers its relationship with religion and points to the potentially harmful effects of the production of these sounds on the body.


1  Turko‑Mongol peoples                               

          Overtone singing is found predominantly amongst the Turco‑Mongol peoples of Southern Siberia and Central Asia. In addition to Mongolia, it is found in Tannu Tuva, an autonomous region of Russia which lies just north of western Mongolia, and amongst neighbouring peoples such as the Bashkirs (Garcia 1840; Lebedinskii 1962:147‑49), Khakassians and the Gorno altai/Mountain Altai (Aksenov 1964). Lamas in the dGe‑lugs‑pa monasteries of Gyume and Gyottö in Tibet were trained from the age of twelve for tantric ritual performance to produce sounds which have been called ” xöömii” (Smith and Stevens 1967:211), but the harmonics or partials are not produced with the intention of creating melodies as in Mongolian xöömii.

2  South Africa and India

Isolated examples have been found in other parts of the world. For instance, the women and girls of the Xhosa people of South Africa perform overtone singing (umngqokolo) during which three tones simultaneously produced by one person are clearly audible (Dargie 1991:39). Umngqokolo ngomqangi, a technique where only two lines are audible (fundamental and overtone), is explained by one performer as originating in the Xhosa boys’ habit of impaling a large flying beetle called umqangi on a thorn and then holding the desperately buzzing insect within the mouth. Umqangi is also an alternative name for the umrhubhe mouth bow, and it is suggested that the umngqokolo ngomqangi overtone technique and narne were derived frorn the bow either directly or via the unfortunate insect (ibid.). The single example (note 2) recorded in Rajasthan is thought to be imitating either the satara double flute or the jew’s harp (Zemp and Tran 1989 F). (note 3)

3 Mongolia

In Mongolia, prior to the destruction of the monasteries by the communists during the 1930s and 1940s, the chanting of Buddhist monks was pitched very deep, and overtones would also sometimes occur, although apparently with no intention of producing a melody. The lama Ven Luvsangshirab (who had been training to become a lama prior to the Revolution and in 1990, because of the new freedom, had been reinstated) dismissed this as a sound which, although impressive, only “resembled” xöömii (IN). Amongst the Mongols, xöömii performance was a secular activity which was considered by the lamas to be “without respect” (xdndtei bish). Despite the claims in 1967 of the Hungarian musicologist Vargyas (D) that xöömii was “still fairly common among male singers, especially in Eastern Mongolia”, the tradition of secular overtone singing belongs to the Altai mountain region of western Mongolia.

My own fieldwork was undertaken in the three provinces or aimag which lie along the Altai mountain range‑Uvs, Xovd and Bayan Olgii‑and contain many different yastan. (Note 4) The majority of Mongols belong to the XaIxa, but there are 22 other yastan in Mongolia, mostly living in the west. An aimag is divided into administrative units called sum, each occupied predominantly by one yastan. I investigated the xöömii tradition in each aimag.

i. Uys aimag.(note 5) Situated in northwest Mongolia, immediately south of the border with Tannu Tuva, this aimag is occupied by three yastan, the Bayad, the Dörvöd and the Xoton. Overtone singing is rare amongst the Dörvöd and Xoton but has a strong tradition amongst the Bayad. Opinions vary about whether the Bayad had their own xöömii tradition or whether they took it from the Urianxai in Tannu Tuva. (note 6)  It is 85‑year old Düüdei’ s belief (IN) that the Bayad in the border sum of Tes copied the Urianxai. This however was disputed by Byambadorj (IN), a knowledgeable Bayad in charge of the Ulaangom Museum.

He pointed the relationship between ?// (cannot readt the text badly photocopied) an epic performance. He suggested that since the Bayad had a strong epic tradition it was likely that xöömii was also indigenous, In Byarribadorj’s opinion, the influence between the two groups of people was mutual, arising from (instant interaction between the Uriarixai and Bayad in pre‑Revolutionary Mongolia). Many of the Mongols in the seven sum which lie along the border with Tuva intermarried with the Urianxai and gave children to families across the border (Piiveen IN). They also traded with each other, and some of the Urianxai xöömiich (xöömii performers) settled in Uvs.(Note 7) Certainly the xöömii tradition was strong among the Bayad in the 1930s. Jamiyan, who was a teenage Bayad herder in Tes sum at that time, recalled that almost everyone could perform xöömii (IN). Later, in the 1950s and 60s, the media also began to aid the dissemination of xöömii and its different styles, reaching yastan which previously had no known tradition of it. For example, 40‑year old Dörvöd Tseveen copied Tuvan xöömii performers whom he beard on his radio whilst herding as a boy in Ölgii sum, Uvs aimag.

ii. Xovd aimag. Xovd aimag is divided from Xirijiang, (note 8) an autonomous region of northwest China, by the Altai mountains in the south and southwest and lies to the south of Uvs aimag. Xovd is divided into seventeen sum in which ‘live six different yastan.(note 9) The people of Chandman’ sum, who are XaIxa, believe that Mongolian xöömii originated there (note 10) Certainly, Chandman’ sum is the source and centre of xöömii revival in Mongolia and of its transformation into a cultural “art form” (see below). But xöömii is also found amongst other yastan in Xovd aimag‑for instance, among the Torguud and Urianxai in Bulgan sum, (Tsoloo IN), the Bayad and Dörvöd in Uvs aimag (as described above)‑‑and also among the Tuvans in Tsengel sum, Bayan Ölgii aimag.

iii. Bayan Ölgii aimag. Bayan Ölgii aimag lies in the extreme northwest of Mongolia. On its western border the Altai Mountains separate it from China and in the north from Russia. To the East lie Uvs and Xovd aimags. In Bayan Ölgii aimag are three yastan: Tuvan, Urianxai and Kazak. The Tuvans, who live in Tsengel sum, say that they originated in that area and spread out from there to present‑day Tannu Tuva (Magsar IN). (note 11) Now there are less than 1,000 Tuvans. (???cannot read from photocopy) population are Kazak. In “the old time” when the Tuvans herder yaks and lived in the high mountain there were many xöömii perfromers  as thers are now in Russia (Magsar ) The Kazaks also perfrom xöömii

            The majority of Mongols are semi‑nomadic pastoralists who, despite political changes, have led a virtually unchanged lifestyle since the time of Chinggis Xaan. They continue to live in round felt, easily transportable tents called ger, to lead a semi‑nomadic life within a prescribed (note12) area in accordance with the wealth of pasture, and to use the animals they herd for their own subsistence needs. Chinggis united the Mongol tribes in the thirteenth century, founding a great empire which eventually encompassed the whole of China and spread as far west as the Black Sea. When Mongolia succumbed to Manchu rule in the sixteenth century, the aristocratic princes (xan) and noblemen (noyon) retained their position of dominance within Mongolian society, although they remained answerable to the Manchu Emperor and paid tribute to him (apart from a ten‑year period of autonomy beginning in 1911) until the communist‑inspired revolution of 1921. In pre‑revolutionary Mongolia, when Lamaism was strong, xöömii was used in everyday contexts despite the disapproval of the lamas, who did not like people to indulge in such secular activities.

A consideration of some Mongolian perspectives on xöömii will assist in greater understanding and help to distinguish differences in the way in which Mongols and some Westerners view it.


1 Performance contexts

1 Herding

Xöömii was popular amongst the Urianxai and Bayad camel herders and the Bayan Ölgii Tuvan yak herders. For instance, Mangiljav, a 48‑year‑old Bayad, camel herdsman, is a fine xöömiich who used to perform whilst looking after the herds as a child. He learned from Setsen, his avga (uncle on father’s side), and recalled how his uncle’s xöömii could be heard over a great distance, an ability which was much prized. The Bayad Jamiyan, for instance, recalled People who could be heard over a distance of three kilometres (IN)  The Tuvans in Bayan Olgii aimag used xöömii to “call” yaks ‑ a function which may be connected with this great value placed on carrying power.

2 The ger

In pre‑revolutionary Mongolia, xöömii was also performed within the ger, the round felt tent which was the standard home of the nomadic Mongols. Düüdei (IN), for example, recalled how, during her childhood in Tes sum, Urianxai camel‑herders came from Tuva to gather Sea Buckthorn (Note13) berries, which they used for medicinal purposes and which only grew in Tes sum. Bringing with them many camels and much baggage, they often spent four or five days in her father’s ger, during which time they performed xöömii She noted that before performing they would always repeat the following couplet:

Altai tsantai jurtentei

Amban noen zaxirgaatai. (note14)

suggesting that, in contrast to the lamas’ attitude, the people did treat the performance of xöömii with respect. It is possible that this short introduction was an “offering” to the Altai mountains in much the same way that Altain Magtaal / Praise Song to the Altai Mountains was always performed by the Uriarixai before the rendering of an epic.

3 The noyon’‑s nair / nobleman’s celebration

Jarniyan (IN), born in 1924 in Tes sum, recalled how the noyon JaJin Gün would invite the best bii (Note15) dancers, two‑stringed spiked fiddle players (ixelch) (note16) longsong singers (urtyn duuch) and xöömii performers to his ger to entertain distinguished guests. Xöömii performers, however, were not usually invited to the herders’ own nair (celebrations), to local nair held by the noyon or to a nair held officially (alban yusoor).

4 Chigee uulaax / to cause to drink fermented mare’s milk (note17)     

This term was used for a collective celebrations forming part of the wedding ritual known as “seeing off the bride”; it was the only herders’ celebration at which xöömii was performed. Over several days the bride‑to‑be would be invited to the ger of different relatives, accompanied by two xia (note18) and someone whose function was to carry her gifts. She had to wear a special hat and to cover her face with a scarf. Inside each ger she would be offered special meat to eatsheep’s breast, adjoining meat and roasted fat‑and a nair would be held at which, as above, dancers, fiddle players, long‑song singers and xöömiich would perform.

2 Theories of origin

The people of Chandman’ sum believe that xöömii explain its origin in several ways.

1 Nature and the supernatural

The Performance of xöömii and the claim that Chandman’ is its place of origin is attributed to the unusual natural features of this sum: the mountains, lakes. rivers and birds. This “natural origin is also linked, however, with the supernatural or magical.

The geographical features of Chandman’ sum are unusual in Mongolian terms in that it is surrounded on three sides by mountains and lakes. Its western border is formed by Lake Xar Us Nuur in the north and two high mountain ranges, Zuun Jargalantyn Nuruu and Xuremtiin Nuruu. The eastern border is formed by two lakes, Xar Nuur and Dargin Nuur. The two largest lakes, Xar Us Nuur and Xar Nuur are connected in the north by a much smaller lake, Dalai Nuur, and by a river called Chono Xaraix. To the south lies semi‑desert.

Birds. It is claimed that several birds produce xöömii ‑type sounds. For instance, the usny buxI bittern (Note19) keeps its head under water in the lake and produces a sound which can be heard a saaxalt (note20) away (Sengedorj IN). The crane (togoruu), said to live for 3,000 years, also has a distinctive call which, when heard, is considered a portent of long life (Bolorma IN). The noise produced by the wings of the snow cock (xoilog), widespread in Mount Jargalant as well as on the lakes, is said to be very like the sound xöömii. Xöömii is sometimes referred to as the ‘voice’s echo” or “bird’s echo”.

Mountains. The mountains stand alone in the steppe, seperated  from the main Altai massif. The people of Chandman’ sum stress that the sounds heard in the mountains have a special quality, and those who live on Mount Jargalant often discuss the variety of sounds which they hear. For example, they say that sounds are different in the morning from the evening because of a difference in the flow of air (agaaryn ursgal), that common sounds such as rain sound quite different in the mountains, and that there is a particular kind of echo which enables a noise to be heard four or five am (note21) away (Tserendavaa INa).

Mount Jargalant also has a special power. It is said to be able to “hold” the very strong winds which come from the west before releasing them into the steppe below. Sometimes the wind is “held” for four to five hours (Sengedorj) sometimes 24 hours (Tserendavaa INc) and sometimes for as long as three days. During this time the mountain drones or makes a hollow sound (dungenex). The people in the steppe below are thus warned of the impending wind and able to make preparations to meet it. Old people credit the same power to the lake as well. They say that Mount Jargalant and Lake Xar Us Nuur ” attract and digest the sound of the wind” (tataj sleingeex). Batchuluian (IN), a horse herder who lives on the steppe between the mountains and the lake, talked of a musical communication which is set up between the two. His father, a very good xöömiich born 100 years ago, told him, “Our mountain and lakes speak to each other in musical language, and that is why people living between do the same.” His father added that the music had a beneficial effect, which explained why the horses there are bigger, the cattle very good and so on.

Rivers. In addition, the mountains contain many rivers and waterfalls, which produce different combinations of sounds according to the types of stones over which they run. On the peak of Mount Jargalant is a small river‑itself an unusual phenomenon‑which is said to produce good sounds. Once again, though, the explanation in terms of nature is elaborated to include the magical. A particular river is cited as the origin of xöömii ‑ the River Eev‑and this has “magical” properties.        For the peoples of western Mongolia, the River Eev has become a symbol of the “old time” before the Oirad (western Mongols) settled east of the Altai mountains. Identification of its exact location varies. (Note 22) Although everyone knew of it, I never met anyone who had personally seen this river. In old times , Urianixai people used to say that they wanted to drink the water of the River Eev before they died. For all of the yastan in western Mongolia it remains a powerful symbol. Opinions differ about whether it was a river or a stream, but all agree that it made particularly unusual sounds as it trickled or ran over stones. Chuluun used to perform a melody on his morin xuur (note23) Called “The River Eev”(note 24) or “The flow of the River Eev” producing xöömii at the same time. He said that this melody represented the sound of the River Eev which was connected with the origin of xöömii and with the playing of the tsuur. (note25) Xöömii said Chuluun is an interpretation of the sounds of the River Eev in the mind of the xöömiich.

The sounds of this river also had a magical effect. They lured animals to the water to drink but then bewitched them, causing them to fall in (Margad IN, Tserendavaa INb). They also had the power to entrance people. For example, the tale was told of a young girl who went to the river to get water: once she heard the melody of the river she remained there all day, forgetting her mission (Tseveen IN). Samdan (IN) maintained that people born by the River Eev became very good singers and very beautiful people.

2 Historical and legendary time

There is no firm evidence to suggest a date for the origin of xöömii in Mongolia. Historical documents refer to musicians, 300‑strong court orchestras and singers, but xöömii is never mentioned. One of the earliest apparent references to overtone singing appears in Serruys’ translation of a sixteenth‑century Chinese document, containing a description of songs which have “beaucoup de sons de la gorge et des levres that is, “many sounds from the throat and the lips” (1945:153). Another clue, perhaps more definite, occurs in a sixteenth century French poem which seems to describe overtone singing (Anvers 1520, cited in Leothaud 1989).

J’ay veu comme il me semble,

Ung fort homme d’honneur,

Luy seul chanter ensemble

Et dessus et teneur

I saw, it seems to me

A strong man of honour

Singing together with himself

Both above and below. (Note26)

And three centuries later, in a paper given in 1840 to the French Academy of Sciences, Garcia referred to the solo two‑part singing of the Bashkirs (OP.Cit.).

This lack of documentation is possibly because the elevation of overtone singing (and of Mongolian traditional music generally) into an “art form” postdates the Communist Revolution of 1921, when the “music of the people” became imbued with special value and found support from “people’s power” ,Tserendavaa INb). Cultural centres were included in the small group of Administrative buildings placed at the centre of each sum, and local traditional music performers were enlisted to give concerts. The theatres built in each aimag centre drew their artists from those who performed at the cultural centres.

For the people of Chandman’, the origin of xöömii lies in a legendary time when Bazarsad used to perform at nair (celebrations). The xarxiraa xöömiich Margad, now 50 years old, recalled that when he was a boy the old people used to talk of Bazarsad of Chandman’ sum, who lived in ancient times. They described him as being very tall and strong (chadaltai) and a very good wrestler.

When horseman Dashdondob was five years old in 1923, he heard that Bazarsad was the first to perform xöömii in Chandman’ (IN). It was said that he performed türlegt or xosmoljin xöömii a combination of long song with different xöömii techniques, and that when he performed this kind of xöömii well, the spirits of the land and waters came to listen to him (Tserendavaa INc). Although no‑one has actually met or heard Bazarsad, it is affirmed that none will match his skill. By contrast, people did know Chimiddorj, who performed three‑voiced xöömii and Togon Chulum the man who is credited with beginning a new stage in xöömii development.

3 Development of xöömii as a cultural art form

In pre‑revolutionary Mongolia, the performance of xöömii was a secular tradition which had been passed down from generation to generation but was in decline (Sengedorj IN). Old people in Chandman’ sum attributed this to the predominance of Buddhism saying that the disapproval of the lamas caused an interruption in xöömii  development. The Bayad in Uvs aimag still consider it to have declined, since at present only two or three young people can perform it (Jamiyan IN). The new development in the history of xöömii came from Chandman’ sum in Xovd aimag through individual xöömiich

1 Chandman’ Xöömiich

Togon Chuluun was a XaIxa Mongol born in the 1890s who, in addition to performing xöömii whistled, played the tsuur and excelled on the morin xuur  Before the Revolution, he often used his skills when travelling with a camel train to secure himself food and lodgings in ger along the route. There is some disagreement about whether Chuluun learned overtone singing from the declining tradition in Chandman’ sum and later improved his performance whilst in military service in the West Border Guards, or whether he learned the skill whilst in the Guards. In any event, it was Chuluun who, in 1930, first demonstrated xöömii as a “folk art” (Tsambaa IN). He had many pupils, including the now well‑known xöömiich Tserendavaa. These pupils developed xöömiii into a national “art” form capable of winning many medals in folk competitions.

Tsedee is the man accredited with the introduction of xöömii to the rest of the country. He lived on the lakeside and learned xöömiii from Chuluun. In 195? Tsedee joined Xovd Theatre, becoming the first professional xöömii perforner in Mongolia. In 1954 Xovd Aimag Musical Drama Theatre (Xovd Aimagiin Kogjimt Dramyn Teatr) visited the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to present a (dekaden (note27); or ten‑day) concert, and Tsedee became the first person to perform xöömiii there. Xöömii was subsequently officially recognised as a professional “art”. After Tsedee, Sundui joined Xovd Theatre.

Sundui is considered to be the founder of what has been termed the “modern classical form” of xöömii (Tserendavaa INb). He is said to be unique among xöömii performers in that he can produce half tones, rather than the usual full tones. (Note28) He can perform classical European melodies by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Bizet (Batzengel 1980:52) and is able to make vocal leaps over wide intervals (Sengedorj IN). He has a high technical level of xöömii performance, can produce “a scale using four vowels” (gammalax dorvon egshig: Tserendavaa INC) (note29) and is thought to be a possible match for the legendary, Bazarsad.

Sundui’s main attributes are said to be: xevliin bagtaamj sailai / having good storage capacity in the stomach; duuny xooloi saitai / having good throat sounds; and mash ix tamirtai / having great physical strength.(note 30)

Sundui later joined the State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble (Ulsyn Ardyn , Duu Bujgiin Chuulga) in Ulaanbaatar and has now retired. He has  many pupils, among them Sengedorj, who is now with the Xoyd theatre, and Tserendavaa.

Najid Sengedorj has no formal musical education but joined Xovd theatre in 1975. He learned xöömii in Chandman’ at about age five, performed xöömii  in the tenth Festival of Young People and Students and has since travelled widely in Eastern Europe.

Ganbold, currently with the Ulaanbaatar Ensemble, is also from Chandman’ sum. He is able to perform a scale (gammalax) on more vowels than Sundui (Tserendavaa INc). Since he is still a young man, it is thought that he will become very good.

Tserendavaa is a truck driver and a skilled musician. He performs many types of song, including western Mongolian long songs (urtyn duu) and praise songs (magtaal, and plays the horse‑head fiddle (morin xuur) and two‑stringed plucked lute (tovshuur). Together with Badraa, he has identified seven types of xöömii (see below), teaches xöömii in the school in Chandman’ sum and has now begun to teach foreigners in Ulaanbaatar.

2 Training methods and transmission

Performers and teachers of xöömii in the West are largely unaware of the physical problems which its performance can precipitate, stressing only its potential beneficial effects. I was specifically requested by Mongol performers to alert practitioners to the dangers and to attempt to enlist scientific aid in understanding and counteracting the problems. In Mongolia, the performance of xöömii is surrounded by rules and regulations.

Learning and performance. Emic theories stress that the training period for the performance of xöömii should be lengthy, preferably beginning in childhood (Tserendavaa INb, Sengedorj IN). Childhood should be a period of “learning”, with “performance” reserved for one’s maturity. For instance, Tserendavaa began learning at age nine but did not “perform” until age 25. Traditionally, learning was by example and imitation. Tserendavaa recalled his first, childhood experience of xöömii, which was to have an enduring effect. The arrival of the xöömiich at his home had left a strong impression in his mind. One evening a “white‑haired, bearded old man rode up on a greyish horse which shone like silver (buural), looking for two lost horses.” The man, later discovered to be the xöömiich Chulutun, spent three nights in the family ger. During that time Tserendavaa listened to his xöömii and learned from him to play the horse‑head fiddle bought for Tserendavaa by his father. Tserendavaa became a xöömiich to repay his debt to this man. Since 1981 Tserendavaa has taught xöömii to children in Chandman’ secondary school. His method is to define which type of xöömii the pupil is naturally attempting, then to give individual advice according to this chosen type and the stage the child has reached. His main teaching method is demonstration. Tserendavaa pointed out that the difficulty in working with children is that they drift between different types. He emphasized the need to learn the general rules of performance and then choose the specific kind. Aids are sometimes used to acquire a “good xöömii voice”. For instance, a cup is held to the mouth to provide an echo,  (ayagaar devex; lit. to fan by means of a cup), or a pupil is made to xöömiilox against the wind (salkiny ogsuur xöömiilox).Once a “good xöömii voice” is acquired, these devices are no longer necessary. Traditionally xöömii has been performed only by men, but Tserendavaa has begun to teach women. The few women in Mongolia who can xöömiilox have all been taught by him.

Physical problems: Can you wrestle? Chuluun stressed that xöömii is a difficult art demanding self control, endurance and great strength. As an illustration of the strength needed, Tserendavaa described how the legendary Bazarsad’s hair used to stand on end when he performed. He compared the strength needed with that required for wrestling, pointing out that both Bazarsad and Sundui, the two most renowned xöömiich, were also famous wrestlers.The ideal age for wrestling is 25‑ the peak of male human strength. Unless the performer has this strength and the other qualities outlined by Chuluun, xöömii; performance is believed to be harmful for the body. Tserendavaa stressed that physical problems associated with xöömii performance needs to be the object of intense scientific research. His own experiences illustrate some of the problems which may occur. As a child, he injured his larynx (tovonx batsrax) while learning and couldn’t swallow for some time. He has also often broken blood vessels. He advised eating a good meal before performance. In 1982 Tserendavaa took part in a concert in Ulaaribaatar for the Twelfth Trade Union Congress and had not eaten. He felt hungry during the concert and, when he was producing high overtones, he lost consciousness. He needed an operation for broken blood vessels near his eyes and was advised to give up xöömii‑but he says that he is unable to do so. He is now 35 and has been “performing” for ten years. Over the last two years he has been performing more often and has begun to have more problems. Because of the strength and power demanded by its performance. xöömii becomes more difficult with age. After age 40, the technique may survive, but there is a loss of the necessary power. Tserendavaa stresses that achieving a “true xöömiii voice” requires overcoming many bad physical effects. His advice is that men should not perform it in advanced years.

Davaajav, a tseejiin xondiin/chest cavity xöömiich, noted that, although xöömii performers are generally also good singers, it becomes increasingly difficult to sing well because of physical changes which occur in the throat. From his own experience, he supports the view that the performance of xöömii affects the body, and he agrees that a person cannot perform xöömii over in extended period of years. Amateur xöömii performers are, he said, able to perform for longer because of the infrequency of performance.

Women. The performance of xöömii by women is a recent phenomenon. Those who do perform are young and are pupils of Tserendavaa.. Xöömii is considered particularly bad for women’s health, so there are strict rules associated with its performance (Badraa IN, Tserendavaa INc). Women should not begin to learn before the age of 17 or 18 and should only be active Xöömiich between the ages of 20 and 24. They may continue to perform until age 30 if they are not married. Once married, however, they should not continue, and after childbirth they are believed to be unable to perform well.

4 Mongolian classification of  xöömii

A. Uyangiin xöömii/melodic or lyrical xöömii

Overtone singing styles vary in Mongolia according to historical period, ethnicity and the ability of the individual performer. For example, XaIxa xöömii styles differ from Kazak and Tuvan styles. Different yastan have their own ways of describing the same types of xöömii. For instance, the xelnii ug style referred to by the Bayad xöömiich Mangiljav as being the most popular in Tes sum when he was a child in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s is performed with the xöömii situated at the back of the tongue or in the throat (IN) and is called by the XaIxa bagalzuuryn xooloin xöömii / throat xöömii. Some yastan, however, have types of Xöömii peculiaronly to their group. Tseveen, a 40‑yearold Dörvöd from Olgii sum, demonstrated two such styles: the Urianxai style of xöömii known as xargia (Note31) in which he cupped his hand to his mouth, and shudniii xöömii/tooth xöömiii as performed by the Kazaks. Purev, a 34‑year‑old Tuvan from Bayan Olgii airnag, used the term xöömii to refer to the very low pitched biphonic sound which he produced, but when using melodic overtones deriving from a drone pitched in a higher register denied that it was xöömii. When demonstrating the sounds produced in “the old tme”, Purev growled impressively from deep in the chest, using the very low fundamental AA,(note32) and referred to it as xargaraa.(Note33)

The attempt by the Mongols to classify styles is fairly recent and has been completed most effectively in relation to the Xalxa of west Mongolia. The XaIxa  xöömiich Tserendavaa pointed out that until the folk music specialist Badraa came to Chandman’ sum in 1982 to produce a film called “Mongolian Xöömii”, he had realised that he used different positions of the tongue, lips and so on but had not conceptualised the differences. He subsequently held many discussions about xöömii classification with Badraa, and the conclusions they reached were incorporated into the film, which won a prize in the International Telefilm Festival. During a tour of England (note34) in 1988, Tserendavaa identified and demonstrated the different categories of Mongolian xöömii as follows.

A. uyangiin xöömii /melodic or lyrical xöömii:

1. uruulyn / labial xöömii

2. tagnain /palatal xöömii

3. xamryn/  nasal xöömii

4. bagaIzuuryn, xooloin / glottal, throat xöömii

5. tseejiin xondiin, xeviiin / chest cavity, stomach xöömii

6. türlegt or xosmoljin xöömii / xöömii combined with long song (Note35)

The sixth type is a combination of speaking (xelex), singing (duulax), humming (ayalax), long song (urtyn duu) melodies and all five melodic types of xöömii. Tserendavaa developed this style, having heard that the legendary xöömiich Bazarsad could perform this combination, and calls it türlegt xöömii (note36). Researchers in Ulaaribaatar have named it xosmoljin xöömii. Tserendavaa, demonstrated the style by performing “Widespread Happiness” or Jargaltai Delger, (note37) using the more restricted range of the west XaIxa variant of the melody rather than that used by the central XaIxa.

Tserendavaa noted that the most difficult types of xöömii to perform are nasal xöömii and türlegt xöömii. Both of these are characterised by much -chinex ‑blood rushing to the face. Nasal xöömii is difficult, he said, because it is necessary to create a powerful flow of air by forcing it through a small channel. Since türlegt xöömii includes elements from all other kinds, it is also very difficult. He needed ten years to master türlegt xöömii, which he first demonstrated in the United States in 1987. In 1988 he won a gold medal at the National Folk Art Competition in Ulaaribaatar performing türlegt xöömii accompanying himself on the morin xuur (horse‑head fiddle).

B. xarxiraa

Tserendavaa also identified a style of xöömii known as xarxiraa, which he compared to the sound of a “rippling waterfall” (note38) He was however unable to Demonstrate it, since it requires a deep, powerful voice.(note39) The  relationship between uyangiin (melodic) xöömii and xarxiraa has been the source of some dispute among Mongol performers and academics. Traditional music researcher Badraa and the xöömiich Tserendavaa classify them separately, a division which is maintained in categories of performance at folk art festivals (Bawden 1991 OS). Badraa (IN) suggested that xarxiraa lacks the overtone melody (uyangiin isgeree; lit. melodic whistle). Others, however, such as Sengedorj and Margad, both from Chandman’ sum, think that xarxiraa is the source of xöömii and that xöömii is founded on it. Margad sees xarxiraa not as a separate style but as the oldest form of xöömii and the background colour or tone (devsger ongo) out of which others developed. In his own performance of xarxiraa, Margad produces an overtone melody. Sengedorj’s argument was that since there is only one flow of air through the vocal tract, there can only be one type of xöömii.  He acknowledged a different technique for xarxiraa and xöömii, however, saying that if the throat is open (zadgai xooloi) the sound produced is called xarxiraa, whereas if it is “closed tightly” (xumix xooloi) then the sound is called xöömii. He also admitted that the stream of air goes through three places‑the nose, lips and throat‑and stated that this is how the terms xamryn (of the nose), amny xendii (of the mouth cavity) and xooloin xöömii (of the throat) have arisen. And he recognised that some people can only produce one type. Davaajav, who performs tseejiin xondiin xöömii and sometimes bagalzuuryn xöömii, agreed with the concept of different types of xöömii. As a xoomich he felt a difference between them but did not know how to explain. He opined that it is not possible for one person to perform all types.

5 The Four Siblings (ax duu): overtone singing, epics, long song and horse‑head fiddle

Tserendavaa likened the relationship of the four main types of traditional “art”‑xöömii/overtone singing, Tuul/’epics,  urtyn duu/long song and morin xuur/horse‑head fiddle‑to that of four ‑siblings‑ or “brothers and sisters”. A further instrument should be added to the above list which, possiibly because it is not XaIxa, was omitted by Tserendavaa. The tsuur, played by the Urianxai, Kazak and Tuvans in Bayan Olgii aimag, is a three_holed vertical flute through which the performer plays a melody whilst simultaneously producing  a low‑pitched vocal drone.

This ax duu relationship is significant partly in terms of the sounds produced, for the above traditional musical forms all comply with the Mongolian conceptualisation of traditional music, which involves the division of sound into a low drone above which is laid a high melody line. This division of sound has been discussed above in relation to xöömii. The sounds produced during xöömii are often related to those produced in xailax, the deep, declamatory, non melodic technique used for the performance of epics. Sengedorj, xöömiich and tsuur player with the Xovd theatre, proposed that xailax and xöömii originated from the same source but developed differently within the context of different yastan. Similarly, Byambadorj, assuming a relationship between epic and xöömii vocal techniques, used the presence of a strong epic tradition among the Bayad to validate his argument for the indigenous nature of Bayad xöömii. In neighbouring areas, epics and xöömii performance are more obviously related. For example, xai throat singing amongst the Khakassians usually accompanies epic recitation (Maslov and Chernov 1979‑80:86).(note40) Long songs consist of a highly ornamented, long drawn‑out single melody line but are usually accompanied by the horse‑head fiddle which echoes the vocal melodic line whilst simultaneously supplying the underlying drones. As noted above, turlegt xöömiii also combines long song with xöömii. Regarding the tsuur, the programme notes for xioomii performances at a folk art festival (Bawden 1991 OS) gave one category as “xarxiraa xöömii (aman tsuur)”, i.e., (mouth tsuur), thus making the connection between the sounds of one kind of xöömii and the tsuur.

In addition to the similarity in the sounds produced, Tserendavaa pointed out that these traditional musical forms relate as “brothers and sisters” in that their origins connect and harmonise with nature (baigal’) and the environment (orchin axui). He particularly stressed the relationship of the traditional musical forms to baigal’, noting that the performance of xöömii was not associated with culture (soyol) until the 1930s when Chuluun demonstrated it as a “folk art” (see above).


1 The magical sounds of overtone singing

The experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen tells how he was inspired in his vocal work “Stimmung’” ‑ the first major Western composition to be based entirely on the production of vocal harmonics‑by a range of Mexican gods and magical forces (D). Similarly, David Hykes relates the overtone sounds of his New York‑based “Harmonic Choir” to “solar winds”, “gravity waves”, “the flight of the sun” and so on (D). In England and America, the “caring 1990s” is said to be replacing the “Thatcherite materialistic 1980s”. The New Age movement, which embraces the beliefs of esoteric religions and a wide range of alternative healing techniques, is becoming increasingly popular as people seek to reinject a spiritual aspect into their lives. Perhaps because it is an exotic and strange sound, Mongolian overtone singing is being assimilated into this movement and is increasingly being promoted as a means of meditation and of alternative or magical healing. It is being linked with Tibetan overtone chanting and advertised as a means of spiritual and physical healing. Proliferating New Age gurus link overtone singing with both Buddhism and shamanism, assuming that its performance has beneficial effects on the body. For instance, “overtone chanting” influenced by “Mongolian and Tibetan shamanic techniques” has been advertised as a means of “sonic meditation”, as “chanting for psycho‑physical transformation” and as a “magical voice technique” (Purce 1991). In alternative healing it is claimed to be able to “reharmonise the patient’s energy field” (Cocker 1990 OS) and to cause “miraculous healings” (McGregor 1991 OS).

Little work has been done in the West on the potentially harmful physical effects of xöömii. The Vietnamese musicologist Tran Quang Hai does warn that it may be dangerous and suggests that practice should be limited to ten or fifteen minutes a day. As a performer himself, Tran also underwent a clinical examination which showed slight inflammation of the vocal chords and some wearing away of the lining of the nasal passages (Sauvage 1989:6). But he also shows a desire to popularise it, having elaborated a series of physical instructions to enable the production of a form of overtone singing to be accessible to all (1978:163‑4; 1989:15‑16) and collaborated on Zemp’s film which, as a cinematic technique, treats those watching the film as workshop members, encouraging them to try it for themselves (Zemp and TrAn 1989 F).

2 Acoustical and physiological analysis of sound

Spectral analysis and the sonogram have been used to analyse the sounds produced in xöömii in order to understand both the sounds themselves and the physiological processes which produce them. Spectral analysis was used initially to identify the range of partials from which the melody tones are selected, namely the 6th to 13th partials but excluding the 11 th (Walcott 1974:55‑9). My own experiments with Tserendavaa confirmed this. His use of the 7th and 11th partials as auxiliary rather than structural notes support the suggestion that tones were selected in accordance with the anhemitonic pentatonic scale typical of Mongolian traditional music (Huglies n.d.; Cross 1990 OS).

Physiological aspects of xooiii production have been investigated with the aid of X‑ray films. In the early 1970s X‑ray films were made in  Paris (note41) of  Tran Quang in Leningrad (note 42) of Tuvan throat singers and later, in 19?? , in Khahassia of  Khakassian throat singers (Maslov and Chernov 1979‑80).  More recently Tran Quang Hai underwent video examinations of his larynx and buccal cavities in Limoges (paller 1989: 11‑15) and had an X‑ray film recording made of his nose and throat whilst performing overtone  singing with sinlge and double buccal cavities as part of Zemp’s film, Le chant des harnoniques (Zemp and Tran 1989 F). This film also shows multi‑coloured sound spectra of  several types of Mongolian overtone singing  (as well as examples from Tuva, Africa and India) reproduced in synchronic sound and in real time using advanced technology of the DSP sona‑Graph Model 5500 which had been acquired by the Department of Ethnomusicology at the Musee de,l’homme.

The fascinating and informative sonograms used in the film have been impressively augmented by Zemp and Tran’s 1991 paper “Recherches experimentales sur le chant diphonique”, in which the physiological characteristics the recorded styles from Tuva, Tibet, Mongolia, Altai, Rajasthan and South Africa are compared with the aid of illustrative sonograms. The strength, range, and contours of bourdons and partials are clearly shown and, by using Tran Quang Hai’s imitative skill in reproducing the same contours, physiological data is provided on the use of different resonating cavities, muscular contractions and ornamentation techniques.

Following Stumpf’s work on the analysis of sung vowel sounds (1918), recent work has also been done on the association of vowel sounds and pitch. Tran Quang Hai (1980:163) elaborated on the way in which the pronunciation vowels produces a series of partials the range of which depends on the tone quality of the singer’s voice and windpipe, and David Hughes (1989) discusses, the use of vowel‑pitch solfege systems in different societies.

As a result of the above acoustical and physiological research, it is possible to give a broad outline of the factors which influence the range, selection and production of partials and which consequently determine the tonal colour xöömii. These include the following five, which overlap to some extent:

  1. the size of the buccal cavity, which may be separated from the pharyngeal cavity by the back of the tongue or divided into a front and rear cavity by raising the tip of the tongue to the palate (Zemp and Tran 1991:31; Tran and Guillou 1980:171);
  2. the contraction of muscles in the stomach, neck, pharynx, the nasal passages and in the soft inner walls of the other cavities of the vocal tract ( (Winckel1960; Gunji 1978:136; Zemp and TrAn 1991:39‑46);

 c)  the production of different vowel sounds (Stumpf 1918; Guriji 1978,Tran 1989; Hughes 1989); the pitch of the fundamental, which in part determinesthe frequency range within which partials are available for selection (Walcott 1974; Cross 1990  OS; Zemp and Tran 1991).

  • manipulation of the muscles of the vocal tract as under point (b), in order to select as primary resonator either the buccal or the pharyngeal cavity, thus 

      emphasising respectively the second or first formant, the latter resulting in the Tuvan kargyraa (Hughes 1989).

Since it is not possible to illustrate adequately in the space available the depth of acoustical and physiological research that has been accomplished, and since the main thrust of this paper is to present the Mongolian viewpoint, it is hoped that the reader will examine the rich data now available through the sources cited.

3 Conceptualisalion of sound

only etic observers compare the sounds produced in overtone singing with those of the jew’s harp (aman xuur, that is, mouth harp). Since the French scientist Manuel Garcia pointed to a similarity between the Bashkirs’ uzIiau overtone singing and the sound produced by a “jew’s harp” in 1840, others have followed suit. For instance, Vargyas (1968:71) made the same comparison in relation to the Tuvans, and this has been echoed by others in relation to the Mongols (Hamayon 1973, Heiffer 1973,Guriji 1978:135). The techniques do have some similarities. In both cases the mouth is used as a resonator and the articulation of silent vowels produces harmonic overtones above a fundamental drone. In the case of the jew’s harp, however, the fundamental is generated by an extrasomatic source‑the tongue of the jew’s harp whilst in overtone singing it is generated by the vibrating vocal chords. Mongolian xöömii is also more diversified and expressive than the sounds produced by a “jew’s harp”, and the techniques used are far more complex. As shown above, the production of each type involves the use of different breathing techniques and changes in tension in the vocal cords, the pharynx, the nasal passages, the windpipe and so on. When Sundui was asked, during a seminar session in Japan, about the validity of the comparison between xöömii and the jew’s harp, he pointed out that whilst the control of the mouth cavity is quite similar, the control of the breath is quite different (Emmert and Minegishi 1980:48). During my fieldwork in Mongolia, xöömii performers in Chandman’ consistently denied any connection between overtone singing and the jew’s harp, insisting, as outlined above, on the interrelation ship of the sounds produced in xöömii with those of the other traditional musical forms and the connection which all of them have with nature.

V Conclusion

Although there is evidence that xöömii was used in secular contexts in Mongolia, there are also indications that it had religious or magical connotations. For instance, the legends of origin of xöömii outlined above link the sounds which inspired xöömii with beneficial effects on living creatures: the horses and cattle in Chandman’ sum are extra fine because they exist beneath the “musical communication” set up between mountain and lake, the people living by the River Eev are fine singers and also beautiful, the call of the crane is a portent of long life and so on. These sounds are both natural‑in that they emanate from natural phenomena such as mountains, lakes, rivers and birds‑and supernatural in the effects which they have. Although there is no firm evidence of a link with shamanism, pause for thought is given by the stress laid upon “nature” as the origin of xöömii in a people whose folk religion was based on communication with spirits located in natural phenomena. Clearly if the combination of mountains and lakes was the only necessary inspiration, overtone singing would be more geographically widespread. My experiences in western Mongolia showed that the belief in spirits of the mountains did not die during the years of Communist rule. Hunters who five on Mount  Jargalant continue to make libations of fermented mare’s milk (airag) and to burn juniper leaves (arts) and incense (xuj) before setting out on a hunting trip, requesting that the mountain should bestow game upon them that day. And when a tyre burst on my jeep, the former lama who accompanied me knelt in the direction of the mountain and prayed. It would be surprising, therefore, if strange sounds which had the dual function of warning of impending danger and enabling everything beneath it to flourish and which emanated from within the mountain where a spirit was thought to dwell had not, in former days, been interpreted as communication from that spirit. Mongolian traditional music researcher Badraa (IN) also links xöömii with religious belief when he categorises it as a form of whistling, which he believes is one of the earliest noises made by man in imitation of nature; until recently whistling was used to call up the god of the wind.(note43) Similarly, the legendary xöömiich Bazarsad’s performance of tiirlegt xöömii was said to attract the earth and water spirits. Such references to spirits and gods are not insignificant given that at the time of my field trips the Mongols had not reached the degree of openness and freedom of speech and belief which they are now able to enjoy.

There is, then, some basis from the evidence within Mongolia for the belief that these sounds are related to religious belief and particularly to natural phenomena. It is perhaps partly because of a former religious association that the Mongols surround xöömii performance with rules and regulations. But it is also related to the fact that performance of the more difficult types of xöömii may cause physical damage while sustained performance of less difficult types cause physical changes which may also have adverse effects. Whilst an argument could be made that those listening to overtone singing may be effected beneficially (as those hearing the xöömii‑type sounds of mountain, water and birds in Mongolia), the evidence from Mongolia contradicts the idea that those producingxöömii  sounds will also automatically benefit‑suggesting, in fact, that xöömii performance may cause considerable physical problems. At a minimum, those people who are teaching the production of those sounds should be aware of this and also aware, as Tserendavaa pointed out, that beginners may “drift between types”, thereby doing themselves unwitting harm.

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Marie-Cécile BARRAS & Anne-Marie GOUIFFES :The Reception of Overtone Singing by Uninformed Listeners


journal of interdisciplinary music studies
spring/fall 2008, volume 2, issue 1&2, art. #0821204, pp. 59-70
•Correspondence: M.-C. Barras, Univ. Bordeaux IV (IUFM), 160 Avenue de Verdun – BP 90152, 33705
Mérignac Cedex, France; e-mail: marie-cecile.barras@aquitaine.iufm.fr


The Reception of Overtone Singing by Uninformed

Marie-Cécile Barras1 and Anne-Marie Gouiffès2
1 University of Bordeaux (IUFM d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux IV and Department of Music,
Bordeaux III) 2 Jeannine Manuel Bilingual School, Paris and OMF, University of Paris IV-Sorbonne
Background in acoustics and psychoacoustics. Overtone singing is a vocal technique by
which a single source produces two melodic pitches simultaneously. When an unprepared
listener hears a recording of overtone singing, the first question is usually: “How was the sound
produced?” The level of auditory education may play a role in the perception of this
Background in cultural studies. A study of a cultural initiation includes subjective aspects of
reception. Listeners are presented with an unknown vocal technique from a popular culture. The
majority of listeners will experience it as a real cultural confrontation with an unknown world
of sound. The initial phase of acculturation is therefore the most salient.
Aims. Our objective is to determine how the listener reacts to an unknown musical
phenomenon, in both its perceptive and cultural dimensions.
Main contribution. The present study concerns the listener’s reception of overtone singing.
The musical corpus includes styles of singing as diverse as those found in Tuva and Mongolia,
in South Africa (Xhosa women), or among the Dani people of Irian Jaya in the Indonesian
territory of New Guinea. Psychoacoustic tests were given to 338 adolescents (10–15 years old).
Implications. In order to understand the mechanism ‘from the inside’, all the listeners, who
have undergone the tests, then try overtone singing. Our study opens the door to a
transformation in the way one listens. It encourages an openness to other artistic and cultural
dimensions through a real education of the ear.

Keywords: Overtone singing, ethnomusicology, pitch perception, psychoacoustics, reception, cultural

M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

The present study concerns the listener’s reception of overtone singing, a vocal
technique by which a single source produces two melodic pitches simultaneously.
One of the pitches is the generally stable fundamental, which serves as a sort of drone;
the other results from the shifting emphasis of different harmonics. This shifting
emphasis has a melodic intent. The various harmonics are obtained through a
modification (by pronouncing the vowels) of the singer’s resonators (the pharyngo-
buccal cavity acts as a resonator of variable volume) and a particular use of the breath
with a forceful contraction of the abdominal and neck muscles. This is characteristic
for traditional techniques of overtone singing. In a different way, the
ethnomusicologist Trân Quang Hai thinks that the singer’s nose can be used as a
natural shutter in order to filter undesirable frequencies with no more additional
efforts than while speaking (Zemp, 1989; Zemp & Trân, 1991), but this experimental
possibility should not be confused with the guttural overtone singing (or ‘throat
singing’ as Mongols and Tuvans call it).
This vocal technique which is very original has been observed, recorded and studied
in depth for about thirty years by ethnomusicologists and acousticians (Léothaud,
1989). A short sequence of analysis presented in an interactive process can be found
at: http://www.mae.u-paris10.fr/crem-cnrs/Animations/diphonique/hai1.html, or at the
website of the ‘Musée de l’Homme’ of Paris: http://www.ethnomus.org1 (click
‘Enter’, choose ‘Réalisations Multimedia’, ‘Les clefs d’écoute’, ‘Le chant
diphonique’). The analysis of the frequencies can be visualized immediately as the
singer physically emits overtone singing thanks to a special computer programme
(e.g. ‘sygyt software’, http://www.sygyt.com2, Maass & Saus, 2003) which draws
sonagrams (or spectrograms), thus illustrating the acoustic specificity of the sound.
Though this vocal technique is now well known by specialists (Walcott, 1974; Trân,
1975, 2002) and also used in contemporary music, overtone singing is still unknown
to the general public. The first listening experiment that we did in music classes
triggered varied and surprising reactions. This music raised issues linked both to
perception and cultural background. Therefore we felt that overtone singing was a
good basis to explore the psychoacoustic experience and the cultural initiation that it
So the main question was: “How does an uninformed listener react to an unknown
musical phenomenon?” – in perceptive and cultural dimensions. The Reception of Overtone Singing

Musical corpus
The existence of overtone singing is now acknowledged in places beyond Mount
Altai, in Central Asia, among the following populations: Mongolian, Tuva, Khakash,
Altaian, and among the Bashkirs (West of the Urals). What is less well known is that
certain Xhosa women from South Africa perform overtone singing in extremely low
vocal registers and that a recording (by John Levy, 1967, cited in Zemp & Trân, 1991,
and in Trân, 2002) of a singer also shows that overtone singing existed in Rajasthan.
The Dani people of Irian Jaya in the Indonesian territory of New Guinea practise a
unique kind of triphonic singing that has yet to be fully researched.
We wanted to let the students listen to several techniques in order to explore the
diversity present in different continents and allow them to discover this phenomenon
in other new places. Thus the musical corpus includes styles of singing as diverse as
those found in Tuva and Mongolia (Desjacques, 1993), in South Africa (with
women’s voices singing in the lower register), or among the Dani people of Irian
The performance is executed by a sole vocalist, and not by a vocal ensemble which
produces a harmonic from the fusion of several voices, as observed in the polyphonic
singing of Sardinia (Lortat-Jacob, 1998) or with the deep bass voices of the monks of
the Gyütö monastery in Tibet, in exile in India (Trân, 1999).
Students listened to four extracts that were each less than one minute long:
• EX1 (= Extract 1), 0’57, Mongolia, xhöömij (Maison des Cultures du
monde, 1989, N°6: ‘Khuren khalgaatai delguur’).
The Khoomei (or xhöömij or xöömii… – transliterated in different ways by different
authors), from a Mongolian word that means ‘throat’ or ‘pharynx’, is generally
translated as ‘throat-singing’3 and is the name of a particular soft-sounding style (with
clear harmonics) as well as the general term for throat-singing. The fundamental pitch
in the khoomei style is higher (in a baritone register) than that of kargiraa (see EX3).
• EX2 (= Extract 2), 0’34, New Guinea, Dani people (Petrequin, 2001,
N°18–19–20: ‘Lolo-Lou, Habema’).
The Extract 2 (Dani people) is an ethnological document and not an
‘ethnomusicological’ record. It is important to note that this extract was an exception
to the rule, because the singer was producing a triphonic sound.
• EX3 (= Extract 3), 0’56, Tuva, ‘Dag kargyraa’ (Zemp, 1996, N°37:
Russie–Kyzyl, République de Tuva).
Kargiraa style, from an onomatopoeic word that means in Tuvan ‘to wheeze’, ‘to
speak in a hoarse or husky voice’ (Alekseev, Kirgiz & Levin, 1990) is characterized
by an extremely low fundamental pitch (frequency between 55 Hertz [Hz]–65 Hz). M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès


• EX4 (= Extract 4), 0’52, South Africa, Xhosa woman (Ngqoko, Lumko
district) (Zemp, 1996, N°36-a: Nondel’ ekhaya [‘Married at home’]; in the
style umngqokolo ngomqangi by Nowayilethi Mbizweni).
Umngqokolo (overtone singing in South Africa) ngomqangi style is ‘inspired by the
buzzing of a beetle held in front of the mouth [of the performer], with selection of
harmonics in the buccal cavity’ (Trân, in Zemp, 1996).
This heterogeneous musical corpus could make the identification of this phenomenon
more complicated for the listeners (because of the stylistic diversity of the pieces), but
we wanted to offer a pedagogical and cultural mind opener that was as wide as
possible in our test.
Note that overtone singing is traditionally performed by men. The ethnomusicologist
Trân Quang Hai thinks4 this tradition is based on acoustical principles (Zemp & Trân,
1991). One has to produce a fundamental tone within the range of about 150 Hz (or
about 200 Hz at most) to perceive harmonics up to the 13th harmonic (a vibration of
about 2000 Hz, or about 2600 Hz), but a 150 Hz emission is not within the usual
register of women’s voices. For instance, in the test, the Tuvan melody in ‘Kargiraa
technique’ (EX3) uses harmonics number 8, 9, 10 and 12.
The Xhosa woman in South Africa (when using the lower register of her voice; EX4),
is an exception, and all the pupils thought this was a man’s voice in this extract.
Psychoacoustic test: subjects, listening experiment and questionnaire
Psychoacoustic tests were given to a broad public (adolescents and young adults
between the ages of 10 and 30, with hypothesis of standard hearing). The results in
this paper are based on the answers of 338 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 15.
These adolescents belong to an international school “École Active Bilingue Jeannine
Manuel” offering bilingual education in French and English (about 75% students use
at least two languages at home and practice bilingualism daily). The audience
included all students from 14 classes taught by Anne-Marie Gouiffès.
The test took fifty minutes (including setting up and instructions) which stands for a
full weekly music lesson. The group of adolescents listened together to the four
extracts in the music class. No communication between them and no visible
expression were required (but this was impossible for them – see ‘Results / Student’s

The Reception of Overtone Singing


Figure 1. Ages with the distribution of girls and boys.
An open questionnaire was distributed at the beginning of the session, followed by
more precise questions that lead to investigations of the structure of the sound.
Listeners were asked four questions (one different question for each extract). It is
important to notice that they did not have the questionnaire in advance, but read the
questions one by one, while the test was going on (the students were only allowed
three minutes to write down their answers).
The questions are the following (EX1= Extract 1, EX2= Extract 2, etc.):
• EX1 – What are you hearing?
• EX2 – What are you listening to? Try to explain more. Try to describe the
• EX3 – In addition to what you have heard, try to say what you have felt and
try to explain this feeling.
• EX4 – What was your personal feeling? Try to explain the reasons why and
give us as many details as you can. Try to guess how the sound could be
When unprepared listeners hear a recording of overtone singing, one of their first
questions is usually: “How was this sound produced?” After a closer listening, they
may try to decipher the nature of the sound (the level of auditory education may play
a role in the perception of this phenomenon).
Class interval: ages
10 11 12 13 14 15 Ages
Number Boys Girls M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

Student’s reactions
Children of this age are still spontaneous enough to physically manifest what they are
feeling through body language. When they finally understand that it was produced by
a human voice, many adolescents — contrary to older audiences — are tempted to
reproduce the sound themselves, much like they did when first learning to speak. So,
reactions were varied: perplexity, laughter, miming, curiosity, pleasure, rejection,
enthusiasm, fear…5
Written answers
Responses for each extract in the open questionnaire and comments about the sound,
allowed several listening channels to be distinguished. The categories of the origin of
the sound in the Figure 2 are extracted from the free comments. The distribution of
the types of answers shows: source(s) of the sound(s) determined; voice(s) and/or
instrument(s) or labelled sound (without voice); perception of the source(s)
undetermined (see Figure 2).

In the channel noted ‘undetermined source of sound’, most of the answers specified
that they were unable to determine the source. So the remaining question was: “How
was this sound produced?”

Figure 2. Distribution of the types of answers per extract. The Reception of Overtone Singing

It was, at times, difficult to differentiate between reactions to musical characteristics
and those related to specific vocal techniques; however, we noticed that the negative
reactions (like ‘it gives me a headache’) seemed to be related to the feeling of the
obtrusive and awkward presence of the singer’s body (‘It’s like somebody with a sore
throat, and we feel it ourself’ – EX3, Justine, 13 years old), while positive reactions
were the expression of musical appreciation (like ‘It was beautiful, the way he sings’
– EX3, Joséphine, 13 years old). This point should be confirmed by data.
The answers were so interesting that other studies should be made related to the
vocabulary of specific notions that we had not foreseen (sense of the Sacred,
exoticism, feeling of strangeness, emotions, presence of the body, etc).
One example of answers concerning ‘Exoticism’
As a way to locate some unknown music (in a foreign country, from a civilization, a
cultural practice, a ritual or a ceremony…) or as an expression of ‘aesthetics of

About 25% pupils spontaneously felt the need to locate this ‘sound’ in a country, or
identify it as originating from some civilization, some cultural practice, some ritual or
ceremony, etc. (we noticed that this need grew in proportion to the age of the students
from 11 to 15). Identification was often erroneous. Only one student referred to
Mongolia for Extract 1 (correctly) but he also referred to Mongolia for Extract 4
(South Africa, in fact). We can see that around 12% referred to Africa correctly for
the Ex4, and only 1% for the other extracts.
But, initially, getting a right or wrong answers was not a problem. These answers
were interesting because they allowed us to realize how the students figured out the
representation or the image of the ‘Difference’, the ‘Distance’.
The ‘furthest away’ in space is an ‘alien’, or an ‘unidentified flying object’. The
‘furthest away’ in time is a man ‘imitating a Prehistoric man’. Lea, 14 years old,
wrote: ‘It is as if I was in a cavern during the Prehistoric Age, before man could
speak’. One pupil imagined ‘Asian monks in Antiquity’; such an image summarizes a
single definition of the distant space-time and spiritual spheres. The answers cover a
map throughout the globe, with a preference for Africa, Asia and Australia (imagined
like a continent peopled with Aborigines only). We can assume that Europe and
America (except for the Indians!) and, in fact, generally Western cultures are not
quoted (or exceptionally in a different way: use of technology with electronically
altered voices). In their view, this is not exoticism (all of these adolescents are not
from Europe, but they would refer to Western culture). Yet, ‘a far-away place where
technology has yet to arrive’ (Aude, 14 years old), can be exotic…
All of these answers (a significant number of them from youngsters aged 14–15) lay
the foundation of ‘the aesthetics of the diversity’ concept, according to the words used
by Victor Segalen in his essay, Essai sur l’exotisme (1999). M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

We can suppose that the adolescents’ need to locate and culturally identify four
minutes of music (an unknown musical phenomenon) may have to do with their
growing individuality and conscience. These adolescents can assert their identity by
applying diversity to the Antipodes, the natural wilderness of a country, a temple in a
forest, tribal dances or rituals… The singer could be a Shaman, an Indian or an African
witch-doctor… They can hear ‘the national anthem of the jungle’, but they honestly
confess imagining things: ‘At the end, I interpreted it as a song sung for African
celebrations, even though I knew it was not so’. With ‘A human voice which does not
come from our cultures’ (Jianne, 13 years old), which ‘transports […] out of class’
(Julia, 14 years old), one leaves the secular world. Perhaps, because of the weirdness
of the sonority, this voice was often associated to sacred customs. As a religion,
Buddhism was frequently quoted (due, maybe, to what the Western world has learned
of Buddhism and its mystery).
We found other answers without any connection to a particular religion, but very
profound and tainted with mysticism: ‘I felt enveloped by the sound; it struck down
deep into my bones; it dissolved all the little noises in the background and became the
ONLY sound. It was so loud and overwhelming that I seemed to become a lonely rock
shaken by that moan. It was like a call to God that pierced the sky and shattered the
trivial things that surrounding me. It was everything in the world while it played….’
(Emma, 12 years old).
At the end of the test, students were asked personal questions because we wanted to
know which kind of connection could be established between their way of hearing
and their personal background.
The questions relating to the background are the following:
• Do you play an instrument? If yes, which one and for how long?
• What is your mother tongue? Are there any other languages spoken at home
(except French)?
• Have you ever lived abroad or spent significant amounts of time abroad on
holiday (out of France)?
• Have you heard this kind of music before? Give us some details.
• What are your musical tastes?
The data about the background are still under analysis; however, a brief outlook can
be provided. For example, we noticed that several students mentioned the
‘didgeridoo’ as an instrument that could accompany the singer, or in which the singer
could sing while blowing through it. The second point is most interesting even if it is
not factual: it shows that listeners have perceived — consciously or not — the
existence of harmonics.
The Reception of Overtone Singing

• EX1 – Shalla-Marie, 13 years old:
‘A kind of highpitched voice. Vibrating. And we can hear the breaths he (or she) is
taking. It sounds like he is moving his mouth a lot to make the sound. It is a peculiar
sound, very peculiar and it sounds like the kind of music the aborigines in Australia
listen to and make.’

• EX1 – Bastien, 13, lived in Australia for 3 ½ years:
‘This sounds like the didgeridoo, the instrument of the Australian natives.’
• EX1 – Hilary, 11, Australian pupil:
‘I hear a man’s voice imitating the sound of a didgeridoo. Maybe a recorder.’
That is why we had to verify if those students had had special musical experience
when they lived or stayed abroad, or if they had specific knowledge linked to their
family origins. All the Australians pupils (or those who had had a long stay in
Australia) said the sound was reminiscent of the Aboriginal instrument.
In order to understand the mechanism ‘from the inside’, all the students of the 14
classes of the bilingual school “École Active Bilingue Jeannine Manuel” who have
undergone the tests, tried overtone singing (in the line of Zemp & Trân, 1989, 1997;
Trân & Souvet, 2004; Trân, 2005). Two weeks after the experiment, more than three
hundred pupils were taught the basics of the technique of overtone singing by Anne-
Marie Gouiffès as she was taught herself by Trân Quang Hai in 2004.
Reactions were various: girls were generally shy and inhibited, but when they tried
the results were often excellent. Almost all the boys considered this vocal experience
as a challenge and were very excited to perform.
We conducted our investigation in a bilingual school where multiculturalism was a
reality. In such an environment, signs of rejection or refusal on a cultural basis — if
they existed — were less obvious, less overt. One would not reject music because it is
strange (or ‘alien’) but resistance is based on the assumption that it is some ‘noise’,
some ‘sound’ that takes you aback, or is boring or unpleasant.

Practising the basics of overtone singing is a good way of discovering ‘alterity’ — or
‘otherness’ — because the feeling of voicing and listening implies a complete change
of habit. At the same time students discover new physical sensations and listen to
their own voices in a way they never did before. It sometimes reveals a new
personality, and the students who succeeded in overtone singing were admired by
their friends. Besides, we soon noticed that some students, usually shy when it came M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

to singing, were very happy to practice overtone singing. Probably, these students had
wished to learn overtone singing as it is sung in Mongolia or Tuva.
Despite broken voice, all the boys in the forms were willing to try and were interested
in the performance of others. ‘Sense of failure’ posed no problem. One student asked
whether written scores of overtone singing existed; this led to a discussion about oral
and written tradition… The matter was different with the girls. They were interested in
the description of the phenomenon but the majority of them refused to try overtone
singing.6 It may have to do with the fear that this way of singing, which causes funny
faces and transforms voices, might alter their own image.
After investigating a musical corpus and vocal technique little known to the general
public, we intended to bring a musicological contribution to the work of acousticians,
ethnomusicologists, and, obviously, musicians who practice overtone singing (Zemp
& Trân, 1989, 1997; Pegg, 2001).
This study proposed to examine overtone singing through the unique perspective of
listeners’ reception. The majority of listeners (a middle school audience) experienced
it as a real cultural confrontation with an unknown world of sound. The initial phase
of acculturation is therefore the most salient.
This type of research requires an interdisciplinary approach (musicology;
ethnomusicology; acoustics and its musical subdisciplines, and psychoacoustics; the
psychology of perception; sociology and cultural studies). After having conducted this
experiment, we are able to conclude that the discovery of overtone singing opened the
door to a transformation in the way one listens. It encourages opening up to other
artistic and cultural dimensions through a real education of the ear.
First of all, Anne-Marie Gouiffès would like to express her gratitude to Trân Quang
Hai, a master and a friend who has initiated her to the world of overtone singing and
accompanied her day by day in the fascinating universe of overtones. Marie-Cécile
Barras would like to warmly thank Michèle Castellengo, who supported her for many
years in a many scientific matters.

Anne-Marie Gouiffès also would like to particularly thank her friend and colleague
Dominique Ayné who helped her to edit a documentary on the living experiment.
Marie-Cécile Barras and Anne-Marie Gouiffès would also like to mention Myriam
Faurite, Henri Barras, Jean Civray and Matthew Thomas. The Reception of Overtone Singing

Alekseev, E., Kirgiz, Z. & Levin, T., (recordings and notes by) (1990). Voices from the center
of Asia. Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40017 [+CD audio].
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Paris IV-Sorbonne.
Léothaud, G. (1989). Considérations acoustiques et musicales sur le chant diphonique. Le chant
diphonique, Dossier n° 1 (pp. 17-43). Limoges: Institut de la Voix.
Lortat-Jacob, B. (1998). Chants de Passions. Au cœur d’une confrérie de Sardaigne. Paris:
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Maison des Cultures du monde (published by) (1989). Mongolie. Musique vocale et
instrumentale. Inédit W 260009 [CD audio].
Pegg, C. (2001). Mongolian music, dance and oral narrative: Performing diverse identities.
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Les Dani de Nouvelle-Guinée, Volume II. Nord-Sud musique [+CD audio].
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_________. (2002). À la découverte du chant diphonique. In: G. Cornut (éd.), Moyens
d’investigation et pédagogie de la voix chantée. Actes de colloque (pp.117-132). Lyon:
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1 Official website of the UMR laboratory of the CNRS 7186 (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique,
France). 2 Created by Bodo Maass and Wolfgang Saus in 2003, this website ‘can be used as a spectrum analyzer and
a visual feedback tool as well as an interactive visualization of music theory’. 3 See the website http://www.khoomei.com. Created by Steve Sklar (USA), for Tuvan throat singing or Khoomei. 4 As he told us in a work session. M.-C. Barras and A.-M. Gouiffès

5 The reactions were recorded on video and presented at the 3rd Conference on Interdisciplinary
Musicology (CIM07), held in Tallinn, Estonia, 15–19 August 2007, on the theme of singing. 6 On the video documentary presented at CIM07, some girls can be seen trying overtone singing but these
instances were the only ones.