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n Conversation with… Michael Ormiston (featuring Candida Valentino) Khöömii (overtone) singing, UK


Uploaded on May 19, 2009
Michael Ormiston is one of the only non-Mongolians able to sing Khöömii a type of overtone singing. He tells us what it means to him…

For more information on Michael and Candida and other Khöömii singers please go to:

Performance recorded at a Alternatives event:

Workshop recorded at a Singing Knives event:

LAURI HARVILAHTI : A Two Voiced Song With No Words, FINLAND


A Two Voiced Song With No Words by Lauri Harvilahti  circa 1981


Overtone singingwhich is often referred to as biphonic or pharyngeal singing, is a style of singing within the framework of which it is possible to produce two (sometimes three) tones which are distinct  auditory experiences (1). Singing in this style involves having the vocal cords produce a low tonic which is then normally used in the same manner as a pedal point. Utilizing­ a specific technique a voice based on the same series of overtones is also produced. Altering the shape of the oral cavity by movements of the tongue, the singer is able to shift from one overtone to another and thus present melodies. (2) The area which can be profitably exploited extends from the 5th to the 13th harmonic.

Upon first acquaintance, this type of singing leaves a striking impres­sion; nevertheless it is known to several peoples of Central Asia as the Tuvins, the Mongols, Khakas, the Bashkirs, and the Tibetans. According to A. NAksenov, Tuva is the focal area of overtone singing. The Tuvins know four different types of singing, each of which has its own name:kargyraa, borbannadyr, sygyt, and ezengileerThe height of the tonic, the tonality, the structure of the melodies produced with the harmonics, and the styles of presentation are criteria providing a basis for differentiating these styles of singing. The general term used by the Tuvins to refer to this style of singing is khömei. (3)

Overtone singing (khöörniiis most common in the western parts of the Mongolian People’s Republic.(4) According to the information I have been able to obtain from Mongolian scholars, in the western aimak of Kobdo there are places where the entire male population knows this type of biphonic singing which is not accompanied by any text.

C. Erdenebilig mentions that one of the amateur groups in this region has twenty gifted khöörnii singers. The state folk song and dance ensemble also employs overtone singers. One of them, Dovčingiin Sundui, the most famous master of this style, has a repertoire of more than 70 folk songs and other melodies.(5)

     Some of the peoples who once knew this style seem to have forgotten it. With respect to the Bashkirs, for example, the only accounts that I know of are V.I. Dal’s interesting description from the middles of the last century, S.G. Rybakov’s “notes of an unfortunate fieldworker”, from the year 1897, and L.N. Lebendinsky’s article in which he provides a description of his meeting with Sayfetdin in 1939. Advanced in years, Sayfetdin was the only Bashkir he could told find who knew overtone singing. Of primary interest, however, is the fact that Sayfeldin claimed to have learned how to sing without any instruction and he tried to convey the impression that he had never even heard anyone perform an özläü Song, özläü being the term used by the Bashkirs refer to this type of Singing. (6)


Overtone Singing and Shamanism?


Lebendinsky did not consider Sayfetdin’s claim described in the preceding section to be reliable, and he surmised that the Singer was attempting to conceal the evidently shamanistic origin of this type of singing. Lebendinsky connected özläü singing with the imitation of animal cries used by the shamans, and he linked this style of singing with the technique used to play the Jew’s harp. According to him, an additional factor supporting this is the other term the Bashkirs use to refer to the özläü type of singing. Specifically, the Bashkir word for “Jew’s harp” is kurai, while the term tamak kurai ‘throat Jew’s harp’ is one of the terms used for overtone sin­ging. (7) This is definitely an apt association: playing the Jew’s harp and the type of singing depicted in this article are both based on the amplification of overtones in the oral cavity. Naturally, the most important difference is the actual sound source: in the Jew’s harp this is the string of the instru­ment, in overtone singing it is the vocal cords. The Jew’s harp was one of the most important instruments used by the shamans. (8).One of the better descriptions is the article about the Shamanism practiced by the Buriats of the Irkutsk region published by N. Agapitov and M. Kharigalov. Among the Buriats in question this instrument is only used by the shamans, and it had to be made by a master who was descended from the “heavenly spirits”. (9)

  A. Aksenov also links the type of singing to playing the Jew’s harp, but he claims that the overtone singing of the Tuvins has no connection with Shamanism. (10) In contrast to this, Crossley‑Holland notes that the type of singing may have become secularized and thus lost its links to Shamanism and the use of the Jew’s harp. As an example of the ritual use of overtone singing he mentions the type of singing used in Tibetan

dGe-lugs-pa monasteries in conjunction with Tantric rituals. Typical of this type of singing is the presence of a superimposed 5th or 6th harmonic on top of a low fundamental. (11)

                        Ter Ellingson-Waugh’s extensive article, “Musical flight in Tibet” takes up the question of the influence of shamanism on Tibetan Buddhism connects tile glissando technique used In the Tibetan db yangs song corresponding technique of rapid transition between a low and high register used by shamans and described by E. Širokogoroff and J. Yasser (12)

                        There are many descriptions of the imitation of auxiliary spirits and animals during Shamanistic séances. (13) It seems probable that overtone singing would have been one of those techniques of singing which have been used to produce this effect. Erdenebilig notes that Mongolian Traditional lore connects khöömii singing with the whistling of the wind, the murmuring of flowing water, and imitating the cries of birds and other animals. He does not, however, mention tile connection with shamanism. (14)

                                   The analogy with the Jew’s harp provides some verification for this theory: descriptions exist according to which at least the Yakuts and the Turkmenians used the Jew’s harp in order to imitate birds as well as animals in general. (15)

                                           The remarks concerning the method the peoples of the upper Altai use to perform epic poems found by B. Šul’gin in the notes left by A. Anokhin, a geographer, are also interesting. According to Anokhin  the peoples of the Altai sing epic poems in a voice the tonality of which resembles the buzzing of a flying beetle.(16) I have personally made the same observation when listening to an epic poem recorded in western Mongolia by an expeditionsent by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. The manner in which the poems was performed brought Anokkin’s description to mind: the singer used an articulation in which the words were clearly differentiated, but in which some of 1he melodies in the series of overtones constantly resonated in a low voice above the text which was being recited above the text which was been recited.


A Mongolian khöömii Performance


In 1981 I spent a month in Mongolia. I intended to record folk music and accordingly, I had the study of overtone singing, of which I had heard a few Recordings previously, as one of my goals. Towards the end of my stay Ulaan Bator I was introduced to a geology student named Badzardaran. This young man was from the Kobdo region, and he bad learned how to sing from his father, a famous master ofkhöömii singing. In spite of efforts taken on my part, Badzardaran remained my only contact with overtone singing on that trip. He Sang two melodies into my microphone, of which the first was, to my surprise, the Song Ulaan odnii tukhai duu ‘A Song about the Red Star’ dedicated to Lenin by the composer Luvsandzav. I told him that I also wanted to hear a traditional melody, and the hurried student found the time to perform the well known folk Song Dörvön uul ‘Four Mountains’ the notes for which follow [page 5].

The melody consists of a series of harmonics and in this case they are the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and twelfth harmonics. The scale of the song corresponds to the anhemitonic pentatonic scale which dominates in Mongolian music. This performance differs from the normal version which is sung with respect to rhythm as well as, in places, melody. The style of singing has its limitations: in practice, the melody can only move between the 5th and the 13th harmonics. The 11th harmonic is not used since it is not included in the anhemitonic pentatonic scale (17)

  The following table depicts the series of partial harmonies when the tonic is ‘Ab’, this situation being analogous to that in the song serving as our example. The area used in the melody is indicated by transversals. In some cases the harmonic is a level lower (↓) than is indicated by the notation. I have written the note corresponding to the 7th harmonic as ‘F’ in accordance with the pentatonic scale. In actual fact, the seventh tone of the series of harmonies emanating from ‘Ab’ is essentially a low ‘G#. (18)








As a prerequisite to the analysis, samples of the song were recorded on a Revox B77 tape recorder, the tape was an Agfa Professional PEM468: the microphone was AKG CK 22 (linear).

                          The result of the analysis was a spectrum which is a visible model of the singing voice as a function of both amplitude of the harmonics and the frequency. In the following paragraphs I present a few examples of the various types of analysis which can be obtained. It is my intention to make a more precise comparison based on a wider selection of material of the sonorgrams used by Walcott and Guillou as well as of                          Gunji’s spectrographs in a more detailed article.

               As the subject of my comparison I have selected the vowel ‘i’ produced using the overtone style of singing and compared it with a normally sung ‘I’ vowel at the same volume and level, as well as with the same vowel produced using a normal speaking voice. All of the samples were played at a moderate volume (mp-mf).

               A 30 MS period is visible in each of the following spectra. The amplitude of the harmonics is compared on the vertical axis. The value which is used for comparison is the amplitude of the strongest harmonics (indicated by 0dB on the graphs).

The frequency can be read from the horizontal axis (kHz). Using the technique of overtone singing a 13th harmonic can be clearly distinguished by the naked ear and which clearly has the highest amplitude, is produced above by singing the vowel ‘I’. The frequency of the tonic is 189 Hz, while that of the 13th harmonic is 2513 Hz. (in this connection it should be noted that when performing overtone singing, front vowels produce vowels which give an auditory impression of being higher, while back vowels give an impression of being lower).



The above is a representation of the ‘I’ vowel presented using a normal singing voice. We note that the 1st and 2ndharmonics have the highest amplitude and that no other harmonics form peaks which are as powerful as in the foregoing. The frequency of the tonic is 195Hz.


On The Technique


The term which is often used for the type of singing in question is throat singing or guttural singing; the use of such a term refers to the fact that both of the audible sounds have been imagined to originate in the “throat” ‑ either in such a manner that the vocal cords produce two sounds or for example, in such a manner that a harmonic could be made audible with the aid of the windpipe or tile uvula. (19).The suggestion has also been made that when the tonic is formed the glottis is “extremely tense”, for which reason singing requires a great amount of physical effort and learning the entire technique requires several years of practice (20) At most, only the last of these views is justified. When learning this type of singing the same criteria are important which are significant when learning to control a style such as that used in singing western classical music: everyone who has studied singing knows how much time is needed to learn such things as to breathe correctly, this being a function of the proper control of the diaphragm and the other abdominal muscles, as well as to practice both maintaining the proper resonance and controlling the muscles in the region of the glottis. The basis of overtone singing is provided by a normal, well supported singing voice which is used in order to produce the tonic. In practice, the choice of the harmonics which are heard above the tonic is affected in such a manner that the form of the oral cavity is altered primarily with the aid of the tongue, although the lips and slight movements of the lower jaw are also involved. When singing, the tip of the tongue is pressed against the palate, and the sides of the tongue are supported so that they rest against the molars in the same manner as when producing an ‘L’

sound. After this it is possible to begin to search for the correct “location” by combining this lateral articulation with a normal singing voice (21). In Mongolia I was told that a silver drinking cup is often held in front of the mouth when practicing khöörnii singing. The thin metal evidently serves as an extra resonator or reflector which can help the singer learn to select and reinforce the harmonies which he desires. I also made use of the experience had obtained from singing instructions in learning to listen to my own voice. After practicing for about a week I was able to produce acceptable harmonics (22). I quote here Ronald Walcott’s clear words with respect to the reinforcement of harmonic: (23)


 “Reinforcement of partials is achieved by characteristic changes in the shape and volume of the mouth cavity. This is reminiscent of the principle of the Jew’s harp,’ where a vibrating tongue sounded at the lips produces a drone fundamental which the player modifies by shaping his mouth cavity so as to‑form a resonance chamber of critical volume. The volume of this chamber, functioning on the principle of a Helmholtz resonator, reinforces a narrow frequency band area within an existing spectrum. This band is sufficiently narrow to enable the singer to select a given single partial above the drone in accordance with the degree of modification made by him. The principle involving the reinforcement of discrete partials by a specific shaping of the mouth cavity is thus common to both chöömij and the Jew’s harp. A difference, however, lies in the physical origination of the fundamental. In the Jew’s harp it is produced at the lips, in the chöömij it originates in the throat region.”


Walcott conjecture’s that physiological limitations prevent the singer from going below the. 6th or above the 13th harmonic (24)     Badzardaran used the 5th harmonic in his performance ‑ i myself have been able to attain this as well as the 14th, 15th, and 16th harmonics (with ‘G’ as the tonic). Nevertheless, the last mentioned are already difficult to filter, for which reason they cannot be used for purposes such as performing melodies.

  Walcott also notes that the tonic is usually selected from within the range of ‘G’ and ‘d’, and he supposes that it is specifically this area which makes it possible to produce a composition of harmonics which can tie effectively filtered by the oral cavity.(25). The optimal height of the tonic is evidently greatly dependent on the singer’s voice. For example Badzardaran has ‘Ab’ as the tonic in both songs, and I myself have attempted to produce even higher tonics with good results (25).


On the possible spectral analysis of overtone singing


Not too much can tie learned about this type of singing if its study is restricted solely to the descriptive level. For this reason I have used a computer to carry out a so‑called FFT or Fast Fourier Transform analysis. The pertinent data for this is as follows:

Computer used for the analysis: EXORset 30

Computer program: VOCOM Speech Processing System

Analysis performed by: Hannu Kaskincen, Phil. Mag., whom I thank for the technical realization as well as for the friendly advice and guidance he provided me with when I was writing this part of the article.

Place: department of Phonetics, university of Helsinki.

  The foregoing is a representation of the vowel ‘I’ with normal speaking voice. Compared with the previous examples the individual harmonics can only be distinguished from one another with difficulty (tonic=106 Hz).

The preceding three figures demonstrate quite graphically how resonance frequencies with a powerful amplitude form clearly distinguishable peaks in the spectra. These peaks are called formants. The differences between the formants of overtone and normal singing are clearly evident in the spectra reproduced below. In figures 1 and 2 one period of the glottis(~ 6MS) is visible as a superimposed pattern.


The following table is a representation of the frequency of three for­mants (F1, F2, and F3) of overtone and normal singing, as well as of their divergence in intensity from the standpoint of that formant which has the strongest intensity (-dB). In these examples the variation in the frequency of F2 is a consequence of differences in the tonality of the ‘I’ vowel.





  On the basis of the above it seems that the differences in amplitude noted in the formants of overtone singing are smaller than they are in normal singing. With respect to both what is heard by the ear and what is shown by the spectrum the increase in the resonance of the supraglottal cavity, which is a characteristic of overtones singing is achieved by making use of a constricted articulation not unlike that used when pronouncing a lateral sound. This involves the tongue dividing the oral cavity into two resonating chambers (27). Maximal exploitation of resonance is also demonstrated by the small amount of respiratory air needed to produce a sound: using a normal voice I am able to sing for approximately a half minute without having to pause for breath, but if I perform a song using overtone singing not even a minute of uninterrupted singing results in any major difficulties.



1.          With respect to the name and definition of the style of singing see e.g. Tran/Guillou, pg 162.

2.          Cf. e.g. Hamayon, pg. 484; Aksenov, pg. 12; Crossley-Holland, pg. 65-66; erdenebilig, pg. 29.

3.          Aksenov, pg. 12‑ 13; Tran,pg. 162 and pg. 165.

4.          Vargyas propose (pg. 71) that the style of singing concerned is particularly widespread in the eastern parts of the Mongolian People’s Republic. This information might be based on a misunderstanding.

5.          Erdenebilig, pg. 29.

6.          Lebedinskiy 1948, pg. 50‑51; 1965 pg. 82‑86; Rybakov, pg. 271   

7.          Lebedinskiy 1948, pg. 51. For some reason the references to shamanism are not included in Lebedinsky’s later work (1965).

8.          Cf. e.g. Emsheimer, pq. 19‑22, and Rouget, pg. 187 and 189.

9.          Agapitov/Khangalov, pg. 43.

10.        Aksenov, pg. 12

11.                 Crossley-Holland, pg.66

12.     Ellingson-waugh 1974, pg 13-14. Cf. also Ellingson 1979, pg. 44:”In western terms their melodies ‘db Yangs’ consist of sequences of smoothly and continuously varying intonational contours including changes in pitch, loudness and/or configurations of resonance (overtone) mixtures.

13.     Anna-Leena Stikala gives a thorough assessment of the shamanistic descriptions in her dissertation, cf. e.g. pg. 236, 5L‑5P1N; pg. 266, 3G-3H 51; pg. 294, 3H. Cf. also Rouget , pg. 192.

14.     Erdenebilig pq. 29. The only musical transcription of this type of singing as used for imitating the sounds of nature that I have been able to find is in Smirnov’s book, pg. 225‑229, cf. also the commentary on page353. Smirnov has made a musical transcription of the imitation of flowing water (usnii sorgio) produced by Čimitosor, who is from the Gobi‑Altai region. This imitation occurred in a secular context. Cf. also Musical Voices of Asia, pg. 48; “Tanimoto asked Sundui to demonstrate the imitation of a water stream by xöömij. Sundui performed a piece, which was composed when inspired by the sounds of water flows in a moun­tainous area”.

15.      Cf. e.g. Emsheimer, pg. 20, Serosevskiy, pg. 592

16.     Sul’gin, pg. 459.

17.     Cf. Walcott, pg. 56. Examples of use of the 13th harmonic: Smirnov pg. 226‑2227 and Vargyas, pg. 72.

18.     Cf. Walcott, pg. 56… “The melodic style would seem to dictate the selection of tones agreeable to an anhemitonic pentatonic scale widespread in Mongolian music, and this would naturally require the lowering of the7th partial…” a lowering of the harmonic would require a corresponding reduction in the drone. However, nothing like this is to be heard. Cf. Gunji, pq. 135.

19.     Lebedinskiy 1965, pg. 83‑84, Rybakov, pq. 270‑272. Erdenebilig, pg. 29.

20.     Lebedinskiy 1948, pg. 51; Vargyas, pg‑ 71

21.     B.P. Cernov 1982, pq. 87‑92, notes in his article which deals with overtone singing of the Tuvins and the Khakas that Soviet researchers have carried out tests using a laryngoscope and x‑rays, the results of which demonstrate that the Tuvin singers produce the constriction in the anterior portion of the glottis between the arytenoid cartilages and epiglottis. Use of this constriction to produce overtone singing varies according to the type of singing in question. Evidently the Kargyraa and borannadyr singing of the Tuvins is based on the use of this technique asdoes the resonating type of the Khakas and the Altais. The slit between the arytenoid cartilages characteristic of Tuvin sin­ging is 1 ‑ 1.5 mm, while that used in the style used for recitations by the Khakas is greater, measuring from 3 to 5 mm. Cf. MasLov/Cernov Pg. 157‑159

22.     Tran mentions, pg. 163, that he needed two years to learn overtone singing.He also gives instructions, more detailed than those presented by me above, concerning the physiological mechanisms involved. I think that many people would be able to produce Overtone singing ‑ the quality will, of course, depend on each person’s musical talent. I have also noticed that some people working as professional musicians and inusic teachers cannot distinguish the various harmonies. Guillou is, without douht, right in saying: “The western ear may need a certain amount of trainging before becoming accustomed to the sound quality” (Tran/Guilou pg. 168)

23.     Walcott, pg. 55, Cf. also Crossley-Holland, pg. 65-66

24.     Walcott, pg. 56

25.     Walcott, pg. 56

26.     Cf.Tran/Guillou, pg 164.”favourite fundamental tone varies according to the tonal quality of the singer’s voice and his windpipe” Cf. also ibid. pg. 169

27.     Foe more details Cf.Tran/Guillou, pg 170-173.




Agapitov, N. N., Khangalov, M. N. Materialy dlja izucenija samanstva v Sibiri. Samanstvo u burjat Irkutskoj gubernii. lzvestija Vostocnosibirskogo Otdel. Imperatorskogo Russkogo Geograficeskogo Obscaestva T.XIV, Nr. 1~2. lrkutsk 1883.

Aksenov, A. N. Tuvin Folk Music. Asian Music IV‑2. New York 1973,

Černov, P. B. O. fiziologi mekhanizma tuvinskogo i khakasskoqo gortanogo penija. Problemy      Khakasskogo Fol’klora..Abakan 1982.

Crossley‑Holland, P. Central Asia. The New Grove DIctionary of Music and Musicians 4, s. 65‑66 London-Washington.Hong Kong 1980.

Ellingson‑Waugh, T. Musicat Flight in Tibet. Asian Music V‑2. New York. 1974.

– Tibetan Chant and Melodic Categories. Asian Music X‑2. New York1979.

Emsheimer, E. Maultrommel in Sibirien und Zentralasien. Musikhistoriska Museets Skrifter 1. Studia ethniomusicoligica eurasiatica. Stockholm 1978.

Erdenebilig, C. Two voices in one throat. Mongolia nr. 5/1978. Ulan Bator 1978.

Gunji, S. An Acoustical Consideration of Xöömij. Musical Voices of Asia. Tokyo 1980.

Hamayon, R. Mongolia. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 12, s. 484. London-Washington Hong Kong 1980.

Lebedinskii, L. N. Iskusstvo “uzljaui” u baskir. Sovetskaja Muzyka Nr. 4 1948. Moslkva 1948.

‑ Baskirskie narodnye pesni i naigrysi. Moskva 1965.

Maslov, V.T., Cernov, P.B. Tajna sol’nogo dueta. Sovetskaja ethnografija 1/1980. Moskva 1980.

Rouget, G . La musique et la Transe. Ed. Gallimard 1980.

Rybakov, S. G. Muzyka i pesni ural’skikh musul’man. Sankt‑Peterburg 1897.

     Serosevskij, V. I. jakuty.Etnograficeskogo issledovanija. T. I. S.‑Peterburg 1896

      Siikala, A‑L. The Rite Technique of the Siberian Shaman, FFC 220, Helsinki 1978.

Smirnov, B. Mongol’skaja narodnaja muzyka, Moskva 1971.

Sundberq, J. Rostlara, Stockholm 1980.

Sul’gin B. Ob altajskom krae. Maadaj‑Kara, altajskij geroiceskj epos. Moskva 1973.

Tran Quang Hai/Guillou, Denis Original Research and Acoustical Analysis in Connection with the Xöömij Style of Biphonic Singing. Musical Voices of Asia. Tokyo 1980.

Vargyas, L. Performing Styles in Mongolian Chant. Journal of the inter­national Folk Music Council, Volume XX.Cambridge 1968.

Walcott, R. The Chöömij of Mongolia. A Spectral Analysis of Overtone Singing. Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, Volume 11, No. 1. Cali­fornia 1974.



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CAROLE PEGG : Overtone Singing





There are many different types of Mongolian overtone‑singing (höömii), all of which involve the sounding of a fundamental drone while simultaneously producing flute‑like notes in a series of chosen harmonics or partials of the fundamental. In most types, these high notes form a melody. A third note is sometimes distinguished, in the pitch range between drone and melody.

Although now performed by ensemble performers in Ulaanbaatar, höömii is a phenomenon of West Mongolia, performed by Western Khalkhas, Baits, Torguts, and Altai Urianghais (Tsoloo INb), and shared by some Turco-­Mongol peoples north of the north-western Mongolian border. Ensemble performers in Mongolia are all Western Khalkhas from Chandman’ sum, Hovd, although WesternKhalkhas in Gov’‑Altai aimag were also perform­ing it in the 1950s (Kara IN). The fact that this ethnic group is the source of the höömii revival in Mongolia, even though it is not performed by CentralKhalkhas, may be related to the communist regime’s attempts to create a socialist national identity based on the traditional performing arts of Khalkha Mongols.

Prior to being elevated during the 1930s and 1940s into a national and classical art form, höömii was used for a variety of purposes. The Western Khalkha Gereltsogt (IN) recalled two contexts: his herdsman father, “Singer” Sereeter (Duuch Sereeter), performed “With a cup” (ayagatai) to lull the baby to sleep and without a cup to call yaks in the mountains. höömii is used by Urianghais (Tuvans) for both of these purposes (Pegg 1992b:36; Van Tongeren 1994:37‑39) and in other contexts within the home. The Bait Mongol Düüdei (IN) recalled how, during her childhood in Tes dis­trict, Uvs, Urianghai herders came from Tuva to gather sea buckthorn berries, which they used for medicinal purposes. Bringing with them camels and much baggage, the herders often spent four or five days in her father’s tent, during which time they performed höömiiThis may not have been informal performance. Düüdei recalled that, prior toperforming, they would always repeat the following couplet, referring to the territory and people of that place.



Altai santai ziirhentei,             With Altai offerings at its heart,

                                          Amban noyon zahirgaatai.       Under jurisdiction of [Manchu] governors and princes.



This short introduction suggests that, in some circumstances, höömii was treated with respect. The only other example I have encountered of it being performed on official occasions is among Baits in Uvs, who used it during wedding celebrations when “seeing off the bride” (chigee uulgah). Tsaatans, in övsgöl, northwest Mongolia, still use it for hunting (Sanjim IN).

There is no firm evidence of a date for the origin of höömi in Mongolia. Writings of early travellers, such as Marco Polo and Rubruck (Dawson 1955), refer to musicians and singers in the context of courts and homes, and the fourteenth‑century Mongol dynastic history “Yiian‑shih “cites three‑hundred member court orchestras, musicians, and singers, but höömii is not men­tioned in any of these sources. One of the earliest apparent references to overtone‑singing appears in Serruys’s translation of a sixteenth‑century Chinese document, containing a description of songs that have beaucoup de sons de la gorge et deslèvres, that is, “many sounds from the throat and the lips” (1945,’153). Another possible description of overtone‑singing occurs in a sixteenth‑ century French poem (cited in Lèothaud 1989):



                             J’ay veu, comme il me semble,         I saw, it seems to me

                          Ung fort homme d`honneur,          A strong man of honour,

                             Luy seul chanter ensembk,         Singing together with himself both above and below

                                  Et dessus et teneur. 15


For Western Khalkhas of Chandman’, the origin of höömii lies in legendary rather than historical time, in the imaginative space of Mongolia’s “deep past when the legendary Bazarsad performed at nair.Margad (IN), age fifty, recalled that as a boy he heard old people talk of Bazarsad of Chandman’, who lived in “ancient times.” They described him as tall, very strong, and a champion wrestler. In 1923, when the horseman Dashdondov was five years old, he heard that Bazarsad was the first to perform höömii inChandman’ (IN). It was said that he used a combination of long‑song with different types of höömii and that when he performed in this way the spir­its of land and water came to listen to him (Tserendavaa INc). Although no‑one living actually met or heard Bazarsad, it is affirmed that none can match his skill. By contrast, there are those who remember Chimiddorj, who performed three‑voiced höömii.

Styles (töröl) and methods (arga baril) vary in Mongolia according to ethnicity as well as the ability of the individual performer. Ethnic groups developed their own terminologies for different types of overtone‑singing. Sometimes the style is shared with other groups but has different names. Bait Mongol “root of the tongue” (helnii ug) style (Mangi1jav IN) corresponds to Western Khalkha glottal, or throat, overtone‑singing (bagalzuuryn, hooloin höömii) (CD: 18). However, some ethnic groups have styles peculiar to their group. Tseveen, a forty‑year‑old Dörbet Mongol from Ölgii sum, Uvs, demonstrated two such styles: Altai Urianghai hargia, for which he cupped his hand to his mouth, and Kazakh “tooth overtone‑singing” (shüdnz höömii) (Tseveen IN). Pülrev, a thirty‑four‑year‑old Tuvan from Bayan Ölgiiused the term höömii for his very low‑pitched biphonic sound; when using melodic overtones derived from a drone, pitched in higher register, he denied that this was höömii. When demonstrating sounds produced in “the old time,” Pülrev growled impressively from deep in the chest, generating the very low fundamental AA, and referred to this as hargaraa.  There was no melody but overtones on A and a (Carolann IN).


Western Khalkhas in Chandman’ have offered three different classifications of höömii. Sundui, considered a possible match for Bazarsad demonstrated how harmonics could be isolated and reinforced by using combinations of parts of the vocal tract‑back or front of throat, nasal passages, chest‑with different vocal sounds (DesJacques 199 1D). Gereltsogt (IN), the brother of Ganbold, both of whom are now professional performers in Ulaanbaatar, uses four types of höömii: nasal (hamryn), “by whistle” (isgeree), harhiraa (see below), and “with pressure” (shahalttai), all of which may be performed with or without glottal stops (tsohilt). He related the latter, which may be combined with lyrics, to the vocal technique used for epic performance, häälah (CD: 15). Tserendavaa, a truck‑driver, skilled musician, and singer, together with the renowned Mongolian musicologist Badraa, identified seven types of overtone‑singing. During the tour of England that I organized in 1988, Tserendavaa demonstrated six of these, all of which use harmonics to form a melody, heard as a melodic whistle (uyangiin isgeree).


labial (uruulyn)‑fundamental c (167‑68 Hz), range of overtones b’’‑c#’’’’


palatal (tagnain) ‑fundamental e (167‑68 Hz), range b’‑c#’’’’


nasal (hamryn)‑fundamental f# (182‑83 Hz), range c#’’’‑c#’’’’


glottal, throat (bagalzuuryn, hooloin) ‑fundamental c (17o Hz), range, b’’‑b’’’’


chest cavity, stomach (tsedjiin höndiin, hevliin) ‑fundamental a (214‑15 Hz),    

range e … ~c


with türleg (türlegtl) ‑fundamental g (202‑203 Hz), range d”‘‑d’’’’  (CD: 19)


Tserendavaa employed the same overtone melody in labial and palatal höömii and a second melody for nasal, chest cavity, and glottal höömii. His use of the seventh and eleventh partials as auxiliary rather than structural pitches supports the suggestion that five main pitches were used traditionally. Türlegthöömii, called hosmooin höömii by researchers in Ulaanbaatar, combines speaking (heleh), singing (duulah), humming (ayalah), long‑song melodies, and the other five melodic höömii types. Following the legendary Bazarsad, Tserendavaa developed this style over a period of ten years and first demonstrated it in the United States in 1987. The melody Tserendavaa used for the song “Jalargaltain Delger” (Widespread Happiness), performed in Türlegt höömii, is a Western Khalkha version with a smaller range than its Central “khalkha equivalent, “Ovgön Shuvuu” (Old Man and Bird).

Tserendavaa identified a seventh non‑melodic overtone‑singing style, harhiraa höömiiwhich he compared to the sound of a rippling waterfall. Badraa (IN) pointed out that harhiraa uses harmonics or overtones but does, not attempt to create melodies with them. Tserendavaa was unable to demon­strate this style, since it requires a deep, powerful voice. Margad (IN), a herdsman from Chandman’ district, described harhiraa as the oldest form of höömiii and the background colour or tone (devsger öngö) out of which oth­ers developed. In his performance of harhiraaMargad used fundamental B as a drone and melodic overtones within the range b”‑g (CD:20).Harhiraa is characteristic of Bait Mongolian höömii,which, as an old record­ing of harhiraa höömii in the Ulaangom Museum archive illustrates, sounds similar to Tuvan overtone‑singing perhaps not surprising with the frequent occurrence of inter border marriage and fostering in the pre-communist era. Given the importance that Mongols place on the relationship between music and landscape, the presence of the Harhiraa range of mountains in Uvsprovince may also be of significance.

In Old Mongolia, höömii was performed only by men, which may have been the result of folk‑religious beliefs, but it is now explained in terms of bodily strength. Tserendavaa warned that both hamryn (nasal) and türleti or hosmooin (combination) höömii are characterized by blood rushing (chineh) to the face and are very difficult to perform: nasal höömiii because a powerful flow of air is forced through a small nasal channel and tiirlegt höömii because of the combinations required. As a child, he injured his larynx while learning, and, as an adult, he lost consciousness during perfor­mances on occasion, breaking blood vessels near his eyes, for which he had needed surgery. He advised eating a good meal before performance and discontinuing the practice in advanced years. Davaajav, a chest‑cavity over­tone‑singer(tsedjnii höndiin höömiich), supported Tserendavaa’s views in the light of his own experience and suggested that performing höömii also affected the ability to sing well. Because of the strength required, a lengthy training period is needed, and it is preferable to begin in childhood (Tserendavaa INb; SengedorjIN). A distinction is made between learning and performing. Childhood should be a period of learning; performing must not begin until maturity. Aids are sometimes used to acquire a good höömii voice: a cup is held to the mouth to provide an echo (ayagaar deveh, lit. to fan by means of a cup), or a pupil is made to höömii1öh against the wind (salhny ögsüür höömiilöh). Once a good höömii voice is acquired, such devices are no longer neces­sary. Tserendavaa began learning when he was nine, but he did not per­form until he was twenty‑five. Traditionally, learning is by example and imitation, and Tserendavaa (IN) vividly recalled his first experience. He described how one evening when he was a child a `white‑haired, bearded, old man looking for two lost horses rode up on a grey horse that shone like silver.” The man, later identified as the höömiich Chuluun, spent three nights in the family tent. During this time, Tserendavaa listened to his over­tone‑singing and learned to play the horse‑head fiddle. To repay his debt to this man, Tserendavaa became a höömiichChuluun stressed to Tseren­davaa thathöömii is a difficult art that demands self‑control, endurance, and great strength. As an illustration of the power needed, Tserendavaa described how the legendary Bazarsad’s hair stood on end when he per­formed, and Tserendavaa compared the strength needed with that required for wrestling, pointing out that the two most renowned höömiichBazarsad and Sundui, were also famous wrestlers. The ideal age for wrestling is twenty-­five years old, said by Mongols to mark the peak of male strength. Unless the performer has this strength, together with the other qualities indicated by Chuluun, höömii performance is believed to be physically harmful in both general and specific ways.


Badraa (INa) related höömii to the art of whistling (isgeree), which has its own techniques and methodology and which, in addition to being used to control animals, is believed to communicate with the God of the Wind. Tserendavaa (INa) identified two types of whistling‑labial (uruulyn) and dental(shüdnii). Other vocal and instrumental imitative calls are used in everyday activities, such as herding, hunting, and milking, to lure, control, and encourage animals.


In pre-revolutionary Mongolia, the performance of höömii is reported by Mongols as not valued. This may have been because it was part of a sec­ular tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation but was in decline (Sengedorj IN) or it may have been because of associa­tions with folk‑religious beliefs. Old people in Chandman’ sum, Hovd aimagattributed its decline to the predominance of Buddhism and the disapproval of the lamas. Under communism, höömii became imbued with special value, as did other selected aspects of the “music of the people,” and found sup­port from “People’s power” (Tserendavaa INb). The new development of overtone‑singing came from Chandman’ through individual höömiichBrief biographies of key individuals will help to explain their contributions to this process.


Togoon Chuluun was a Western Khalkha born in the 1890’s who, in addition to performing höömii,whistled, played the tsuurand excelled on the horse‑head fiddle. 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 inChandman’ and later improved his performance while doing military service in the West Border Guards, or whether he learned the skill while in the Guards. In any event, it was Chuluun who, in 1930, first demonstrated höömii as a “folk art” Tamba IN). He had many pupils, including the now well‑knownhöömiich:, Tserendavaa. These pupils developed höömii into a national art form capable of winning many medals in folk art competitions.

   Tsedee is the man credited with introducing höömii to the rest of the country. He lived close to LakeHar Nuur and learned höömii from Chuluun. In 1950, Tsedee joined the Musical Drama Theatre of HovdProvince (Hovd Aimgiin Högjimt Dramyn Teatr), becoming the first professional höömii per­former inMongolia. In 1954, this theatre visited the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to present a dekada or ten‑day concert, and Tsedee became the first per­son to perform höömii there. Höömii was subsequently officially recognized as a professional art.


Sundui is considered to be the founder of what has been termed the modern classical form” of höömii(Tserendavaa INb). He is said to be unique among höömii performers in that he can produce half tones in addition to the usual full tones.` He can perform classical European melodies by com­posers such as Tchaikovsky and Bizet (Batzengel 198o:52) and is able to make vocal leaps over wide intervals (Sengedorj IN). He has a high tech­nical level of höömii performance and is able to produce “a scale using four vowels” (gammalah dörvön egshig) (TserendavaalNc).” Sundui’s main attrib­utes are said to be good storage capacity in the stomach (hevliin baglaamj saitai), good throat sounds (duuny hooloi saitai), and great physical strength (mash ih tamirtai). Sundui later joined the State Folksong and Dance Ensemble (Ulsyn Ardyn Duu Büjgiin Chuulga) in Ulaanbaatar and has now retired. He had many pupils, among them Sengedorj, now with the Hovd Theatre, and Tserendavaa.

Nanjid Sengedorj had no formal musical education but joined the Hovd Theatre in 1975. He learnedhöömii in Chandman’ at about the age of five, performed in the tenth Festival of Young People and Students, and has since travelled widely in Eastern Europe.

Ganbold, who is still a young man, is currently with the Ulaanbaatar Ensemble and also fromChandman’. He is able to perform a scale (gam­malah) on more vowels than Sundui (Tserendavaa INc).

    Since all activities in pre-socialist Mongolia were intertwined with reli­gious beliefs, it is likely thathöömii also had folk‑religious connotations. This theory is supported by the fact that höömii is related by Mongols to the vocal technique Häälahused in the ritual performance of epics. It is perhaps because of a former religious association that Mongols surround höömii per­formance with rules and regulations. But it is also related to the fact that performance of the more difficult types of höömii may cause physical dam­age, while sustained performance of less difficult types causes physical changes that may also have adverse effects (PCgg 1992).


RONALD WALCOTT: The Chöömij of Mongolia A Spectral Analysis of Overtone Singing


The Chöömij of Mongolia A Spectral Analysis of Overtone Singing

Ronald Walcott

SELECTED REPORTS IN Ethnomusicology      Volume II, No. 1  1974


CHÖÖMIJ* IS THE MONGOLIAN NAME for a solo style of overtone singing where two distinct pitch lines are sounded throughout. One, a nasal‑sounding drone of relatively constant pitch, corresponds to the fundamental; the other, consisting of piercing, whistle like tones, forms a melody, line above the drone and results from the reinforcement of individual overtones within the ambitus of the 5th through 13th partials.

Reinforcement of partials is achieved by characteristic changes in the shape and volume of the mouth cavity. This is reminiscent of the principle of the Jew’s harp,’ where a vibrating tongue sounded at the lips produces a drone fundamental which the player modifies by shaping his mouth cavity so as to‑form a resonance chamber of critical volume. The volume of this chamber, functioning on the principle of a Helmholtz resonator, reinforces a narrow frequency band area within an existing spectrum. This band is sufficiently narrow to enable the singer to select a given single partial above the drone in accordance with the degree of modification made by him. The principle involving the reinforcement of discrete partials by a specific shaping of the mouth cavity is thus common to both chöömij and the Jew’s harp. A difference, however, lies in the physical origination of the fundamental. In the Jew’s harp it is produced at the lips, in the chöömij it originates in the throat region.

The unusual quality of chöömij arouses special interest. Subjective statements cannot take us very far and we need a more objective basis for describing it. The Melograph Model C offers a mechanical approach to a more accurate and precise representation of this complex vocal phenomenon.

A number of recordings of this style has been made*’ and an analysis of them will appear in a more comprehensive study. I have selected for detailed melographic analysis the initial phrase of one performance which is distinguished by the unusually long duration of its ictus, 1.4 seconds. This is reproduced on Plate 1 and transcribed in figure 1. The phrase of three descending tones is preceded by a groan like attack. The spectral graph presents a pattern of equidistant bands, corresponding to frequencies that remain virtually constant for the duration of the descending phrase. This is, in fact, true for the entire piece from which this example is drawn. An equidistant band pattern maintained throughout the changes in the whistle‑tone pitches suggests (a) that these are generated above a fundamental of constant pitch; and (b) that they are due to harmonic overtone generation, a predictable characteristic of wind instruments. Figure 2 shows in staff notation the approximate partials as they appear in consecutive order above a fundamental of about 100 Hz.



Fig. 2. (The‑tolerance of the filter permits only approximate readings of the frequency values.)


Most important to note here is not the precise distance between the bands or their absolute frequency value, but rather (a) the pitch vocabulary of the partials from which the melody tones are selected, namely the 6th to 13th partials but excluding the 11th;Image

and (b) the general range of the fundamental. As concerns the chöömij style, I would suggest that a physiological limitation prevents the singer from descending below the 6th or from ascending above the 13th partial if he wishes to isolate the desired melodic tones with sufficient intensity. The melodic style would seem to dictate the selection of tones agreeable to an anhemitonic penta scale widespread in Mongolian music, and this would naturally require the lowering of the 7th partial from f‑ to e’ and the avoidance of the 11th partial altogether,


Finally, the stable drone fundamental is in the author’s experience invariably selected from within the approximate range of G‑d,

The reason is that only this range permits the generation of a corresponding complement of partials that the mouth cavity can effectively filter.

Chöömij closely resembles borbannadyr, one of four Tuvin overtone singing styles described by A. N. Aksenov (3) that are largely characterized by the ranges in which they occur.

P. Crossley‑Holland(4) describes two styles of overtone chanting cultivated by the Tibetan monasteries of Gyume and Gyumo that are differentiated from chöömij by their placement in a somewhere lower range.

We have so far provisionally established the nature and vocabulary of tones comprising the chöömij style, the physiological mechanics for their production, their relationship to general acoustical laws, and their general frequency range. Our attention now turns to the ictus. In the graph, the ictus is represented as a successive development and decay of overtones. For reasons to be discussed, it is considered as a progression toward “normal” sustained chöömij timbre. The graph of the 1.4‑second‑long period of attack reveals an upward flowing glissando of overtone emphasis extending across a wide chöömij range, namely from the fundamental to the 10th partial. This dramatic upswing, accompanied by a smoother downward resolution of the 12th, 11th, 10th, and 9th partials into the 9th partial alone, is a composite of varied partial durations and intensities unfolding in time and resulting in an attack “shape.” We are dealing here with a complex of duration, intensity, overlapping, pitch, and grouping of partials. ImageAural perception is not one of an ascending glissando of individual overtone pitches, but rather of a gradual change of colour during the ictus from whose complex sound emerges the pure, whistle like b’’ ­sounding above the drone of G(5) Also, the 16th and 18th partials (1600 and 1800 Hz) appear at the end of the ictus and remain faintly present through to the end of the phrase. Our microanalysis, deliberately scrutinizing a 1.4‑second‑long detail, captures a delicate moment of vocal timbre which the singer of chöömij must effectively control in order to establish “normal” sustained chöömij sound. The ictus, representing a drive toward the sonal norm, isolated here for study, may well prove to be the key to a precise physiological explanation of this style(6).

Following our description of the ictus that precedes the unfolding of the melody, we now come to the “normal chöömij sound” as typified by the descending notes b”, a”, g”. The spectral configuration of the three descending whistle‑tones shown by the melogram during the 2.1 seconds following the ictus is here considered typical and representative of chöömij sound; or, to speak more objectively, the distinctive “nasal” quality pervading this style results from the spectral configurations shown by the melogram and presented schematically in figure 3. These show the sounding areas of the formants in relation to non sounding areas. Figure 3 shows three formant areas for chöömij: (1) the fundamental; (2) the melody area, 6th‑13th partials; and (3) a higher nasal area that is new to our description for the range of this style. This third formant lies in the 1500‑1600 Hz range in this excerpt, and is present as the’16th through 23rd partials in chöömij style generally. We have made the experiment of eliminating the third.formant, and have found that this effectively negates the nasal quality so typical of this style.‑ If the three formant areas in the arrangement presented by figure 3 are considered an accurate description of chöömij style, it suggests that a spectrum judged to he nasal has a non sounding “hole” in the area of 900‑1300 Hz. This further implies a more objective definition of our perception of nasality. In order to indicate the existence of a non­sounding hole, the range initially presented in figure 2 (1st through 13th partials) for the chöömij must be extended to include the area of the 16th through 23rd partials. They exist as a stable upper drone cluster of tones vital to maintaining the nasal character of the style and their existence may be a function of physiological necessity. Our recognition of the “nasal formant” as an integral part of the style thus provides a further possible clue to its vocal production. Attention to detail during the sustained tone production may give further insights into this problem. At the point where the melody descends from the b’’, the dovetailing of pairs of melodic overtones results in transitional areas where both can be heard simultaneously,. resulting in the interval of a major second. Further, in our own experience, the last note g” predominates on first hearing; however, after an examination of the melogram where the a” is seen to be simultaneously present, the interval of a major 2nd can be heard quite distinctly.


 Fig. 3. A stylized diagram of chöömij vocal sound. The dotted lines refer to the melogram shown in Plate 1 above.


We may have here an indication of the degree of efficiency of the mouth cavity as a selective overtone filter. It is clear that effective filter width permits the passing of more than a single partial. The question then arises: Is a single melody note more likely desired by the human mechanism unable to produce it? Or, alternatively: Is it correct to end some phrases with a blend of two partials such that the performer is in fact adhering to a canon of style?

Further, the two pitches C and g” are accompanied by a rhythmic accent of the fundamental pitch. This accentuated accompaniment to melody tones occurs throughout this style. It might reasonably be anticipated that such accentuation would find some reflection in the display. Our melogram, however, shows no significant change in overall dynamics, such as would be typical of a push of air from the diaphragm. On the contrary, we find this dynamic swelling of the fundamental pitch to correspond to a strengthening of the 2nd and 3rd partials and, to a lesser degree, of the 5th. In reference to the physiological factors considered above, we could now ask what process involved in shifts of melodic whistle‑tones necessitates the emphasis of other partial groups. It must be considered further, however, whether this accenting is related to an unconscious physiological necessity of resetting the mouth cavity filter for emphasizing a different melody partial, or whether it might be a stylistic trait effected by an independent alteration of the mouth cavity consciously cultivated to accompany and punctuate pitch change. Or is it both? The answers to these questions necessarily await further research.

Finally, the overall dynamic graph peaks during the initial attack and remains unusually stable during the length of the phrase (8). The stability of this graph during notes of long duration suggests an ability on the part of the singer to supply constant air pressure to the vocal mechanism producing the fundamental pitch. This may be another consciously cultivated feature.

The latter part of this article emphasizes the relevance of melographic analysis to the physiological processes of voice production. It would be fascinating to go further and to add computer facilities. It might then be possible to calculate a progression of mouth and nasal cavity configuration corresponding with the normal vocal style (9). When this can be realized, it may well bring a new dimension into the objective study of musical styles.



* chöömij (Hans‑Peter Vietze, Lehrbuch der Mongolischen Sprache [leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie 1969] , pp. 15‑16)

or khöömii (J. E. Bosson, Modern Mongolian [Bloomington: Indiana University, 19641, P. 11) are two possible transliterations for the Mongolian “xөөmий” which in Khalkha dialect means pharynx; throat; windpipe (A. Luvsandendev, Mongol’sko‑russkii slovar   [Moscow: Gos. Izd‑yo Inostrannych i Natsional’nych Slovarej, 1957], p. 553). In Classical Mongolian it is written K ØGEMEI, Which means pharnyx; throat (F. Ussing, Mongolian‑English Dictionary [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960], p. 479). Aksenov (1964) writes chöömij and Vargyas (1968) hö‑mi.


1. The comparison of chöömij with the Jew’s harp was suggested by Lajos Vargyas, “Performing Styles in Mongolian Chant,” in

    Journal of the International FoLk Music Council XX (1968), 70‑72.

2. Professor D. Dinowski of the Ethnology Department, University of Warsaw, has kindly facilitated a study of this material.

3. “Die Stile des tuvinischen zweistimmigen Sologesanges,” in Soujetische Volkslied‑und Volksmusik. forschung. Erich Stockmann, ed.

   (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1967). Pp. 293‑308.

4. Notes to the recording, “The Music of Tibet: The Tantric Rituals,” Disk AST‑4005, New York, Anthology 1970. Musical analysis by

   Peter Crossley‑Holland; acoustical analysis by Kenneth N. Stevens.

5. This was investigated through a synthesis of this same excerpt on a generator of sine‑tones produced through a process using 

    insulated light. This apparatus was constructed by Dr. K. Schiigerl, Phonogramm‑archiv, Vienna, in 1970.

6. This topic is under study by Dr. Frank, Laryngologisches InstitiA, Vienna.

7. This result is based on filtration experiments carried out with the help of Dr. R. Brandi, Phonogramm­archiv, Vienna, 1970.

8. It is the opinion of Mr. Michael Moore, based on the perusal of a large number of melographs, that the dynamic display shows little

    fluctuation when compared with other vocal sty les.

9. Apparatus of this nature already exists and is being further refined and developed by Dr. P. Ladefoged in the Phonetics Laboratory at



Return to Mongolian Khöömii Singing main page


The Mongolian traditional art of Khöömei, UNESCO, MONGOLIA


Uploaded on Dec 2, 2010
UNESCO: Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – 2010
URL: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/RL/…
Description: Khöömei is a form of singing originating in western Mongolia, in the Altai mountains. The performer imitates sounds of nature, simultaneously emitting two distinct vocal sounds: along with a continuous drone, the singer produces a melody of harmonics. Khöömei literally means pharynx, and it is believed to have been learned from birds, whose spirits are central to shamanic practices. The multitude of Khöömei techniques in Mongolia are grouped within two main styles: the ”kharkhiraa” (deep Khöömei) and ”isgeree” Khöömei (whistled Khöömei). In ”kharkhiraa” the singer sings a drone in a normal voice, while emphasizing the undertone or subharmonic one octave below. In ”isgeree” Khöömei, it is the overtones above the fundamental note of the drone that are emphasized, creating a higher-pitched whistle. In both cases, the drone is produced with very taut vocal cords, and the melody is created by modulating the size and shape of the mouth cavity, opening and closing the lips and moving the tongue. Khöömei is performed by Mongolian nomads in a variety of social occasions, from grand state ceremonies to festive household events. Khöömei is also sung during herding, and inside the yurt to lull babies to sleep. Traditionally, Khöömei is transmitted orally from bearer to learner, or via master-to-apprentice.
Country(ies): Mongolia
© 2009 by Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO
Duration: 10:01:00 – Support: DVD (0039600025)



Khoomei Sound Samples and Spectrograms


This page contains sound samples and spectrograms of various Khoomei singers.

Click on the spectrograms to download sound samples (aiff format).



1. Me singing Sygyt: This image contains the frequencies from about 0-5300 Hz. You can see the scooping of unwanted frequencies and the amplified harmonics of the melody.


2. Sygyt # 2: Also high in my range, this time with a little clearer sound.



3. Me singing in Khoomei style. The sound is softer, and more diffused. If you listen carefully, you can discern a 3rd pitch. It’s located above the melodic harmonic, but sounds softer (this is an illusion; the melodic frequency cluster is slightly quieter, but the motion makes it more obvious). The frequency range is from about 0-5469 Hz, and the fundamental (very soft, and very faint visually) is at about 129 Hz.


4. Yours truly singing a bit o’ Kargyraa (same frequency range). Notice the coarse, vibrating quality; often, on recordings with either natural or artificial reverb, this sound is smoothed out. I intentionally recorded these samples very dry (except #1 above), to obtain more accurate spectrograms.


5. This is an example of Chilandyk (named for the cricket), a combination of Kargyraa and Sygyt styles. Same frequency range as above. If you can learn to sing both styles, it’s not too hard to combine them. The difficult part is to keep the Kargyraa in tune when adding the sygyt.




I’ll add some more of my own samples, and samples of other singers as time permits.

Below are some spectrograms and samples of some famous Tuvan singers, beginning with Kaigal-ool Xovalyg of Huun-Huur-Tu:



Spectrograms of Kaigal-ool Xovalyg

produced by Steve Sklar, Minneapolis, 1997-98


Section 1. In this section, click on the spectrogram to download the AIFF sound file. PLEASE NOTE: These casual samples were not recorded under “studio conditions,” and have not been equalized. The original samples were made on a PowerMac 8500/132 computer, using the computer’s microphone, at 44.1Khz, then downsampled into 22.05Khz IMA compression AIFF Files. Together with the spectrograms, they do provide a useful if not comprehensive look at the sound components of khoomei singing.

The first two Kargyraa spectrograms were made from the same sample, so you only have to select one of them.

Kargyraa style : frequency range 0-5469 Hz


Kargyraa style : frequency range 0-2735 Hz


Sygyt: frequency range 0-5469 Hz fundamental about 334 Hz



Section 2. The spectrograms in this section were made from solo tracks on Huun-Huur-Tu’s first Shanachie CD, 60 Horses in My Herd. These tracks are presented through the generous cooperation of Shanachie Records. Clicking these spectrograms will play high-quality (256 kbs) mp3s.

Khoomei solo from 60 Horses (track 6); frequency response 0-2735 Hz. The fundamental (bottom line) is at about 108 Hz. There is another formant band centered at about 3450 Hz that is similar in intensity to the upper band shown here.


The next 2 spectrograms were also made from the same track, and again are simply two views with different frequency ranges.

Kargyraa solo from 60 Horses (track 11); frequency range from 0-5469 Hz
(apologies for “crosshair” artifact)

Kargyraa solo from 60 Horses (track 11); frequency range 0-2735 Hz

Kaigal-ool Xovalyg is the lead singer and igil master of the reknowned Tuvan ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu (“sun-propeller). He has performed around the world with HHT, and with his multi-cultural group ethno-jazz Vershki da Koreshki. He holds the title “Peoples’ Singer of Tuva,” and is especially well known for his unique 3-4 voice Khoomei style, in which he can apply vibrato to certain harmonics and not others! He has been my foremost teacher on the Khoomei path.

I wish to express my thanks to Kaigal-ool and Shanachie Records for allowing me to present these recordings and images.




Types of Throat-Singing

with Tips

Under Construction

Tuvan 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:

1. Khoomei

2. Kargyraa

3. Sygyt

4. Borbangnadyr

5. Ezengileer

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.

All video examples are QuickTime movies. Click here to get QuickTime (available for Mac and PC).

All movies are © Steve Sklar/Skysong Productions, Inc. and may NOT be copied or distributed without consent. All Rights Reserved.

Please Note: If you don’t have QT Pro and want to save the videos, then either R click (PCs) or Option Click (Mac) and do a Save to Disk, then view the .mov file from your hard drive. If you have QT Pro, then you can view the videos from within your browser, and save them from there. If you view them from within your web browser, I recommend configuring the browser to view them using the QT plugin, as this lets you begin viewing as the files download.

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.

Tibetan Chant

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 Haihas 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.

Altai This republic directly west of Tuva is home to Kai singing. Here’s an MP3 by the group, AltKai.

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 WidipediaThe 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