F rom atop one of the rocky escarpments that criss-cross the south Siberian grasslands and taiga forests

of Tuva, one’s first impression is of an unalloyed si-
lence as vast as the land itself. Gradually the ear habituates

to the absence of human activity. Silence dissolves into a

subtle symphony of buzzing, bleating, burbling, cheeping,

whistling—our onomatopoeic shorthand for the sounds of
insects, beasts, water, birds, wind. The polyphony unfolds

slowly, its colors and rhythms by turns damped and rever-

berant as they wash over the land’s shifting contours.
For the seminomadic herders who call Tuva home, the
soundscape inspires a form of music that mingles with these

ambient murmurings. Ringed by mountains, far from major

trade routes and overwhelmingly rural, Tuva is like a musi-

cal Olduvai Gorge—a living record of a protomusical world,
where natural and human-made sounds blend.
Among the many ways the pastoralists interact with and
represent their aural environment, one stands out for its

sheer ingenuity: a remarkable singing technique in which a

single vocalist produces two distinct tones simultaneously.

One tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch, similar to

the drone of a bagpipe. The second is a series of flutelike

harmonics, which resonate high above the drone and may

be musically stylized to represent such sounds as the whistle

of a bird, the syncopated rhythms of a mountain stream or

the lilt of a cantering horse.
In the local languages, the general term for this singing is
khöömei or khoomii, from the Mongolian word for “throat.”
In English it is commonly referred to as throat-singing. Some
contemporary Western musicians also have mastered the
practice and call it overtone singing, harmonic singing or
harmonic chant. Such music is at once a part of an expres-

sive culture and an artifact of the acoustics of the human

voice. Trying to understand both these aspects has been a

challenge for Western students of music, and each of us—
one a musical ethnographer (Levin), the other a composer

with an interest in extended vocal techniques (Edgerton)—
has had to traverse the unfamiliar territory of the other.
Sound Mimesis
I n Tuva, legends about the origins of throat-singing assertthat humankind learned to sing in such a way long ago.
The very first throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicate

natural sounds whose timbres, or tonal colors, are rich in

harmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing winds. Al-

though the true genesis of throat-singing as practiced today is

obscure, Tuvan pastoral music is intimately connected to an

ancient tradition of animism, the belief that natural objects

and phenomena have souls or are inhabited by spirits.
According to Tuvan animism, the spirituality of mountains
and rivers is manifested not only through their physical shape

and location but also through the sounds they produce or can
80 Scientific American September 1999 The Throat-Singers of Tuva
VOICE OF A HORSE in Tuvan music, the igil—played here
by Andrei Chuldum-ool on the grasslands of southern Siberia

(also above)—is a two-stringed upright fiddle made from
horse hide, hair and gut and used to re-create equine sounds.

Sound mimicry, the cultural basis of Tuvan music, reaches its

culmination in throat-singing.
THE THROAT SINGERS OF TUVATesting the limits of vocal ingenuity, throat-singers can create
sounds unlike anything in ordinary speech and song—carrying two
musical lines simultaneously, say, or harmonizing with a waterfall
by Theodore C. Levin and Michael E. Edgerton