Throat-Singing: Resonating Harmonies

Throat-Singing: Resonating Harmonies

By definition, throat-singing is when a single vocalist produces at least two distinct tones, or overtones, at the same time by manipulating the resonance in the mouth, larynx and pharynx – like human bagpipes.

To anyone who has seen a throat-singing performance — as this video shows — it’s magically mesmerizing.

Sounds of Nature

These human bagpipes of Tuvan throat-singers can individually or simultaneously sound like wind, river waters, birds, and even camels. 

The mesmerizing chant of this type of singing attempts to mimic the sounds of nature, with multiple layers of overtones from one singer alone.  An unparalleled musical art, throat-singing is designated a UNESCO “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” 

Explaining how to throat-sing in Tuva, Russia </br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Explaining how to throat-sing in Tuva, Russia
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Styles of Throat-Singing

There are several styles of throat-singing, often accompanied on a horsehead fiddle. They include:

  • Sygyt, the brightest style, sounds a bit like bird whistling, with underlying buzzing created by changing the tongue, lips, and palate. 
  • Khoomei, a softer style with slightly muffled tones, is reminiscent of the wind.
  • Borbannadyr, a style producing a very low, growling sound – similar to the cries of a camel.

It takes more than vocal chords to make this music. It also requires moving the tongue, jaw and lips, with each variation producing a new tone.


Tuvan throat-singer in Tuva, Russia

Tuvan throat-singer in Tuva, Russia
Photo: Michel Behar

Where’s Tuva?

Tuva is a tiny autonomous area of Russia, tucked between southern Siberia and Mongolia. Historically semi-nomadic, Tuvans share a cultural heritage with Mongolia, their religions based in Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism. Many Tuvans still tend herds of yaks, sheep, and reindeer, and live in yurts in the summertime. Surrounded by those sounds of nature, Tuvans replicate them in their throats.

More photos and information about Tuva:

Tuva: Explore Siberia’s Remote and Undiscovered Treasure

Even former Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin couldn’t figure out how these Tuvans sing. When master throat-singer Kongar-ol Ondar sang for him in 1994, President Yeltsin insisted on peeking inside his mouth to see if there was something sneaky going on – like a secret device – making that music. 

Soviet President Yeltsin once peered into the throat of Tuvan singer Kongar-ol Ondar </br>Photo credit: Bill Loewy, Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Yeltsin once peered into the throat of Tuvan singer Kongar-ol Ondar
Photo credit: Bill Loewy, Wikimedia Commons

Where Can I Hear Throat-Singing?

Throat-singing is performed in Mongolia and in the South Siberian regions of Tuva and Buryatia, all part of a rich cultural oral tradition. Kongar-ol Ondar, the “Liberace of Tuvan music” and the singer whose mouth was checked out by President Yeltsin, has been featured in Rose Bowl parades, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded with Willie Nelson and Frank Zappa.  Female Tuvan throat-singers are growing in popularity as well. 

Mongolian throat-singer Photo credit: Michel Behar

Mongolian throat-singer at work
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Travel To Tuva with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience to Russia and Mongolia with Siberian affiliate offices in Irkutsk and Ulan Ude offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

You can hear what authentic Tuvan throat-singing sounds like by the popular Alash Ensemble. Even better, you can listen to throat-singing in person on MIR tours:

You can also book a hand-crafted, custom private journey based on your interests and timeline. MIR’s knowledgeable guides offer unique perspectives and insider information that only an on-the-ground local would know, making your journey utterly unique and unforgettable.

Not sure what season best suits you? Read our guide: Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall – Siberia Has It All.

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your next trip.


(Top photo credit: Martin Klimenta) 

PUBLISHED: June 11, 2014

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