Throat Singing

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One of the most renowned things about Tuva these days is throat-singing. The word in Tuvan, Хөөмей (Xöömei), refers to one style of singing and is related to the Mongolian word meaning throat. It can all be little bit confusing, so here's simple primer on how to do it.


The most important step to learning to sing overtones is learning to hear them. Go watch wp:Genghis Blues and then buy the soundtrack. Also try "Deep in the Heart of Tuva" and "Voices from the Center of Asia". Listen for the highest thing you can in the low songs and the lowest drone in the high songs. Sing along in whatever way you can!

If you listen with attention, you'll discover that your ears begin to pick up new facets to everyday noises and music. Vacuum cleaners and leaf-blowers will come alive and all the weird sound effects you always make with you mouth will become more complicated.

Front and Back Vowels

Tuvans have all the luck because their language lends itself to throat-sing. If you're not yet learning the language, perhaps some Indo-Europeans examples will help. In German (and other languages) they sometimes add two little dots over certain vowels (i.e. ö and ü). This means the speaker must round their lips. Try saying "Oh!" with you mouth in a tight, little circle and again with your jaw wide open. You can still do it, huh? Do the same with all the vowels, short and long.

What you are discovering is that one actually makes vowels from the back of the throat, a fact lost on most people today. If you take the time to really dissect what you're doing, you'll find that when most Americans say "Oh", they're really going from an "O" sound into a "U" sound by the end. Work on isolating individual sounds with your mouth as wide open as you can.


Now you need to find a cave, or a stairwell or a hall or a room that echos really well and where you're prepared to get goofy! The shower will do, but the more echo/reverb the better. Get yourself in a chant mood and sing "A, E, Ah, O, Uuuuu" with gusto from your gut! Keep your jaw wide open and try to sing as pure a note, in the middle of your range as you can. Blend from one vowel to the next slowly and try to identify where the purest form of each sound lies.

Let's stick with "O" (remembering never to glide into O-Uuuuu), since it's the strongest. Never rounding your lips, sing "O" very loudly from the pit of your stomach. Find all the areas in the bak of your throat you can sing it from. Move it around in the back of your throat til it becomes an "N" and then an "NG". Without every changing the note, try moving between impersonating a little choir-boy and then slowly change to impersonating Johnny Cash. It's all there within one note and one vowel!

Hopefully, as your ear grows and throat control comes along, you'll find that there is a spot where you can start to hear a clear note, above what you are droing on. Work on isolating the small, high note associated with other vowels, like Ah and Eee. If you can maintain the distinction between your throat and your lips/tongue in your mind, you can even venture over to Urr. To develope strength, try finding any of the note with your mouth closed (i.e. Mmmmmmm).

Useful Frills and Gimmicks

If you're like me, you probably like the cool little "galloping" effect that Ondar does a lot and the insane "rapid trill" of other throat singers. Ezengileer and borbangnadyr are actually very helpful in developing the muscles at the back of the throat which have lain dormant in most of us. It's pretty hard to explain in word, but try some of your vowel exercises while adding in either pulsating or rapid "ya-ya-ya-ya"s. You'll find that just as with the vowels, you can make Y's from the front/sides of your tongue, or from the base of your tongue, far back in your throat. Don't be embarrassed! Try some more!!

Get Dirty

It is possible to throat sing without ever making your voice harsh, or abrasive, like on Dead Poets Society soundtrack. But that's for woosy, non-Tuvans! The point of adding "white-noise" is that there will be more notes across the spectrum and we'll be able to isolate more for our purposes. Now's the time to get in touch with your inner Paul Peña and become a "gut-bucket, scratchy blues" man or woman and get ugly! Be careful not to hurt your throat! As a rule of thumb, if it hurts, STOP!

There are two ways to achieve Kargyraa. I call them Coughing from Above and Coughing from Below. The first method involves clearing your throat as if you had just drank orange juice and needed to clear the palatte. The second involves going so far down in your range that your false-vocal folds start vibrating, as if a bit of glottal-fry kept going. It isn't even necessary to get the big, deep, octave below note going to practice Хөөмей. Just getting into the style will help you eventually when you can "fire up your motor" at will.

Ur, Ee and Oo

Whichever xöömei is easier for your, you'll probably find the opposite to be the best warm up. That is why I have listed kargyraa first: I'm better at sygyt. The extremely high notes have very short wavelengths, so they actually are all isolated within your mouth, not your throat. Proper sygyt posture means cupping your tongue in a bowl, clenching your jaw till the teeth almost touch and puckering your lips while rounding them.

The vowels involved with sygyt form a narrow spectrum. The first note of the scale is an "Ur" and the following notes blend slowly until the high note is an "Ee". There is also an "O" for the low note below the main scale. Though a lot of throat tightening is necessary, don't turn red and try to be pushing from the diaphram, not the throat.

Closing Thoughts

Throat Singing is an ancient art, a lost skill from the early Ages of Mankind. Ancient peoples, who had an indepth knowledge of their own, inner workings, would have incorporated it into varies aspects of speech and song in ways that are hard now to imagine. If you achieve some success in Хөөмей, it will be tempting to practice all the time. Don't go so far as to get a sore throat for days on end! Practice for less than an hour a day in the beginning, until you discover how to do it without scratching your throat. Have fun!