TRAN QUANG HAI
POLYPHONY IN ONE THROAT
Research can be done in many ways: by means of obervation of native per-
formers after on or more visits to the country concerned, or by means of practising instruments and vocal training aimed at a better understanding of the musical structure employed by the population being studied. My own research does not belong to either of these two categories since I have never been to Monglia and I have never learned the KHOOMEI style (Overtone singing) from a Mongolian teacher.
What I am going to describe for you here is the result of my own experiments which will enable anyone to produce two simultaneous sounds similar to Mongolian and Tuvin overtone singing.
The Tuvan vocal phenomenon Khöömei (literally Throat) since the last ten years
has thrilled World music audiences around the world from the USA to Holland, from Canada to Germany, Sweden, from France, Spain to Japan, Australia.
In 1969,I started my overtone research with Mongolian xöömij style which was
very closed to Tuvan Sygyt style.Then, I wrote an article on my “discovery” of this split-tone singing style” on the acoustical point of view, in cooperation with Denis Guillou in a book published by Japan Foundation in 1980. Another important article with Hugo Zemp on my experimental research on overtones was published in Geneva in 1991. The film the Song of Harmonics, made by Hugo Zemp in 1989 with me as co-author was released in 1989 in Paris.
Only in 1977 I heard the Tuvan overtones for the first time from the LP edited by
Melodia GOCT 5289-68 “Pesni i Instrumentalnye Melodii Tuvy “ (Songs and Instrumental Melodies of Tuva) with the cover notes by G.Tchourov.
Throat Singing in Central Asia
The most well-known area for overtone singing is found in Central Asia, more
specifically Western Tuva and Northwestern Mongolia. A great number of singers
practice overtone singing, a tradition going back to the time of the Silk Road trade,
according to some references in Tuvan songs. There is a rich culture of overtone
singing, as demonstrated by many different styles, the great regional and even
personal differences and the number of singers. In Tuva five basic styles exist:
called sygyt, khoomei, kargyraa, borbannadyr, and ezengileer. Borbannadyr was called in some regions, but the latter indicated in orther regions the general term for overtonesinging. Nowadays, it still has this function, but khoomei can at the same time be the name for a separate style, apart from borbannadyr. In addition to these styles some sub styles exist, such as folk and middle sygyt, steppe and mountain kargyraa, and the “stil Oidupa”. The latter is a substyle of kargyraa named after the singer who invented it , and it is considered as the first city style. The parametres for this emic – or folk classification, seem to be the melody of the fundamental, the melody of the overtones and the sound colour or over all sound.
The Mongols did not have a traditional, general classification of their styles of
overtone singing. The late folklore specialis Badraa and the singer Tserendavaa
attempted to make such a classification of Mongolian xoomij. Their results seem to be based on two criteria: the places of origin and the palce of resonance in the body when singing xoomij. They came up with six different styles: uruulyn (labial) xoomij, tagnain (palatal) xoomij, xamryn (nasal) xoomij, bagalzuuryn (glottal or throat)xoomij, tseejiin xondiin or xevliin (chest cavity or stomach) xoomij and xarxiraa. The latter style is somewhat controversial, since different singers have different opinions about what constitutes it, and whether or not it is xoomii.
In addition to Tuvan and Mongolian styles Khakassian “xaj” and Gorno-Altaian
“kaj” overtone singing, usually accompanying epic songs, should be mentioned.
while Tuvan and to a lesser extent Mongolian musicians travel around the world performing their xoomej, little is known about other Central Asian styles.
A special case is the “uzliau” or “tamak kurai” of Bashkirs, who live in the
european part of Russia, some few thousand kilometers from Tuva. It is the name for their overtonesinging, with melodies similar to those of ordinary folksongs. The Baskirs are a Turkic people, who moved from Central Asia or Saiano Altai in the first millennium. Wainshtein advanced the opinion that they could have taken with them this peculiar singing style when moving westward from Central Asia. If this is so, he writes, then xoomej existed before their migration, i.e. in the second harl of the first millennium.
The manner in which the Mongolian and Tuvin word is transcribed is by no
means not uniform: HO-MI, HÖ-MI (Vargyas, 1968), KHOMEI, KHÖÖMII (Bosson,
1964:11), CHÖÖMEJ (Aksenov, 1973:12), CHÖÖMIJ (Vietze 1969:15-16), XÖÖMIJ
(Hamayon 1973; Tran Quang Hai, 1980:162). French researchers have used other
terms to describe this peculiar vocal technique such as CHANT DIPHONIQUE or
BIPHONIQUE (Leipp, 1971); Tran Quang Hai, 1974; Gilles Leothaud, 1989), VOIX
GUIMBARDE, VOIX DEDOUBLEE (Helffer, 1973; Hamayon, 1973), and CHANT
DIPHONIQUE SOLO (Marcel-Dubois, 1979). Several terms exist in English such as
SPLIT-TONE SINGING, THROAT SINGING, OVERTONE SINGING, and HARMONIC
SINGING. In German, it is called ZWEISTIMMIGEN SOLOGESANG. In Italian, it is
called CANTO DIFONICO ou CANTO DIPLOFONICO.
For convenience, I have employed the term „OVERTONE SINGING“ to describe a style of singing performed by a single person producing simultaneously a
continuous drone and another sound at a higher pitch issueing from a series of
partials or harmonics resembling the sound of the flute.
In Mongolia and Tuva, thee word KHOOMEI means pharynx, throat, and KHOO-
MEILAKH is the technique of producing vocal harmonics. This most unusual technique, which takes the human voices to its limits, entails the production of two sounds simultaneously: a drone or fundamental that is rich in harmonics and reminiscent of the jew’s harp (the reason why this technique is also known as „jew’s harp voice“). This technique is strenuous for the performer according to Mongolian singers. The performer must tauten his muscles and swell his cheeks. Different
sounds are obtained by varying the air pressure across the vocal folds, the volume of the mouth cavity, and tongue placement. In this way, variable pitch harmonics are produced to form the melody. The fundamental is produced in the back of the throat, passing through the mouth, and exciting throught the slightly parted lips and to a lesser extent through the nose.
Five Styles of Overtones in Tuva
It is necessary to have a clear idea about the five basic vocal styles of Tuvan
overtone singing before analyzing the different items recorded in these 2 compact discs reviewed in this paper.
Khoomei is a vocal style which enables the singer to produce two sometimes
three simultaneous voices: one fundamental with low sound considered as a drone, and the other(s) with overtones giving one or two formantic melody (ies). In acoustics, harmonics are sounds the frequencies of which are integral multiples. If the singer sings the fundamental pitch of 200Hz (written H1=200Hz), harmonics 2 (written H2) will be 400Hz, H3=600Hz, etc…In this paper, whenever I mention H2, H3, that means overtone 2, overtone 3.
Khoomei is the common term for overtone singing, the origin of all styles. It
means literally „throat, pharynx“. It is considered as the oldest style by many Tuvan singers. It sounds like the sygyt style with high pitch fundamental, but less tension, softer overtones in the mouth. The use of rhythmic ornamentation accentuates the beat of the song. Nowadays khoomei is often faster and louder. Grace notes become tremolos as in borbannadyr style (after Mark Van Tongeren).
(also written Sigit ) is a high overtone singing sounding like a flute, a whistle, mostly combined with text. The term sygyt means „whistle“. Songs in sygyt style start without overtones. At the end of a line, the melody ends with a sustained fundamental on which the singer surimposes a second melody with overtones (generally H9,H10 and H12, sometimes with H8,H9,H10,H12,H13). The best singers in Sygyt are Mongush Mergen, Tumat Kara-ool, Chuldum-ool Andrej.
Borbannadyr is sung from a fundamental in bass or baritone range. It is char-
acterized by a pulsating asymmetrical rhythm and is not normally sung with text. The term is derived from the verb borbanna (to roll over). The singer employs the tremolo of overtones, and can create the triphonic effect with the fundamental , the first overtone level in fifth parallel (harmonic 3 : one octave + a fifth higher), and the second overtone level which gives the melody. This style is sung in a higher register than the one used in kargyraa with more nasal resonance. Mikhail Dopchun, Tumat Kara-ool, Anatolii Kuular are the best exponents of this style.
Ezengileer is produced by rapid vibrations of the lips, and is sung over a low
fundamental. It creates soft shimmering overtone melodies.Both the high (nasal)
and low (throat) sounds are important. The alternation of the two different sounds seem to define the style. It is characterized by a pulsating galloping asymmetrical rhythm which suggests riding on horseback. Ezengi means strirrup the metal parts of a bridle. Songs in ezengileer style were usually sung when riding on horseback. To-day the ezengileer style is rarely performed and is considered rather difficult. Mongush Mergen and Ondar Marzhymal are the best singers of this style.
Kargyraa is a very low overtone, singing with long breath and open vowels (u, o, ö, a ) used in songs in which texts are sung. The term kargyraa is a homonym of the onomatopoetic verb kargyraa which means „to expectorate“. The pitch of the fundamental varies from 55 Hz to 65 Hz.
Apart from the five main styles, we can find other sub-categories: Opei-khoomei is a lullaby khoomei, similar to the rhythm of rocking a baby to sleep. It is sometimes called tönmes khoomei (never ending khoomei).
Khovu-kargyraa is a steppe kargyraa practised when riding a horse on the
steppe with the wind blowing at the right angle into the mouth with lips curled. The wind amplifies overtones (this style can be heard in the compact disc Tuva – Voices from the Center of Asia – Smithsonian Folkways CD SF 40017, track 1).
Dag-kargyraa is a mountain kargyraa, practised in the mountains, producing an
echo and singing with it. Tempo and timbre have a different rhythm than khovu-kargyraa.
Chelbig-kargyraa is a fan kargyraa, sung while continuously moving a fan in
front of the mouth. The air circulation produced by the fan genereates different kargyraa effects.
Sygytting borbannadyr is sygyt singing in borbannadyr style, also known as
the Gennadi Tumat style because he has developed it.
Chilandyk is a combination of sygyt and kargyraa alternating between high and
low registers. It is named after the chilandyk (cricket) which produces the same sound.
Dumchuktaar (from the nose) means khoomei singing through the nose, with
mouth almost or completely closed. It can be combined with other styles such as
kargyraa, sygyt, khoomei with nasal character.
Kangzyp is a special kind of overtone singing for someone who is depressed or
sad. The word kangzyp is probably derived from the verb kangzyyr which means „to wail“ (like a dog) or figuratively „to annoy“.
Xörekteer (xörek means breast). It refers to singing with the breast of the
melody before or in between actual overtone singing style. It is sung with words. If it is sung in the lower register, it is called xörekteer . Gennadi Tumat has sung it. Lebedinskij ,in 1948, wrote : „It is unnatural for a person to be able sing two
notes at the same time. The timbre is alreasy unnatural, not to mention the principal notes and the harmonics, or overtones, and what is downright unnatural is the length of time the breath is sustained „. Aksenov, the first Russian researcher, wrote an important article on Tuvin Folk music in 1964 (an English version was published in Asian Music Journal – New York, USA, in 1973).
Since the years of Perestroika and with the disparition of the USSR at the end
of the ’80s, Tuva has rebuilt the traditional music and Tibetan Buddhism. The „cultural rebirth“ has started since. Competitions, Khöömei Song Concerts were organized in 1992 and 1995 in Kyzyl, capital of Republic of Tuva. By chance I was invited in Tuva in 1995 and was nominated as President of the 2nd International Symposium and Festival of Throat-Singers from 19 to 21June 1995.
The Tuvan singers generally use overtones from 6th to 13th. Renowned sing-
ers can reach overtone 18. During the Russian domination, throat singing was not encouraged by the Soviet authorities, but it survived. In the ancient time, overtone
Polyphony in One Throat
singers specialized in a single style or two related styles. Nowadays, it is frequent to see singers perform several styles arranged in short segments.If an overtone singer cannot master the five basic styles (khoomei, sygyt, borbannadyr, ezengileer, kargyraa ), he is not considered a good singer. Young singers like combining throat singing with rock, pop, punk and disco music. National Khoomei competititons have been taking place for severel years, in which often more than thirty to forty singers take part. Young talent is discovered like the 11year old Schaktar Schulban has
taught himself throat singing by listening to Khoomei singers on radio and Television since he was five. He can sing kargyraa style with 70Hz as fundamental pitch and changes to sygyt style (H1=240Hz) during the same song and raises his overtones to H12= 2880Hz (it is very difficult for an adult throat singer to reach that overtone pitch). Onda Mongun-Ool (17 years old) is a virtuoso of sygyt style, and Bujan
Dondak (20 years old) is a specialist of kargyraa style.
How Did I Come to the Overtone Singing
In 1970, at the Department of Ethnomusicology (Musee de l’Homme), Prof.
Roberte Hamayon let me listen to her recordings made in Mongolia in 1967 and
1969. I was surprised by the extraordinary and unique nature of this vocal technique.
For several months, I carried out bibliographical research into articles con-
cerned with this style of singing with the aim of obtaining information on the practice of overtone singing, but received little satisfaction. Explanations of a merely theoretical and sometimes ambiguous nature did nothing so much as to create and increase the confusion with which my research was surrounded. In spite of my complete ignorance of the training methods for overtone singing practised by the Mongolians, the Tuvins and other Siberian peoples, I was not in the least discouraged by the negative results at the beginning of my studies after even several months of effort. I worked entirely alone groping my way through the dark for two whole years, listening frequently to the recordings made by Roberte Hamayon stored at the Sound Archives of the Department of Ethnomusicology of the Musee de l’Homme.
My efforts were however to no avail. Despite my knowledge of Jew’s Harp technique, the initial work was both difficult and discouraging. I also tried to whistle while producing a low sound as a drone. However, checking on a sonagraph showing that this was not similar to the Mongolian Xöömij technique. At the end of 1972, I got to the state that I was still a long way from my goal.
Then, one day in November 1973, in order to calm my nerves in the appalling
traffic congestion of Paris, I happened to make my vocal folds vibrate in the pharynx with my mouth half open and while reciting the alphabet. When I arrived at the letter L , and the tip of my tongue was about to touch the top of the palate, I suddenly heard a pure harmonic tone, clear and powerful. I repeated the operation several times and each time, I obtained the same result; I then tried to modify the position of the tongue in relation to the roof of the mouth while maintaining the low fundamental. A series of partials resonated in disorder in my ears. At the beginning, I got the harmonics of a perfect chord. Slowly, after a week of intensive training, by changing the fundamental tone upwards and downwards, I discovered by myself the mystery
of the overtone singing style which appeared to be near to that practised by the
Mongolians and the Tuvins.
About my Overtone Training Method
After two months of „research“ and numberless experiments of all kinds, I
succeeded in creating a short overtone melody. Here is my „recipe“ to help anyone to get this first step of overtone singing.
1. Intensify the vocal production with the throat voice;
2. Pronounce the 2 vowels I and U linked together and repeat it several times in
3. Make a nasal sound and tip of the tongue in a down position;
4. In this way, it is possible to obtain both the drone and the upper harmonic
line in descending and ascending order.
This is the first technique what I call „technique of one mouth cavity“. This one
is easy to do and anyone can produce the effect of 2 voices in one throat after one minute of practice.
The second „recipe“ will help you to produce clear overtones in the Mongolian
and Tuvin styles. I call it „technique of two mouth cavities“
1. Emit a throat sound of the vowel E` as long as you can;
2. Pronounce the letter L. Maintain the position with the tip of the tongue
touching the roof of the palate. In this position, the mouth is divided into 2 cavities,
one at the back and one at the front;
3. Say „LAANG“ for the first exercice, and say „LONG „ for the second excercice.
When you succeed in making the harmonics come out of the mouth, you keep the tip of the tongue to the palate while you sing , and at the same time you modify the mouth cavity by saying from A to O and from O to A several times in one breath;
4. Make a nasal sound;
5. In this way, you can produce clearly thé drone and a series of harmonics in
the Mongolian style.
For the beginners, the harmonics of the perfect chord (C, E, G,C) are easy to
obtain. However, a considerable amount of hard work is necessary especially to
obtain a pentatonic anhemitonic scale. Each person has his favourite note or pitch which enables him to produce a wide range of partials. This favourite fundamental varies according to the tonal quality of the singer’s voice.
New Experiments about Overtone Singing
Other experiments which I have been carrying out indicate that it is possible to
obtain two simultaneous sounds in three different ways:
1. In the first method, the tongue is either flat or slightly curved without actually
at any stage touching the roof of the mouth, and only the mouth and the lips move.
Through such varieties of the mouth cavity, this time divided into a single cavity, it is possible to hear the partials but faintly and the highest harmonics cannot reach beyond 1200Hz.
2. In the second method, the basic technique described above is used. However,
instead of keeping the mouth half open, it is kept almost shut with the lips pulled back and very tight. To make the partials audible, the position of the lips si varied at the same time as that of the tongue. The partials are very clear and distinctive, butthe technique is rather exhausting. The highest harmonics arrive at the zone of 2600Hz.
3. In the third method, thé tongue si down, and the teeth bite the tongue while
singing the vowels U and I with the contraction of muscles at the abdomen and the throat. The hightest harmonics can be heard at thed zone of 4200Hz
Other new experiments I have tried to show that I can maintain the same
selective harmonic level which is used as a drone while changing the pitch of fundamentals (e.g. C, F, G, C). I have succeeded in creating the fundamental line and the harmonic line in the opposite direction. In other words, I arrive to sing the fundamental line in ascending order, and at the same time, I create the harmonic line in descending order. This harmonic effect is quite unusual and exceptional.
In 1989, Dr. Hugo Zemp and I made a film called „THE SONG OF HARMON-
ICS“ showing X-ray and spectrographical pictures in real time ans synchronous
sound about the overtone singing practised in different countries. This film produced by the CNRS – Audiovisual and thé French Society for Ethnomusicology, obtained 2 prizes (Grand Prize and Best Music Prize) at the International Festival of Visual Anthropological Film in Estonia in October 1990, a prize (Special Prize for Research) at the International Festival of Scientific Film in Palaiseau (France) in November 1990, and a Grand Prize of the 2nd International Festival of Scientific Film in Montreal (Canada) in 1991.
In Western contemporary music, groups of singers have also succeeded in
emitting two voices at the same time, and vocal pieces have been created in the
context of avant garde music and of electro-acoustical music. David Hykes with his Harmonic Choir, created in New York in 1975, use the overtones to link with the cosmic universe in his compositions. Demetrio Stratos (1945-1979) used the overtones to create the relationship between voice and subconscious. In my compositions for improvized music, I recommend the investigation of overtones to enrich the world of sound. Other overtone singers like Michael Vetter, Christian Bollmann, Michael Reimann, Wolfgang Saus, Miroslav Grosser from Germany, Roberto Laneri from Italy, Rollin Rachele, Mark Van Tongeren from the Netherlands, Josephine Truman from Australia, Les Voix Diphoniques , Thomas Clements, Iegor Reznikoff, Tamia from France have also used the overtones in their works.
Overtone singing is also practised by a number of ethnic groups (Oirat, Khakass,
Gorno-Altai, Bashkir, Tuvin, Kalmuk) of the republics of Russia bordering on Mongolia.
In Rajasthan (India), in Taiwan among the Bunun ethnic group, in Tibet among the monks belonging to the Gyuto and Gyume monasteries, in South Africa among the Xhosa population, the practice of overtone singing style is known throughout recordings. The Dani tribe in Aryan Jaya (Indonesian part of New Guinea) also practise the overtone singing .
I hope that after this short introduction to the overtone world, you will have an
idea concerning the existence of the overtones in different areas in the world, the possibility of obtaining the know how of singing overtones.
Tran Quang Hai
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Zarlino, G. (1558). Institutioni harmoniche, Venise. (cf. Tisato, G.).
Zemp, H & Tran Quang Hai, (1991). Recherches expérimentales sur le chant diphonique (cf. Tran Quang Hai & Zemp, Hugo).
Discography only in CD
1. Epics and Overtone Singing. Central Asia, Siberia: Touva, Chor, Kalmouk, Tadjik, vol.1 , Paris (France) Maison des Cultures du Monde W 260067 (1996).
2. Shu-De. Voices from the Distant Steppe , London (United Kingdom)Realworld CDRW 41 (1994).
3.TUVA/ Tuvinian Singers and Musicians ,Frankfurt: World Network 55.838 (1993).
4. Huun -Huur-Tu /Old Songs and Tunes of Tuva , New Jersey (USA): Shanadie 64050 (1993).
5. TUVA- Echoes from the Spirit World, Leiden (Holland): Pan Records PAN 2013 CD (1992).
6 Tuva. Voices from the Land of Eagles , Leiden (Holland): Pan Records PAN 2005 CD (1991).
7.Ozum / Sprouts / Young Voices of Ancient Tuva, Amsterdam (Holland): Window to Europe SUM 90008 (1991).
8. Tuva – Voices from the Center of Asia, Washington DC (USA): Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF 40017 (1990).
9. White Moon / Tsagaan Sar/ Traditional and Popular Music from Mongolia , Leiden (Holland): Pan Records PAN2010CD (1992)
10.Mongolie / Musique vocale et instrumentale , Paris (France): INEDIT / Maison des Cultures du Monde W 260009 (1989)
11.Mongolie / Musique et chants de tradition populaire , Paris (France): GREM G7511 (1986).
12. Mongolian Music, Hungaroton, HCD 18013-14, collection UNESCO, Budapest, Hongrie, 1990.
13. Folk Music from Mongolia / Karakorum , Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde, Hambourg, Allemagne, 1993.
14.Vocal & Instrumental of Mongolia , Topic, World Series TSCD909, Londres, Grande Bretagne, 1994.
15.Jargalant Altai/-Xöömii and other vocal and instrumental music from Mongolia , Pan Records PAN 2050CD, Ethnic Series, Leiden, Hollande, 1996
BASHKIRIA / ALTAI / TUVA
16.Uzlyau ; Leiden (Holland): Pan Records PAN 2019CD (1993)
17. Voices of the World , Paris (France): Le Chant du Monde CMX 37410-12, set of 3CD, bilingual booklet (188p), collection CNRS-MUSEE DE L’HOMME (1996). Grand Prize of the Academy Charles Cros (1997), Diapason d’Or of the Year 1997.