Anna Liesowska & Derek Lambie: Secrets of throat singing revealed by scientific research into the unusual sounds

Secrets of throat singing revealed by scientific research into the unusual sounds

By Anna Liesowska & Derek Lambie
22 December 2014

Unique physiology of people in Altai mountain region means only they can perform the melodies that date back centuries.

Shor female shaman performs the rite. Picture: Maxim Kiselyov

It is a unique and distinctive form of singing only found in one small part of the world. Now scientific research has finally discovered why the unusual sounds of throat singing have never spread out from the isolated steppes of the Altai and Sayan mountains.

Simply put, the people of Tuva and southern Siberia have different vocal cords to the rest of the planet and are the only ones with the capability to master the art.

Experts from the Institute of Philology, at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, have found that Turks’ vocal cords are slightly wider and the larynx is not as extended, allowing them to make the unique sounds required.

Throat singing produces a unique pitch and sound that comes from deep within the throat and it is said to date back centuries.

Throat singing secrets

Throat singing secrets

Tuvan singer Choduraa Tumat. Altai boy playing khomus. Pictures: Tuva Online, Altai Komus

According to a March 2006 edition of Newsweek magazine, throat singing is described as coming from a ‘human bagpipe, a person who could sing a sustained low note while humming an eerie whistle-like melody’.

The article added: ‘For good measure, toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally by the same person, at the same time.’

It is thought that it originated from Mongolian men who utilised the wide open landscape to make the sounds carry a great distance. Indeed, singers often travel far into the countryside looking for the right river or mountainside in which to create the proper environment.

Over time it now looks as if the way the singing was performed altered the physiology of the throats of people living in the Altai region.

Two residents of the Tashtagolsky district, in Kemerovo, took part in the Institute of Philogy research in Novosibirsk using modern methods to study the physiology of their speech.

Both TV journalist Raisa Sanzhenakova and culture worker Maria Idigesheva, who is head of the Taglyk Shor public organisation, are excellent native speakers of Turkic Shor. The language is spoken by only about 2,800 people in the Kemerovo province in south central Siberia, with many of its roots borrowed from Mongolian.

The experiment was filmed and a documentary on the results will be broadcast in January on local television.

However, one of the main conclusions is that the different throats of the people in the region help them to make the distinctive sounds in a way that people in Europe, for instance, would be unable to.

Throat singing secrets

Throat singing secrets

Shor music group ‘Ot Ene’. Maria Idigesheva, head of the Taglyk Shor public organisation. Pictures:, Maria Idigesheva

Raisa Sanzhenakova said: ‘For three days we talked with Novosibirsk scientists. Our speech using the Shor language was recorded with special equipment and was examined for the articular parameters of speech.

‘Digital radiography and magnetic resonance imaging studied our vocal apparatus and brain.’

The research took place in the laboratory of experimental phonetic studies, which was established in the late 1960s and is the only one of its kinds in Russia.

Since its creation, researchers have described the phonetics and phonology of more than 40 languages, dialects and sub-dialects.