The Alash Ensemble on tour in the United States

While Tuvan musicians living in the USSR traveled to socialist and communist countries throughout the 20th century, Tuvan music only reached American and European performance venues following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loosening of travel restrictions imposed on former Soviet citizens. Tuvan musicians have achieved local and regional fame in Russia for performances of genres such as rock, pop and European classical; however, Tuva has achieved international recognition for its endemic musical practice khoomei–termed throat singing in English.  In throat singing, a single vocalist produces multiple audible pitches simultaneously.  Throat singing comprises two core techniques and several ornaments or sub-styles, which modulate the two core styles. In the videos below, throat singers Ayan-ool Sam and Bady Dorzhu Ondar–of the Alash Ensemble–demonstrate the basic styles and sub-styles that make up Tuvan throat singing.

Core Styles


The Tuvan word khoomei refers not only to the overall practice of throat singing, but to one of the two core techniques.  In the style khoomei, the singer produces a sustained pitch while modulating the sound by applying a slight and minutely controlled amount of tension to the larynx by engaging a pair of muscles lining the vocal tract. The sound produced is constricted and raspy relative to the open throated technique of choral or operatic singing.  The singer often uses this style to create structural contrast between one verse and another, or to mark the chorus of a song; however, this is not always the case. Some songs are performed in their entirety in the khoomei voice and in others khoomei is entirely absent.

The singer can utilize the harmonic refraction of the vocal fundamental achieved in khoomei to produce polyphonic, melodic vocalizations.  The singer sustains the tone while manipulating the pharynx, hyoid bone and the larynx in concert with one another in order to cause constituent harmonic frequencies naturally present in the fundamental to become audible as simultaneous pitches distinct from the fundamental.  A skillful throat singer is then able to manipulate the vocal tract into vowel positions that correspond with specific harmonic frequencies thereby producing distinct melody lines above the still audible background drone of the sustained fundamental.

In the below clip, Ayan-ool Sam demonstrates the style khoomei.



The style of kargyraa is produced when a singer simultaneously engages the vocal chords and ventricular folds.  The ventricular folds are located just above the larynx and vibrate at exactly half the speed of the vocal chords, thus the note produced is exactly one octave below the note produced by the vocal chords.  As in khoomei, kargyraa can be used to sing lyrics in specific sections of a song, lyrics for the entire duration of a song, or be completely absent.  

The overtone melodies of kargyraa are less focally perceptible than those of khoomei. Since two sound sources are simultaneously utilized in kargyraa, the singer has accessible double the amount of harmonic content available in the style of khoomei; however, the kargyraa fundamental produces overtones that are situated closer to the fundamental vocal pitch produced by the vocal chords.  The singer manipulates these overtones by augmenting his vocal tract into vowel positions as in khoomei, and moves the lips and jaw into vowel shapes that correspond to harmonics that form the overtone melody line.

Bady Dorzhu Ondar demonstrates the style kargyraa in this clip:




The most commonly utilized ornament of khoomei is called sygyt.  In sygyt, the singer produces a sustained khoomei voice while simultaneously cupping the tongue to the roof of the mouth, sealing it along the alveolar ridge, while leaving a small gap toward the rear on either side of the mouth in order for sound to escape through the molars.  The tongue further diminishes the fundamental drone thus increasing the audibility of the overtone note.  The result is a nearly inaudible drone coupled with a bright, flute-like overtone note that skilled singers utilize to produce melody.

In most of the throat singing literature, sygyt is considered a core technique, independent of khoomei and kargyraa; however, physiological research on throat singing technique shows that sygyt is produced by cupping the tongue to the roof of the mouth, while producing overtones using the khoomei technique.  As sound is produced in the throat using the khoomei technique, sygyt should not be considered an independent core style; rather, sygyt should be considered an ornament of khoomei.

In this clip, Ayan-ool performs the ornament sygyt applied to the core style khoomei:



Another commonly utilized ornament–borbangnadyr–can be applied to both khoomei and kargyraa.  This technique produces an undulating overtone that takes on a muted, pulsating quality in the style of kargyraa and a bright shimmering timbre when applied to khoomei.  The focal presence of the overtone note produced in khoomei can also be amplified by the sygyt technique while also appyling the borbangnadyr ornament.  The result is a bright, flute like overtone that undulates above the vocal fundamental reminiscent of bird song, or as some singers suggest, the sound of water rolling over submerged stones in a mountain stream.

Bady Dorzhu Ondar sings the ornaments borbangnadyr and sygyt applied to the core style khoomei:



Ezengileer is also a commonly deployed ornament to the styles khoomei and kargyraa and is often used in conjunction with the ornament sygyt.  Throat singers produce the ornament ezengileer by pulsing the velum while singing any of the core styles.  The velum is the part of our articulatory tract that directs sound into the nasal canal.  For instance, the velum engages when articulating the nasalized consonant pair in the word song. Pulsing the velum directs sound alternately to the mouth and nasal canal resulting in a rhythmic pulse along side the overtone melodies the singer produces.

Ayan-ool Sam performs the ornaments ezengileer and sygyt applied to the core style khoomei: