The Science of Tuvan Throat Singing
Grazing yaks, windblown plains and bubbling rivers — these are the soundscape of the remote steppe of central Asia. In Tuva, a Russian republic between Siberia and Mongolia, these are also the sounds that influenced the art of throat singing. Tuvan throat singers are able to produce two distinct notes at one time, a feat that takes some practice. Video producer Luke Groskin talks about the different styles of Tuvan throat singing and speech pathologist Aaron Johnson discusses how the singers can manipulate their vocal cords and mouth to create this polyphonic sound.
Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.
Aaron Johnson is a speech and language pathologist at the Voice Center of New York University, in New York, New York.
OK, now for something completely different, in Central Asia, the remote steppe is filled with sounds of the blowing wind and grazing animals. But Tuva, a republic sandwiched between Siberia and Mongolia, is known for a different sound.
[MAN SINGING AND PLAYING PLUCKED INSTRUMENT]
That’s Tuvan throat singing. So yes, you heard a stringed instrument. But all those other notes are made by one person. He is singing two notes at one time. How does he do it? Well, that is the topic of our latest Macroscope video series. And SciFri’s video producer Luke Groskin is here to talk about it. Hey, Luke.
LUKE GROSKIN: Hi, Manoush.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: And Aaron Johnson is a speech and language pathologist at NYU’s Voice Center. Hello, Aaron.
AARON JOHNSON: Hi. Nice to be here.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, so Luke, there are different types of this polyphonic, as it’s called, singing. What is unique about Tuvan throat singing?
LUKE GROSKIN: Well, Tuvan throat singing is really deeply rooted in the culture of Tuva. So if you listen to it if, you listened to that, there was this whistling noise. And that noise is meant to kind of mimic the sounds of the wind on the steppe, the Tuvan steppe.
And there’s also a lot of cowboy sounds there. There’s a kind of galloping feel to it. Some of the styles sound a little bit like animals. And it’s all meant to replicate the sound and emotions and feelings of being out there living a nomadic lifestyle in a yurt and riding a lot of horses.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I’m Manoush Zomorodi. And this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.
OK, so Aaron– well, you know what? Let’s play a clip of this Tuvan throat singing. We have a clip of the high style. Can we hear that?
[MAN THROAT SINGING]
It’s amazing. It’s mesmerizing.
AARON JOHNSON: It is.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: When you sing one note, aren’t you technically singing a bunch of notes? So what are throat singers doing to get this two distinct note effect?
AARON JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s right. So you said that they’re singing two notes. And the truth is exactly that every time that we use our voice, we have a fundamental frequency. Our vocal folds are vibrating so many times per second. And that’s the pitch that we hear. And there are many overtones or harmonics that are produced as well that are multiples of that fundamental frequency. So we all do that.
The difference with the Tuvan throat singing is that they’re able to amplify certain of those harmonics to produce what sounds like a unique pitch. So we’re all producing it, but they’re making adjustments within the tube above the larynx, above the vocal folds, which is the back of the throat and the space in the mouth. And by adjusting the lips and the height of the larynx, which is where the vocal folds are, and changing the tongue position, they can then resonate and amplify that harmonic, which then, again, sounds as a separate pitch that’s happening.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: It’s vocal contortions.
AARON JOHNSON: It is.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: And we should say, Luke, that what we’re listening to is the band that you interviewed, Alash. Is that correct?
LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, yeah, those are the members of the band Alash. They’ve been going on tour across the US. They’re pretty famous, especially in Russia.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, and again, is it three different kinds of Tuvan throat singing that they do? Is that right?
LUKE GROSKIN: There are. That was Sygyt. And then there’s a middle style, Khoomei. And then there’s a low style, which is my favorite, which is called Kargyraa. And that one sounds a little bit like a frog is singing inside of your throat.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: We actually have a clip of it. Let’s play the low one.
[MAN SINGING KARGYRAA]
Aaron, what’s going on there?
AARON JOHNSON: It’s kind of like a Russian bass. It’s a very low sound. That particular note, the fundamental is around a low B, which is very low. And then again, it’s a similar idea where harmonics are being amplified. And we have this drone that’s very low, and then the harmonics, which sound like a melody, above that. And it could be a different part of the larynx that’s actually vibrating in that sound.
There’s a little bit of knowledge of looking down the throat and seeing what’s vibrating there. And there’s two different sets of tissue. The vocal folds I’m talking with now, we all talk with, which we’re called the true vocal folds. And then there’s some folds of tissue just above there called the false vocal folds, or the ventricular vocal folds. And it’s likely that those are being engaged to produce that very low and kind of raspy, rough sound.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: How many Science Friday listeners do you want to bet are trying to do it right now in their cars or in their kitchens? Are we going to hurt ourselves if we try to do Tuvan throat singing?
AARON JOHNSON: Unlikely. The ventricular vocal folds that are likely vibrating in the low are not really designed to vibrate, which is why they create that rough sound. But it’s unlikely you’re going to hurt yourself. And playing around with the voice and seeing what different kinds of sounds you can make is exactly the way to learn to do something like this. And really, the way we learn to sing in any style is by playing around and trying different ways of using our voice.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So Luke, I mean, you saw the pros at work. Are they laboring to do this? Or is this something that they just sit there and make these–
LUKE GROSKIN: Well, for some of the styles that are more intensive like the high style, when the guys are flowing through different melodies, you can see there’s sweat forming on their brows. They’re really working hard to squeeze certain parts of their throat and manipulate their lips exactly the way they want to. It really reminded me a lot of somewhere between an opera singer that has incredible, profound craft and is really working hard and a blues singer, where they’re pulling stuff out of their soul in order to communicate.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI: That’s so cool. All right, listeners you must watch Luke’s latest video and hear a track from the band Alash. Also, Aaron you are in the video, really showing us how the vocal chords work. You put a microscope or a little camera down the throat of another singer and show us. It is fascinating and beautiful to listen to and to watch. Go check it out at sciencefriday.com/tuvan, T-U-V-A-N.
Thank you both so much for being here. Aaron Johnson is a speech and language pathologist at NYU’s Voice Center. And Luke Groskin is SciFri’s a video producer. I’ll see you after the show, Luke.
LUKE GROSKIN: Thank you.
AARON JOHNSON: Thank you.
Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.