Looking to pick up a new, intriguing and challenging skill? Are you an aspiring singer who really wants to hone and refine their voice by pushing it in different and exciting ways? If so, then you may want to try learning how to throat sing.
This is a technique of singing developed from ancient Mongolian methods, and it’s unique in that the voice is stretched to produce multiple notes simultaneously! What’s great about Mongolian throat singing (or, as it’s sometimes referred to, Tuvan throat singing), is that you won’t need to travel across the planet to learn the craft. Simply read further on in this article to pick up the technique and add a great skill to your singing toolbelt!
So What is Mongolian Throat Singing?
Throat singing is a style of singing, almost chanting, deeply embedded in several ancient cultures. Originally known as overtone singing, the singer can create several notes or tones simultaneously through manipulation of the throat cavity and controlled breathing (work on your breathing exercises if you don’t already). While the sound is most commonly guttural, utilizing deep tones, melodic tones can also be produced.
When I first heard the notes resonating from a weathered-looking Mongolian man, I was quite mesmerized. To me, the sound resembled that of a didgeridoo.
There are several very different cultures that have their own style of throat singing. All use the same general technique, however, they have been utilized for different purposes within society.
Tuvan Throat Singing
Nestled in Russia, just north-west of Mongolia is the Tuva region. As a rural region, the herding lifestyle of the Tuvan people lent itself to the males copying sounds of nature for entertainment on these long journeys. The young men were exclusively trained in the art as it was said that if women performed throat singing they would become infertile.
I can imagine days of herding on horseback through the barren and cold Mongolian wilderness, with the sounds of a throat singer bouncing from the surrounding rock faces. It would be almost hypnotic.
With the occupation of the region by the Soviets in the 1900s, the practice was forbidden due to being seen as a ritual. However, the art form has seen a resurgence in Mongolia and Tuva since the 1980s.
Inuit Throat Singing
In contrast, the women of the Inuit people from North Canada have throat singing embedded deeply within their culture. The Inuit women’s style differs in that the technique focuses more on short, sharp inhalations and exhalations. Another difference is the performances were in groups and were utilized to calm the children.
One similarity is the practice was forbidden for over 100 years by Christian priests. Thankfully, the young women of the Inuit people have recently taken it upon themselves to revive the tradition and learn the art of throat singing from their elders.
Xhosa Throat Singing
The Xhosa people are the indigenous people of the south-east region of South Africa. Interesting fact, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were both Xhosa. This Xhosa is Africa’s sole culture to be identified as practicing throat singing and it is predominantly the women who sing.
The songs are held at a very low register for women, quite similar to the Tuvan style. The tongue is lifted up and down to create the differing tones, resonating between the tongue and pallet. The main purpose of throat singing within this culture is to create melody during celebrations and festivals.
Where To Start?
Now you know the origins of this ancient singing style, let’s give it a crack. It is said the only way to learn the art form properly is from personal coaching, however, this is a great place to start. Even though there are several different styles of throat singing, generally learning how to throat sing can be attempted using the following steps:
1. Relax your jaw and lips
Hold your mouth open about half an inch and let it relax. A tip can be to simultaneously listen to a recording of a cello playing a D note and sing “oo” in the same tone. Breathe out for an extended period while doing this. Kind of yoga-like.
2. Make an R or L sound with your tongue
Making these sounds naturally pushes your tongue towards the pallet of your mouth. For this process, you need to keep your tongue just away from this position, slightly below the roof of your mouth. As you are learning it may drift to the top, just try to keep it away.
3. Sing a low base note
4. Move your tongue between an R and L shape
This is where it gets a little tricky. While holding this note, move your tongues’ base between the R and the L shape. Try to keep the tip of your tongue touching the roof of your mouth.
5. Change the shape of your lips
Now try doing this while changing the shape of your lips as though you are saying two sounds; E and U. The sound is like saying “see you”. The change in your lips’ shape is what changes the resonance of the sound produced.
6. Now put it all together
You may need to play around with your tongues positioning as we are all slightly different.
Start with the “oo” sound then:
- Put your tongue near the top of your mouth(not quite touching) in an R position.
- Alternate your lips slowly back and forth between the E and U sounds – like “see you”
- Deliberately curl your tongue backwards, away from your lips.
- Once you hear the overtones, cease mouth movement, and stabilize this exact tone.
If you are anything like me then this will be a real laugh at the start. I had no exposure to creating this sound so trying to get this technique down was definitely shaky at the start! It certainly has some benefits in expanding my vocal range, for sure!
On a deeper note, learning about ancient cultures and traditions is such an important way to explore the world when you can’t physically travel. It’s also kind of cool to be one of the few people in the world to throat sing.
Now you know how to Mongolian throat sing you will just need to practice. When you first begin, it is quite difficult to hear the different tones due to blocks from your inner voice but don’t be disheartened, practice makes perfect!
James is an ex-writer for Music Grotto who focused the majority of his writing on the musical skill development content on the publication. His 20+ year career as a singing and vocal coach provided insightful content for the website, and his continued thirst for development in guitar and piano playing helped create some excellent skill development content for the publication.