For traditional singers in Tuva, a Russian republic nestled between Siberia and Mongolia, capturing the sounds of their homeland is no easy task: Winds howl across the remote steppes, herds of animals bray and gallop, and water bubbles from mineral springs.
To mimic this soundscape, they’ve perfected a special technique called "throat singing," allowing them to sing two distinct notes at a time. The effect is gravelly and a little haunting. “It's all meant to kind of replicate the sound and emotions and feelings of being out there, living a nomadic lifestyle in a yurt and riding a lot of horses,” says Luke Groskin, the video producer for Science Friday.
Groskin interviewed members of Alash Ensemble, a touring Tuvan group, for the video he made about throat singing. “They're pretty famous, especially in Russia,” he says. He also enlisted Aaron Johnson, a speech and language pathologist at New York University's Voice Center, to explain how Tuvan throat singers can manipulate their vocal cords to form multiple notes at once.
According to Johnson, throat singers take advantage of sounds that we’re all able to produce. “Every time that we use our voice, we have a fundamental frequency,” he says. “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.”
But he explains that Tuvan throat singers can intensify some of those harmonics, producing what sounds like a unique pitch. “They're making adjustments within the tube above the larynx, a little 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.”
If you’re practicing your own vocal contortions as you read this, Johnson helpfully adds that you’re not likely to hurt yourself. “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,” he says.
But you’re not likely to master the form anytime soon, either. As Groskin explains, there are actually three separate styles of Tuvan throat singing. Each evokes different natural sounds, like birds or wind.
There’s a high style, called sygyt. “Then there's a middle style, khoomei,” he says. “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.”
He’s watched beads of sweat form on the brows of professional throat singers, especially as they perform intense, high-style melodies. “They're really working hard to squeeze certain parts of their throat and manipulate their lips exactly the way they want to,” he says.
“It … 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.”