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Overtone Singing - Traditional Styles


The best-known of the traditional forms of overtone singing comes from Tuva, a small autonomous republic within the
Russian Federation. The history of throat singing, or khoomei (Tuvan language: ??????), reaches too far back for anyone alive to accurately discern. Among the Tuvans, throat singing is taught formally at the Tuvan School Of Art, but it also comes naturally to them and is picked up like a language. Many of the male herders can throat sing, and women are beginning to practise the technique as well. The popularity of throat singing among Tuvans seems to have arisen as a result of geographic location and culture. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Ethnomusicologists studying throat singing in these areas mark khoomei as an integral part in the ancient pastoral animism that is still practised today.

The animistic world view of this region identifies the spirituality of objects in nature, not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. Thus, human mimicry of nature's sounds is seen as the root of throat singing. (An example is the Mongolian story of the waterfall above the Buyan Gol (


River), where mysterious harmonic sounds are said to have attracted deer to bask in the waters, and where it is said harmonic sounds were first revealed to people.) Indeed, the cultures in this part of

Asia have developed many instruments and techniques to mimic the sounds of animals, wind, and water. While the cultures of this region share throat singing, their styles vary in breadth of development.

In one of the main styles of khoomei, melodies are created by isolating the 6th, 8th, 9th, 10th and 12th (although more are possible) partial in the harmonic series (Sol, Do, Re, Mi and Sol in Solfege). The base pitch is typically around a G below Middle C. This is basic Sygyt.

The people of Tuva have a wide range of throat singing vocalizations, and were the pioneers of six pitch harmonics. There are several different classification schemes for Tuvan throat singing. In one, the three basic styles are khoomei, kargyraa, and sygyt while the sub-styles include borbangnadyr, chylandyk, dumchuktaar, ezengileer, and kanzip. In another, there are five basic styles: khoomei, sygyt, kargyraa, borbangnadyr, and ezengileer. The substyles include chylandyk, despeng borbang, opei khoomei, buga khoomei, kanzyp, khovu kargyraazy, kozhagar kargyraazy, dag kargyraazy, Oidupaa kargyraazy, uyangylaar, damyraktaar, kishteer, serlennedyr, byrlannadyr.


(Tuvan: ?????) meaning "whistling", a technique that utilizes a mid-range fundamental and produces a high-pitched, rather piercing harmonic reminiscent of whistling. The technique is different from khoomei as the fundamental is completely attenuated, and has a higher pitch. The tone sounds very bright and clear. Also described as an imitation of the gentle breezes of summer, the songs of birds.


(Tuvan: ????????) a deep, "undertone" technique. The vestibular folds, also known as the false vocal folds, are vibrated to produce an "undertone" exactly half the frequency of the fundamental produced by the vocal folds, and the mouth cavity is shaped to select harmonics of both the fundamental and the "undertone," producing from four to six pitches simultaneously. There are two main kargyraa styles, dag kargyraa and khovu kargyraa. The dag or "mountain" kargyraa is the lower of the two. There are also the distinctive kargyraa styles of Vladimir Oidupaa and Albert Kuvezin, the latter also bearing the name kanzat. This style can also be described as the howling winds of winter or the plaintive cries of a mother camel after losing her calf.


(Tuvan: ??????) While khoomei is used as a generic term to designate all throat singing techniques in this region, it is also more specifically a technique where the drone is in the middle-range of the voice, with harmonics between one and two octaves above. Singing in this style gives the impression of wind swirling among rocks.


(Tuvan: ????????) merely a mixture of Sygyt and Kargyraa. Both styles are sung at once, creating an unusual sound of low undertones mixed with the high Sygyt whistle. It has also been described as the "chirping of crickets."


(Tuvan: ??????????) could be best described as Throat Humming. The singer creates a sound similar to Sygyt using only the nasal passage. The word means to sing through the nose (dumchuk). The mouth does not need to be closed, but of course it demonstrates the point better.


(Tuvan: ??????????) is a pulsating style, mimicking the rhythms of horseback riding. It is named after the Tuvan word for stirrup, ezengi.

In Mongolia, throat singing is found mostly in the western part of the country. Khoomii (Mongolian: ??????) can be divided up into the following categories.

  • uruulyn / labial khoomii

  • tagnain / palatal khoomii

  • khamryn / nasal khoomii

  • bagalzuuryn, khooloin / glottal, throat khoomii

  • tseejiin khondiin, khevliin / chest cavity, stomach khoomii

  • turlegt or khosmoljin khoomii / khoomii combined with long song

Mongolians also sing in a style known as karkhiraa.

In the Altai Republic, throat singing, which they call kai, is used mostly in Epic poetry performance, to the accompaniment of topshur. Altay kai-chi perform in kargyraa, khöömei, sygyt styles, which are similar to Tuvan. They also have their own style, a very high harmonics, emerging from kargyraa. Variations of kai are called karkyra, sybysky, homei, and sygyt.

Just north of Tyva in the region of Khakassia there exist native styles of throat singing known as khai.

TibetanBuddhist chanting is a sub-genre of throat singing. Most often the chants hold to the lower pitches capable in throat singing. Various ceremonies and prayers call for throat singing in Tibetan Buddhism, often with more than one monk chanting at a time. Studies measuring the frequencies of the throat singing and the brain waves of the monks have shown synchronicity in the brain, causing it to emit similar waves to those found in studies of silent meditation.

The Bashkorts have a style of overtone singing, uedhlaew (sometimes spelled uzlyau; Bashkort: ?????), which nearly died out. In addition, Bashkorts also sing uzlyau while playing the kuray, a national instrument. This technique of vocalizing into a flute can also be found in folk music as far West as the Balkans and Hungary.

The oral poetry of Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan, and Kazakhstan sometimes enters the realm of throat singing.


In the Barbagia region on the

island of Sardinia, one of the two different styles of polyphonic singing is marked by the use of a throaty voice. This kind of song is called a tenore. The other style, known as cuncordu, doesn't use throatsinging. A tenore is practiced by groups of four male singers each of whom has a distinct role; the boche (pronounced /boke/, "voice") is the lead while the mesu boche ("half voice"), contra ("against") and bassu ("bass") - listed in descending pitch order - provide the accompaniment. Boche and mesu boche sing in a regular voice whereas the contra and bassu sing with a throat voice. The boche sings a poetic text while the accompaniment consists of nonsense syllables (for example bim-bam-bo). The execution differs in details between each of the villages where a tenore is sung to such an extent that the village can be immediately recognized. Some of the most well known groups who perform a tenore are Tenores di Bitti, Tenores di Oniferi and Tenores di Neoneli.

The resurgence of a once-dying Inuit throat singing tradition is underway in
Canada. Xhosa women of
South Africa have a style of chanting that falls in the category of throat singing. The Sami people have a singing genre called yoik that is often compared with throat-singing. While overtone techniques are not a defining feature of yoik, individuals sometimes utilize overtones in the production of yoik.

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