A look into a Tuvan throat singing ensemble

A Tuvan throat singing ensemble from Siberia has toured the world, demonstrating both their cultural heritage, as well as their vocal mastery. Their incredible ability to sing many pitches simultaneously has inspired wonder and a deep appreciation for their craft. How they achieve these otherworldly sounds is being explored by speech pathologist Aaron Johnson.

TRANSCRIPT

A Tuvan throat-singing ensemble from Siberia has toured the world, demonstrating both their cultural heritage, as well as their vocal mastery.

Their incredible ability to sing many pitches simultaneously has inspired wonder and a deep appreciation for their craft.

How they achieve these otherworldly sounds is being explored by speech pathologist Aaron Johnson.

Our partner, 'Science Friday' brings us the story.

♪♪

If you've never heard of Tuvan throat singing or seen it performed... the first time that you do, you might think that there's some audio trickery at work.

[ Throat singing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ All throat singing ] ♪♪

But the singers in the band Alash produce transcendent sounds like these solely through the mastery of bioacoustics.

♪♪

[ Exhales deeply ] [ Cheers and applause ]

Tuvan throat singer Bady-Dorzhu Ondar speaks softly offstage.

I start early, four, five years old.

You're about to see the first child from Tuva to perform here in the United States.

For those of you who don't know, Tuva is a country located between Siberia and Mongolia, and the people there have this uncanny way of singing two notes at the same time.

[ Throat singing ] Yes, first time, you know, not hurt -- tickles, tickle.

[ Cheers and applause ]

So, what's Bady's secret?

Yes, I listen and try.

Yes, every day, I try.

It's a bit more complicated than that.

Just ask the band's manager, Sean Quirk.

So, the way we explain it to school kids is that, every time we make a musical note, there's lots of notes that are already there.

Those are called overtones, and normally we don't hear them as separate notes, because they're all blended together, but a Tuvan is squeezing for some of those overtones to get louder and the rest to go away.

[ Throat singing ]

To find out exactly what they're squeezing, you have to look inside.

This is Dr. Aaron Johnson, a speech pathologist at the NYU Langone Voice Center.

And while he doesn't throat sing, he can reveal how a baritone can achieve soprano-pitched overtones.

We have two pieces of tissue here in the larynx called the vocal folds, and the air then makes those vocal folds vibrate.

[ Vocalizing ]

Good, so those are the vocal folds vibrating...

The speed of which changes the pitch.

[ High-pitched vocalizing ]

Good and now super low.

[ Low-pitched vocalizing ] Good, and so now we're starting to see a little bit how things compress during the throat singing in those low notes.

We get a really small tube down there.

But that's not all that changes.

By changing the shape of my tongue and my lips, I then create different resonances.

The soft palate is moving around, the height of the larynx.

We see the larynx moving up and down, as well, all to change the shape of that tune.

[ Throat singing ]

Dramatically reducing unwanted frequencies while strengthening others at the same time.

That space that's inside the larynx just above the vocal folds is a very tight constriction.

That's probably what is amplifying those high harmonics.

Essentially, the Tuvan singers are using their throat a little like a sound mixer.

By creating different constrictions, you're lifting the slider up on certain frequencies and lowering the slider on other ones.

And by using audio-imaging tools, you can actually see the two distinct harmonics that are produced by a throat singer.

And if I go -- [ Vocalizing at various pitches ] You can see that we have these different harmonics that are being amplified.

But with a throat singer...

We have one resonance that's down here that's staying pretty constant.

And then, by adjusting the length and shape of the vocal tract, a singer can amplify certain harmonics.

[ Throat singing ]

Throat singers also squeeze and vibrate different regions of their larynx to produce that low, raspy-style singing known as Kargyraa.

[ Kargyraa singing ]

These pink tissues, kind of bulges above the true vocal folds, are the ventricular folds, also called the false vocal folds.

Those aren't designed to vibrate in a regular way, so you're getting some irregular vibrations with those pieces of tissue that causes that scratchiness, that noise.

[ Kargyraa singing ]

But just because you can physically produce these sounds doesn't mean that you can master them.

For Bady and Ayan and Ayan-Ool, this is the thing that they grew up in.

It's so deeply tied up with the culture and with the way Tuvan people view the world, and that is a world view that is built on a long, long history of being a nomad.

That means you're very attentive to the cycles of nature, you're attentive to the sounds of nature.

People say, 'Oh, it's in our blood.'

And it's like, 'Yeah, that's magical.'

Don't get me with that nonscientific stuff, but I feel there is a case to be made for at least something like that.

A soul to the music that just can't be taught.

[ Throat singing ] ♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ]