Research point – The music of Tuva

Posted on February 26, 2012


Music from the centre of Asia

Research Point

Music 1, Part one, Tibor Kovacs

 Tuva throat singing is traditional music practiced by people of Tuva Republic, an independent state within the Russian Federation, north to Mongolia. The independence and uniqueness of the country is very precious for its people as it was maintained by great sacrifice, resisting enormous pressure from the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. The dominant belief systems in the country are Shamanism and Buddhism.

Tuva throat singing is a simple and direct way to communicate from soul to soul, it is an expressive and clear form of music. The musicians are stretching the limits of the human voice providing a complete and special musical experience to the listener. Tuvan music is inspired by the sounds of objects in the natural environment, such as rivers, stones, mountains and animals, which were regarded as spiritual beings talking to people by the sounds they generated. Consequently, the music is powerful and authentic.

By listening to throat singing one can hear several pitches being sung simultaneously, usually two or three. The sounds are produced by combinations of lip and throat movements. The three main styles of throat singing are Khomeii, Sygyt and Kargyraa. In Khomeii one can hear a low pitch drone sound with one or two higher pitch harmonics. Sygyt is high pitch, more clear singing, reminiscent to whistling or the sound of a flute, which would usually form a melody floating above the drone. Kargyraa is a deep vibration, similar to the Tibetan Buddhist chant or perhaps to an earthquake. Certain rhythmical elements can also be employed, such as Borbangnadyr, which are like thrills, or Ezenggileer, reproducing the rhythm of horse riding.

Instruments accompanying the singers include:

–          Igil – a teardrop shape instrument with two strings bowed like a cello

–          Doshpuluur and Chanzy – instruments similar to the banjo

–          Byzaanchy – a traditional four stringed instrument

–          Chadaban – a plucked zither

–          Drums Kengirge, is a large frame drum, introduced into Tuva by the Tibetan Buddhists and Shyngyrash wich sits on the top of a Kengirge and is a set of bells threaded together, mimicking the sound of trotting horses

–          Xomus – jaw harp

–          Wind instruments – Murgu, Shoor and Limbi that are similar to the flute and the Amyrga, which is a horn.

Prominent ensembles include Alash, Hun-Huur-Tu, Chirgilchin and the female Tuva singers, Tyva Kyzy. Tuvan music was discovered in the Western world by people like Ralph Leighton, founder of the Friends of Tuva association and his friend, Richard Feynman, the great quantum physicist, who dreamed to visit Tuva land for long but couldn’t get a visa from the Soviet Union.

One of the best known throat singers is Kongar-ol Ondar, who has made fans in the western world by his great singing and jovial character. He toured in the United States and appeared in an interview on the CNN television and played with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

Kongar-ol Ondar – Big River

Kongar-ol was visited by American blind blues singer and composer Paul Pena and his friends, and the visit resulted in an inspiring documentary entitled Genghis Blues. Paul learned throat singing and Tuvan language on his own by listening to the few available Tuva records he could find and translating Tuvan texts first into Russian than to English. This has been a remarkable achievement given his health condition, i.e. being blind and suffering from depression. During their visit he won a throat singing competition, and recorded some music together:

Kongurei – Kongar-ol Ondar and Paul Pena

Tuva music contains unique rhythmic elements, complex interplay of harmonies and overtones which can be of interest for a contemporary musician. Also, it may revive the practice of getting tuned to the sounds (and souls) of our natural environment. Listening to Tuvan music (e.g. Tuva: Voices from the Centre of Asia record available on Spotify website), after a stressful day, for example, really takes me away giving the impression that I am walking on a riverside or on the top of a mountain. It re-fills me with joy of life, slows down the accelerated rhythm of an urban life and makes me think about things that are really important for me.


Tuva [online]. Wikipedia website. Available from:, [Accessed 28 January 2012]

 Tuvan throat singing [online]. Wikipedia website. Available from [Accessed on 28 January 2012]

 Richard Feynman [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 28 January 2012]

 Tuvan instruments [online]. Alash ensemble website. Available from: [Accessed on 28 January 2012]

Genghis Blues. (Documentary film written, directed and edited by Roco Belic, 1999 WADI RUM production)

Posted in: Part 1