Vocal Music of Mongolia


Mongolia being a nomadic nation has developed a strong tradition of vocal music. The closeness to nature and the animal husbandry that the Mongolians have embraced for hundreds of years has enabled a variety of amazing vocal styles to develop. They can be divided into a number of categories: Long Song, Short Song, khöömii, Praise, Epic, Legend Songs, Games Songs, imitations and Sacred/Animist Song.


Urtyn Duu (Long Song)


For the Mongolians, “Long Song” evokes the vast drawn out steppes. Its nostalgic tendencies generate a preference for slow tempos, long melodic lines, wide pitch intervals and the absence of measured rhythm. The scale used is a five note (pentatonic) scale with no semi tones. Long songs are sung by women and men and are usually accompanied by the Morin Khuur (Horse Head Fiddle) or sometimes the Limbe (Transverse Flute). The basic melody of the long song is embellished by improvisations using trills, glissandos and glottal style yodelling effects. The words are treated in a melismatic way with nonsense syllables and vowels worked in to add to the overall effect. However there are strict rules concerning vowel harmony. Each singer may have a favourite melody in which he or she will sing the words for a number of different long songs.


Some of the long songs are heard in context and form part of a ritual event such as introductory songs to the family or public ceremonies. Some are to accompany traditional activities such as Nadaam (festival/sports events) or animal husbandry. Long song can also be non contextual and can be performed as entertainment after the formal ritual of festivals, whilst riding or simply as a means of self-expression.


There are three main types of Long Song, “Aizam Urtyn Duu” (extended long song), “Tügeemel Urtyn Duu” (normal long song) and “Besreg Urtyn Duu” (abbreviated long song).  Each of the different Yastan (group) has different long songs and long song styles associated with them. For instance the extended long song is mainly used by the Eastern and Central Khalkh Mongolians, whilst the abbreviated long song, is used by the Western Khalkh Mongolians. The best long song singers are meant to come from Dund Gobi (middle Gobi) aimag.


Long song is a very difficult style to master involving a huge vocal range and great control. I visited a school in Ulaanbaatar where they teach both western opera and traditional singing. You could tell that western classical training was creeping into the long song style. However it is out in the countryside where the real magic of Urtyn Duu lies and will remain strong as long as the nomadic culture of Mongolia remains.


The premier female long song singer is Norovbanzad (pictured left). She was born in 1931 in a herding family in Dund Gobi aimag. She learnt her long song in the countryside and her quality of voice is less influenced by the western classical singing tradition. I recommend the following CD’s that she features on.


Urtiin Duu, Namdziliin Norovbanzad : JVC 5394-2 (1996). Virtuosos from the Mongolian Plateau : King Records World Music Library King 5177 (August 1992). Mongolian Songs : King Records World Music Library King 5133 (released 1988) and Mongolian Folk Music (various) : Hungarton HCD18013/14 (recordings from 1967) Norovbanzad  is on this CD as well as many other singers.


Bogino Duu (Short Song)


The short song differs from the long song by precise rhythm and extreme vivacity of performance. They still utilise the pentatonic scale and can be accompanied by small ensembles. It is an easier style and more flexible to manage than long song and thus has kept its popularity through performance more than the long song has. Short songs or Bogino Duu contain a wide range of themes and include drinking songs, working songs, lullabies and songs about animals particularly the horse. Once of the best female short song singers is Uench, whom I met with the Tumen Ekh ensemble in Ulaanbaatar and in Britain. She has not been recorded much. The only recording of her that I have were made by the Tibet Foundation, “Sounds of Mongolia with Tumen Ekh Ensemble : (Cassette only release from the Tibet Foundation recorded in 1992)”.


Magtaal (Praise Songs), Tuul (Epics) & Domog (Legends)


The Mongol epic "Tuul" in the west of Mongolia or Ulger elsewhere, belongs to the great heroic tradition of central Asia. A noble and exclusively masculine genre, formerly highly developed, it only survives in fragmentary or reduced forms. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by the Tobshuur a two stringed lute in the west of Mongolia and the Morin Khuur or horse head fiddle elsewhere. Sometimes the Dorvon Chikhtei Khuur or four-eared fiddle is used as when I visited Tserendoij in Ulaanbaatar.


Two song genres may be considered as the living representative of the epic. The Domog or legend is an epic fragment or summary, the Tuukhen Duu is a historical version of the Domog, which relates real historical events.


Praise Songs or Magtaal, particularly from the west of Mongolia have a spiritual dimension associated with them. Tserendaava explained that during the communist times the words of the Praise song to the Altai Mountains were subtly changed to hide the veneration and prayer aspect of this Magtaal. It was Tserendaava along with other Magtaal singer Arivmed that reintroduced the prayer like nature once more.


Most Mongolian CD’s have a version of Altai Magtaal on them. Javgaan has one of the biggest recorded repertoires of Magtaal that I know, also Check out Tserendavaa’s CD’s. Mongolian Folk Music (various) : Hungarton HCD18013/14 (recordings from 1967) has the origin of the Morin Khuur Domog on it and is worth checking out.


Khöömii (Mongolian Overtone Singing)


This is just a short incomplete section. Please see the main khoomii section for a more in depth explanation. khöömii is a magical style of singing found in the central Asian Altai mountain range. It is particularly strong in Western Mongolia, Tuva (which is part of the Russian Federation), the Gorno Altai region, Karkhassia, Baskhiria and the Kalmyk Mongol region by the Volga River.


Khöömii is known as Overtone singing in the west and is a technique which allows one person to sing two or even three distinct pitches at the same time. The singer utilises the harmonic or overtone series to do this.


The Mongolians have learnt to isolate each of the harmonics to enable them to play their traditional melodies. The melodies will always emanate from the fundamental or drone note. In splitting the harmonic series the Mongolians have isolated the atoms of sound. They have understood sounds nature.


A very brief history of Mongolain khöömii


No one knows exactly where and when khöömii comes from. It may have its roots as far back as the times of Chingiss Khan or even before with the Turkic nomads of the central Asian plateau. Gereltosgt says that there is mention of a khöömii singer in the Secret History of the Mongols, a genealogy of the Mongolian people and a history of Chinghis Khan that dates to the thirteenth century. Carole Pegg a musicologist from Cambridge University reports that a 16th century Chinese document containing a description of songs which have "Many sounds from the throat and lips" could be a reference to khöömii. It was not until the late 19th century that Russian and French explorers documented the two voiced singing of the Bashkirs that we have a definite sighting of khöömii. According to the Mongolians khöömii's “birth place” is in Chandman Sum in the west of Mongolia. However split note singing is also found in other places. They mainly centre around the Altai and Sayan mountain ranges.

Tuva an autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation has a strong tradition of Khoomei. The Tuvans have many styles of khoomei. Please see the many web pages on Tuvan Khoomei for more details The Gorno Altai region offers us Kai/ Koomoi throat singing, Khakassia Khai, Bashkiria Uzlyau & Tamak Kuria, all types of two voiced singing.


In Chandman Sum Tserendaava, showed me where he was born. All I could see was a small hill that some sheep and goats were grazing on. They were overlooking Khar Us Nuur, Black water lake, Khar Nuur, Black lake and Dorgon Nuur to the north, through to the south and the Jargalant Altai mountains to the west. One of the legends about the origins of khöömii is about the very plain I was standing in.


Tserendaava told me the story. The wind blows onto the three lakes creating a resonant sound that is echoed in the Jargalant Mountains for anything up to three days. Finally the sound is released onto the Chandman plain below. Alas there was no wind blowing on that day but one day I will be there to hear the magical story unfold in reality.


Most of the other theories about the origin of khöömii are connected with the sounds of nature or supernatural events.


Birds are said to produce khöömii like sounds especially the bittern, which makes a special sound when its head is under water. The crane call and the sound of the snow cocks wings are said to be khöömii like. khöömii is sometimes referred to as voice echo or birds echo.


The sounds of water running between rocks and in particular the sound of the river Eev are said to be where the origins of khöömii lie. No one knows the exact location of the river but the Tuvans, Uriangkhai and western Khalkh Mongolians all say that khöömii was connected to the rivers magical properties. My video, the who's who of khöömii starts with the melody, the flow of the river Eev being played on a Tsuur an instrument with strong links with khöömii. Some of the rivers magical properties were to produce very good singers and very beautiful people.


Please go to the main khoomii section for more information on the many styles and techniques used in Mongolian khöömii and the list of recorderd Mongolain khöömi singers


Amaar Limbedekh


This is another amazing style of singing which has to be heard, to be believed. Amaar Limbedekh is the vocal imitation of a flute (limbe). Imagine an extremely fast high-pitched glottal type yodel singing of a melody. There is also a recording of Khamaraar Limbedekh, which is the imitation of a flute through the nose! During my visits to Mongolia I only heard singers trying to reproduce this style, none of them seemed to have any great success when compared to the recorded versions that I have heard. Maybe this art has died out, or maybe I just need to get to the right aimag (province), Mongolia is a big place!


You can hear four short melodies on Jargalant Altai (various artists) : Pan Records Pan 2050CD (recordings from the 1960’s to 1994) and one even shorter selection on Musique et Chants de tradition populaire Mongolie (various artists) Grem G7511 (recorded september October 1985) and if you can find it a short selection on the very rare LP, Chants Mongols et Bouriates : : :Vogue  LDM 30138 (recorded 1973).


Back to Overview of Mongolian music main page