Extract of “Overtone Singing” section of
Mongolian Music, Dance, & Oral Narrative Performing Diverse Identities
By Carole Pegg 2001

There are many different types of Mongolian overtone‑singing (höömii), all of which involve the sounding of a fundamental drone while simultaneously producing flute‑like notes in a series of chosen harmonics or partials of the fundamental. In most types, these high notes form a melody. A third note is sometimes distinguished, in the pitch range between drone and melody.

Although now performed by ensemble performers in Ulaanbaatar, höömii is a phenomenon of West Mongolia, performed by Western Khalkhas, Baits, Torguts, and Altai Urianghais(Tsoloo INb), and shared by some Turco-­Mongol peoples north of the north-western Mongolian border. Ensemble performers in Mongolia are all Western Khalkhas from Chandman’ sum,Hovd, although Western Khalkhas in Gov’‑Altai aimagwere also perform­ing it in the 1950s (Kara IN). The fact that this ethnic group is the source of the höömiirevival in Mongolia, even though it is not performed by Central Khalkhas, may be related to the communist regime’s attempts to create a socialist national identity based on the traditional performing arts of Khalkha Mongols.

Prior to being elevated during the 1930s and 1940s into a national and classical art form, höömiiwas used for a variety of purposes. The Western Khalkha Gereltsogt (IN) recalled two contexts: his herdsman father, “Singer” Sereeter (Duuch Sereeter), performed “With a cup” (ayagatai) to lull the baby to sleep and without a cup to call yaks in the mountains. höömiiis used by Urianghais (Tuvans) for both of these purposes (Pegg 1992b:36; Van Tongeren 1994:37‑39) and in other contexts within the home. The Bait Mongol Düüdei (IN) recalled how, during her childhood in Tes dis­trict, Uvs, Urianghai herders came from Tuva to gather sea buckthorn berries, which they used for medicinal purposes. Bringing with them camels and much baggage, the herders often spent four or five days in her father’s tent, during which time they performed höömii. This may not have been informal performance. Düüdei recalled that, prior to performing,they would always repeat the following couplet, referring to the territory and people of that place.

Altai santai ziirhentei, Amban noyon zahirgaatai.
With Altai offerings at its heart, Under jurisdiction of [Manchu] governors and princes.

This short introduction suggests that, in some circumstances, höömiiwas treated with respect. The only other example I have encountered of it being performed on official occasions is among Baits in Uvs, who used it during wedding celebrations when “seeing off the bride” (chigee uulgah). Tsaatans, in övsgöl, northwest Mongolia, still use it for hunting (Sanjim IN).

There is no firm evidence of a date for the origin of höömiin Mongolia. Writings of early travellers, such as Marco Polo and Rubruck (Dawson 1955), refer to musicians and singers in the context of courts and homes, and the fourteenth‑century Mongol dynastic history “Yiian‑shih “cites three‑hundred member court orchestras, musicians, and singers, but höömii is not men­tioned in any of these sources. One of the earliest apparent references to overtone‑singing appears in Serruys’s translation of a sixteenth‑century Chinese document, containing a description of songs that have beaucoup de sons de la gorge et des lèvres, that is, “many sounds from the throat and the lips” (1945,’153). Another possible description of overtone‑singing occurs in a sixteenth‑ century French poem (cited in Lèothaud 1989):

J’ay veu, comme il me semble, Ung fort homme d`honneur,  Luy seul chanter ensembk,  Et dessus et teneur                    
 I saw, it seems to me, A strong man of honour,  Singing together with himself both above and below

For Western Khalkhas of Chandman’, the origin of höömiilies in legendary rather than historical time, in the imaginative space of Mongolia’s “deep past when the legendary Bazarsadperformed at nair. Margad (IN), age fifty, recalled that as a boy he heard old people talk of Bazarsad of Chandman’, who lived in “ancient times.” They described him as tall, very strong, and a champion wrestler. In 1923, when the horseman Dashdondov was five years old, he heard that Bazarsad was the first to perform höömii in Chandman’ (IN). It was said that he used a combination of long‑song with different types of höömiiand that when he performed in this way the spir­its of land and water came to listen to him (Tserendavaa INc). Although no‑one living actually met or heard Bazarsad, it is affirmed that none can match his skill. By contrast, there are those who remember Chimiddorj, who performed three‑voiced höömii.

Styles (töröl) and methods (arga baril) vary in Mongolia according to ethnicity as well as the ability of the individual performer. Ethnic groups developed their own terminologies for different types of overtone‑singing. Sometimes the style is shared with other groups but has different names. Bait Mongol “root of the tongue” (helnii ug) style (Mangi1jav IN) corresponds to Western Khalkha glottal, or throat, overtone‑singing (bagalzuuryn, hooloin höömii) (CD: 18). However, some ethnic groups have styles peculiar to their group. Tseveen, a forty‑year‑oldDörbet Mongol from Ölgii sum, Uvs, demonstrated two such styles: Altai Urianghai hargia, for which he cupped his hand to his mouth, and Kazakh “tooth overtone‑singing” (shüdnz höömii) (Tseveen IN). Pülrev, a thirty‑four‑year‑old Tuvan from Bayan Ölgii used the term höömii for his very low‑pitched biphonic sound; when using melodic overtones derived from a drone, pitched in higher register, he denied that this was höömii. When demonstrating sounds produced in “the old time,” Pülrev growled impressively from deep in the chest, generating the very low fundamental AA, and referred to this as hargaraa.  There was no melody but overtones on A and a (Carolann IN).

Western Khalkhas in Chandman’ have offered three different classifications of höömii. Sundui, considered a possible match for Bazarsad demonstrated how harmonics could be isolated and reinforced by using combinations of parts of the vocal tract‑back or front of throat, nasal passages, chest‑with different vocal sounds (DesJacques 199 1D). Gereltsogt (IN), the brother of Ganbold, both of whom are now professional performers in Ulaanbaatar, uses four types of höömii: nasal (hamryn), “by whistle” (isgeree), harhiraa (see below), and “with pressure” (shahalttai), all of which may be performed with or without glottal stops (tsohilt). He related the latter, which may be combined with lyrics, to the vocal technique used for epic performance, häälah (CD: 15). Tserendavaa, a truck‑driver, skilled musician, and singer, together with the renowned Mongolian musicologist Badraa, identified seven types of overtone‑singing. During the tour of England that I organized in 1988, Tserendavaa demonstrated six of these, all of which use harmonics to form a melody, heard as a melodic whistle (uyangiin isgeree).

labial (uruulyn)‑fundamental c (167‑68 Hz), range of overtones b’’‑c#’’’’.
palatal (tagnain) ‑fundamental e (167‑68 Hz), range b’‑c#’’’’ 
nasal (hamryn)‑fundamental f# (182‑83 Hz), range c#’’’‑c#’’’’
glottal, throat (bagalzuuryn, hooloin) ‑fundamental c (17o Hz), range, b’’‑b’’’’.
chest cavity, stomach (tsedjiin höndiin, hevliin) ‑fundamental a (214‑15 Hz), range e … ~c.
with türleg (türlegtl) ‑fundamental g (202‑203 Hz), range d”‘‑d’’’’  (CD: 19)    

Tserendavaa employed the same overtone melody in labial and palatal höömii and a second melody for nasal, chest cavity, and glottal höömii. His use of the seventh and eleventh partials as auxiliary rather than structural pitches supports the suggestion that five main pitches were used traditionally. Türlegt höömii, called hosmooin höömii by researchers in Ulaanbaatar, combines speaking (heleh), singing (duulah), humming (ayalah), long‑song melodies, and the other five melodic höömiitypes. Following the legendary Bazarsad, Tserendavaa developed this style over a period of ten years and first demonstrated it in the United States in 1987. The melody Tserendavaa used for the song “Jalargaltain Delger” (Widespread Happiness), performed in Türlegthöömii, is a Western Khalkha version with a smaller range than its Central “khalkha equivalent, “Ovgön Shuvuu” (Old Man and Bird).

Tserendavaa identified a seventh non‑melodic overtone‑singing style, harhiraahöömiiwhich he compared to the sound of a rippling waterfall. Badraa (IN) pointed out that harhiraauses harmonics or overtones but does, not attempt to create melodies with them. Tserendavaa was unable to demon­strate this style, since it requires a deep, powerful voice. Margad (IN), a herdsman from Chandman’ district, described harhiraaas the oldest form of höömiiiand the background colour or tone (devsger öngö) out of which oth­ers developed. In his performance of harhiraa, Margad used fundamental B as a drone and melodic overtones within the range b”‑g (CD:20).Harhiraa is characteristic of Bait Mongolian höömiiwhich, as an old record­ing of harhiraa höömii in the Ulaangom Museum archive illustrates, sounds similar to Tuvan overtone‑singing perhaps not surprising with the frequent occurrence of inter border marriage and fostering in the pre-communist era. Given the importance that Mongols place on the relationship between music and landscape, the presence of the Harhiraa range of mountains in Uvsprovince may also be of significance.

In Old Mongolia, höömiiwas performed only by men, which may have been the result of folk‑religious beliefs, but it is now explained in terms of bodily strength. Tserendavaa warned that both hamryn(nasal) and türletior hosmooin(combination) höömii are characterized by blood rushing (chineh) to the face and are very difficult to perform: nasal höömiiibecause a powerful flow of air is forced through a small nasal channel and tiirlegt höömii because of the combinations required. As a child, he injured his larynx while learning, and, as an adult, he lost consciousness during perfor­mances on occasion, breaking blood vessels near his eyes, for which he had needed surgery. He advised eating a good meal before performance and discontinuing the practice in advanced years. Davaajav, a chest‑cavity over­tone‑singer (tsedjnii höndiin höömiich), supported Tserendavaa’s views in the light of his own experience and suggested that performing höömiialso affected the ability to sing well. Because of the strength required, a lengthy training period is needed, and it is preferable to begin in childhood (Tserendavaa INb;Sengedorj IN). A distinction is made between learning and performing. Childhood should be a period of learning; performing must not begin until maturity. Aids are sometimes used to acquire a good höömiivoice: a cup is held to the mouth to provide an echo (ayagaar deveh, lit. to fan by means of a cup), or a pupil is made to höömii1öh against the wind (salhny ögsüürhöömiilöh). Once a good höömiivoice is acquired, such devices are no longer neces­sary. Tserendavaa began learning when he was nine, but he did not per­form until he was twenty‑five. Traditionally, learning is by example and imitation, and Tserendavaa (IN) vividly recalled his first experience. He described how one evening when he was a child a `white‑haired, bearded, old man looking for two lost horses rode up on a grey horse that shone like silver.” The man, later identified as the höömiichChuluun, spent three nights in the family tent. During this time, Tserendavaa listened to his over­tone‑singing and learned to play the horse‑head fiddle. To repay his debt to this man, Tserendavaa became a höömiich. Chuluun stressed to Tseren­davaa that höömii is a difficult art that demands self‑control, endurance, and great strength. As an illustration of the power needed, Tserendavaa described how the legendary Bazarsad’s hair stood on end when he per­formed, and Tserendavaa compared the strength needed with that required for wrestling, pointing out that the two most renowned höömiich, Bazarsad and Sundui, were also famous wrestlers. The ideal age for wrestling is twenty-­five years old, said by Mongols to mark the peak of male strength. Unless the performer has this strength, together with the other qualities indicated by Chuluun, höömiiperformance is believed to be physically harmful in both general and specific ways.

Badraa (INa) related höömiito the art of whistling (isgeree), which has its own techniques and methodology and which, in addition to being used to control animals, is believed to communicate with the God of the Wind. Tserendavaa (INa) identified two types of whistling‑labial (uruulyn) and dental (shüdnii). Other vocal and instrumental imitative calls are used in everyday activities, such as herding, hunting, and milking, to lure, control, and encourage animals. 

In pre-revolutionary Mongolia, the performance of höömii is reported by Mongols as not valued. This may have been because it was part of a sec­ular tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation but was in decline (Sengedorj IN) or it may have been because of associa­tions with folk‑religious beliefs. Old people in Chandman’ sum, Hovd aimag, attributed its decline to the predominance of Buddhism and the disapproval of the lamas. Under communism, höömiibecame imbued with special value, as did other selected aspects of the “music of the people,” and found sup­port from “People’s power” (Tserendavaa INb). The new development of overtone‑singing came from Chandman’ through individual höömiich. Brief biographies of key individuals will help to explain their contributions to this process.

Togoon Chuluun was a Western Khalkha born in the 1890’s who, in addition to performing höömii, whistled, played the tsuur, and excelled on the horse‑head fiddle. Before the revolution, he often used his skills when travelling with a camel train to secure himself food and lodgings in ger along the route. There is some disagreement about whether Chuluun learned overtone‑singing from the declining tradition in Chandman’ and later improved his performance while doing military service in the West Border Guards, or whether he learned the skill while in the Guards. In any event, it was Chuluun who, in 1930, first demonstrated höömii as a “folk art” Tamba IN). He had many pupils, including the now well‑known höömiich:, Tserendavaa. These pupils developed höömii into a national art form capable of winning many medals in folk art competitions.    

Tsedee is the man credited with introducing höömii to the rest of the country. He lived close to Lake Har Nuur and learned höömii from Chuluun. In 1950, Tsedee joined the Musical Drama Theatre of Hovd Province (Hovd Aimgiin Högjimt Dramyn Teatr), becoming the first professional höömii per­former in Mongolia. In 1954, this theatre visited the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to present a dekada or ten‑day concert, and Tsedee became the first per­son to perform höömii there. Höömii was subsequently officially recognized as a professional art.

Sundui is considered to be the founder of what has been termed the modern classical form” of höömii (Tserendavaa INb). He is said to be unique among höömii performers in that he can produce half tones in addition to the usual full tones.` He can perform classical European melodies by com­posers such as Tchaikovsky and Bizet (Batzengel 198o:52) and is able to make vocal leaps over wide intervals (Sengedorj IN). He has a high tech­nical level of höömii performance and is able to produce “a scale using four vowels” (gammalah dörvön egshig) (TserendavaalNc).” Sundui’s main attrib­utes are said to be good storage capacity in the stomach (hevliin baglaamj saitai), good throat sounds (duuny hooloi saitai), and great physical strength (mash ih tamirtai). Sundui later joined the State Folksong and Dance Ensemble (Ulsyn Ardyn Duu Büjgiin Chuulga) in Ulaanbaatar and has now retired. He had many pupils, among them Sengedorj, now with the Hovd Theatre, and Tserendavaa.

Nanjid Sengedorj had no formal musical education but joined the Hovd Theatre in 1975. He learned höömii in Chandman’ at about the age of five, performed in the tenth Festival of Young People and Students, and has since travelled widely in Eastern Europe.

Ganbold, who is still a young man, is currently with the Ulaanbaatar Ensemble and also from Chandman’. He is able to perform a scale (gam­malah) on more vowels than Sundui(Tserendavaa INc).     

Since all activities in pre-socialist Mongolia were intertwined with reli­gious beliefs, it is likely that höömii also had folk‑religious connotations. This theory is supported by the fact that höömii is related by Mongols to the vocal technique Häälah, used in the ritual performance of epics. It is perhaps because of a former religious association that Mongols surround höömiiper­formance with rules and regulations. But it is also related to the fact that performance of the more difficult types of höömiimay cause physical dam­age, while sustained performance of less difficult types causes physical changes that may also have adverse effects (PCgg 1992).