In Tuva, legends about the origins of throat-singing assert that humankind learned to sing in such a way long ago. The very first throat-singers, it is said, sought to duplicate natural sounds whose timbres, or tonal colors, are rich in harmonics, such as gurgling water and swishing winds. Although the true genesis of throat-singing as practiced today is obscure, Tuvan pastoral music is intimately connected to an ancient tradition of animism, the belief that natural objects and phenomena have souls or are inhabited by spirits.
According to Tuvan animism, the spirituality of mountains and rivers is manifested not only through their physical shape and location but also through the sounds they produce or can be made to produce by human agency. The echo off a cliff, for example, may be imbued with spiritual significance. Animals, too, are said to express spiritual power sonically. Humans can assimilate this power by imitating their sounds.
Among the pastoralists, emulating ambient sounds is as natural as speaking. Throat-singing is not taught formally (as music often is) but rather picked up, like a language. A large percentage of male herders can throat-sing, although not everyone is tuneful. A taboo against female throat-singers, based on a belief that it causes infertility, is gradually receding, and younger women are beginning to practice the technique as well. The popularity of throat-singing among Tuvan herders seems to have arisen from a coincidence of culture and geography: on the one hand, the animistic sensitivity to the subtleties of sound, especially its timbre, and on the other, the ability of reinforced harmonics to project over the broad open landscape of the steppe. In fact, two decades ago concert performances were uncommon because most Tuvans regarded the music as too “down home” to spend money on. But now it leads a parallel public life. Professional ensembles have achieved celebrity status, and the favorite singers are symbols of national cultural identity
The most virtuosic practices of throat-singing are concentrated in Tuva (now officially called Tyva), an autonomous republic within Russia on its border with Mongolia, and in the surrounding Altai region, particularly western Mongolia. But vocally reinforced harmonics can also be heard in disparate parts of central Asia. Among the Bashkirs, a Turkic-speaking people from the Ural Mountains, musicians sing melodies with breathy reinforced harmonics in a style called uzliau. Epic singers in Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan and Kazakhstan introduce hints of reinforced harmonics in oral poetry, and certain forms of Tibetan Buddhist chant feature a single reinforced harmonic sustained over a fundamental pitch. Beyond Asia, the use of vocal overtones in traditional music is rare but not unknown. It turns up, for example, in the singing of Xhosa women in South Africa and, in an unusual case of musical improvisation, in the 1920s cowboy songs of Texan singer Arthur Miles, who substituted overtone singing for the customary yodelling.
The ways in which singers reinforce harmonics and the acoustical properties of these sounds were little documented until a decade ago, when Tuvan and Mongolian music began to reach a worldwide audience. Explaining the process is best done with the aid of a widely used model of the voice, the source-filter model. The source–the vocal folds–provides the raw sonic energy, which the filter–the vocal tract–shapes into vowels, consonants and musical notes.