Secret Knowledge: Tuvan Throat Singing

“First, you start purring like a lion,” says Chris Harris, a Coffee Educator & Account Manager at Sightglass. The art of Tuvan throat singing involves producing multiple tones simultaneously, including a low bass note like that of a big cat.

Chris learned Tuvan throat singing as a hobby, but it’s still widely practiced in the Russian republic of Tuva, which borders Mongolia.

The way our voices sound is the result of two separate phenomena, pitch and tone. Pitch is a fixed measurement, usually measured in hertz. No matter if you’re working with a kazoo or a french horn, any particular pitch is the same. But differences in tone are what make our voices distinct; why you might say one person’s voice is rich, and another’s is screechy.

A musical instrument can’t change its tone because it’s a rigid piece of wood or metal, but our bodies are soft and flexible, so our voices can create multiple tones. Tuvan throat singing takes advantage of this.

Throat singers create two sounds simultaneously, one in the throat and the other in the mouth. The learning process can be slow. “There’s a lot of hyperventilating involved,” says Chris. Once a low base tone is established in the throat, the singer produces another tone in the mouth simultaneously. “When you get it really strong you can feel it; it hovers in your mouth and you can move it around.” These two tones combine to form the distinctive sound of throat singing.

“There’s skill and a technique, but it’s not like virtuosity in a musical instrument. I didn’t need an instrument, I didn’t need a teacher, it was something I could just try on my own and practice until I could figure it out. It’s exciting to be able to do something with your voice that you would never normally do.”

“Secret Knowledge” is a regular feature that highlights an unexpected skill explained by a Sightglass team member.

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