Throat (Harmonic) Singing
Harmonic Singing (throat singing) is a technique of manipulating the mouth and throat to bring out harmonic overtones and undertones of the natural voice that resemble a whistle or growl. In Tuva and Mongolia throat singing is practiced by nomadic farmers (See Huun Huur Tu) and goes by the name "Khoomii". In Tibet, monks use throat singing technique when chanting Buddhist sutras (See Gyuto Monks). Essentially, what causes the harmonics is a standing wave, meaning the space created in the mouth or throat accomodates and amplifies a certain wavelength while cancelling out others. This is the same as the creation of tone in the Australian didgeridoo or indeed in a flute or other wind instrument.
There are several techniques involved in creating overtones and undertones of the voice. The high overtone or whistle is caused by shaping the tongue and lips to enhance the resonance of certain overtones which occur naturally in the voice. The standing wave is shaped with the mouth to create this effect. (See below for lessons on this type of singing) The undertone singing is done by creating a standing wave in the throat while slowly blowing air through the ventricular vocal folds. (Quietly immitate a creeking door with your voice to feel these.)

Recently I had an opportunity to study the methods of throat singing with Arjuna. Following is a transcript of Arjuna's explanation. Please visit to receive recordings or learn of his upcoming concerts and workshops.

In throat singing you have a high, mid and low tone. The Tuvans call them: Sagut, Homay and Kargura. They have very distinct techniques about where to put the tongue, the opening of the throat and where it resonates. But it is primarily a vocal technique and anyone can learn it and choose to go where you want. The key is the breathing. You will never reach the full complexity of your voice until you fully understand all the complexities and subltleties of your breath. Once you establish that flowing breath, nothing interferes with the sound. The only thing that may move is the tongue or the lips which can change the harmonics. So once your instrument is in place, the sound just flows out of you. A lot of singers do things with their throat or lift their chest or make things nasal when they shouldn't be. All of these things you will discover with your own instrument. But first I would like to talk about breathing.

First you need a good posture with a straight spine. If your posture is off, it throws off your tones. Have a relaxed, natural position of the neck. So once that's in place relax the stomach muscles to allow the diaphram to do its work. The tendency for a lot of people is they hold a lot of tension in the stomach. We are obsessed with keeping the stomach in. But if you relax the stomach and put your hands beneath the ribcage where the diaphram is and focus on that movement. The inhale is very important. Many people say, "Take a deep breath and relax." I say, "Take a comfortable breath." There's a big difference. Breathing through the nose is the way you should breathe as much as you can.

Most asthmatics breathe through their mouth and they hyperventilate. All great teachings talk about nasal breathing because there are all these nerve endings in the nose and as you breathe through your nose with the right amount of pressure it stimulates the nerves and some believe it gives more oxygen to the brain. There is a master throat singing teacher in Tuva who starts always by teaching people to inhale properly. What does that mean? You'll find that when you inhale, you only need enough breath to create the tone you want. A lot of singers take a deep breath and set up a lot of tension. It throws your balance and your center off. If you inhale too much, you miss a lot. So you will find a comfortable inhale that gives you enough to create the tone. Make sure when you inhale that there is no interference and then gently support the exhale. You don't need much support. You want a breath pressure, but not too strong or too weak or you aren't going to find those resonating cavities to reach those subtle tones. The inhale sets up the exhale and the exhale is so important. You need to discover just the amount of breath pressure you need to create these incredible tones. And remember, you want the full expansion around the ribcage and you want your back to expand as well. You don't want just the front pushing up on the diaphram.

I studied many different breathing techniques, Taoist, Chi-Gung, Pranayana. All of these can enhance your singing technique. But the important thing is getting in touch with your chi to get those overtones. So be sensitive to the breath and be sensitive to the chi. The Taoists and the Hindus do alternate nostril breathing to set up clarity in the nasal breathing. Breathing through the nose is important because that's where a lot of resonation takes place. And if you can, learn circular breathing. (didgeridoo technique) Alternate nostril breathing for the Hindus you take the thumb and ring-finger of the right hand and after inhaling and exhaling a comfortable breath, you close off the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left very comfortably. Then close off both nostrils and hold for a comfortable time and open the right nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Then hold for a moment and start again. The ratio is inhale on a six count and hold for a three count. The left nostril is considered feminine energy, the right is masculine. Throughout the day, one nostril will be more dominant, more open. If you sleep on your right side, the left nostril will be open and just the reverse. I used to always sleep with my mouth open and a teacher recommended to me to tape my mouth shut because when you sleep with your mouth open you will hyperventilate. The Taoists have a similar technique for alternate nostril breathing, but they try to get in touch with the chi. What they do for the inhalation through each nostril is create a channel that goes down the spine, and once the breath reaches the base of the spine you allow the chi to go up the spine to the crown chakra and come back down, then exhale through the other nostril. This method gets you aware of the chi so you are then able to move it about.

The Taoists use the thumb and little finger to block the nostrils. Now, to get in touch with your sound, it's good to start off by humming. When you hum you begin to feel the vibrations. It shows you where the resonating regions are and where the harmonics will be amplified. After you have taken your breath, don't rush the sound. Make sure you are very centered before you create the tone. Then always stop your tone before you completely run out of breath. If you rush the tone or hold it too long, that sets up a lot of tension.

Every vowel you sing has a certain tongue position which changes the mouth cavity that allows you to resonate in certain "forments" or resonating regions. The principle ones are in the back of the thoat, top of the mouth and opening of the mouth. So depending on what vowel you sing will determine which forment it is resonating in. So those regions are the ones we are going to tap into to amplify our harmonics. Also there are nasal, skull and sinuses. Your instrument has its unique places where your tones will resonate. So as we get into it, you will find certain resonating regions that will allow you to get your own harmonics. One of the sounds that is good to set up your instrument for harmonic singing is "Om". You can't do enough oms. Not just for your spiritual or meditation practice but just for what it does for your voice. So you want that comfortable breath and sing your om. Allow enough breath to finish the om and make sure you can resonate that "m" sound.



Scientific American: The Throat Singers of Tuva