The practice of throat singing is found in Mongolia, Siberia (Tuva), and other parts of Central Asia. The earliest mention of the technique outside Eurasia was at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, where a number of Tuvan performers were “discovered” by an American delegation. A New York Times article described them as using their “throat and tongue for modifying the voice into guttural or falsetto notes.”
At this time, scholars debated whether these sounds constituted speech or music. Early phoneticians hypothesized that the timbre depended on which part of the mouth was used to form certain sounds; however, their attempts at replication failed because they did not understand that singing involves sounding only one with each breath taken—the sound of the voice is not continuous.
The current prevailing belief is that throat-singing created multiple sounds by altering and extending the resonant frequencies produced at different parts of the mouth, though it is unclear whether this was achieved through a shift in pitch or in timbre.
Larger musical ensembles, such as this Mongolian ensemble at a monastery in China, typically include an overtone singer. Throat-singing is often part of large song contests among both amateur and professional singers where range, volume, and vocal timbre are important judging criteria.
The style has influenced various western popular musicians such as Björk, Yoko Ono, The Five Corners Quintet, Diamanda Galás, Davidkes, Jill Jones, Matmos, Gesaffelstein, and Brooklyn Raga Massive.
There is a growing movement to teach the art of overtone singing in music conservatories around the world. Throat singing can be heard in many western opera productions.
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The term throat- or overtone-singing appeared in English literature only after the publication of “Tuvan Throat Singing” by Richard Feynman (1955).
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