A short history of throat singing, part 2

In part two of this series, we’re going to be talking a little about how exactly throat singing works: how they create those sounds, layer them, and create the final product that sounds as if four or five people are singing rather than just two.

       Taloyoak Junior Rangers Wendy Alookee and Dana Totalik, the accomplished young throat-singers who inspired this piece (photo by the Canadian Rangers).

Types of Sounds

The sounds created in throat singing fall into two binaries: voiced / unvoiced, and inhalation / exhalation.

Voiced sounds are those in which your vocal chords resonate; all vowels are voiced—if you sing o or i, you can feel it in your throat—whereas consonants can be voiced or unvoiced—you need your vocal chords to make an ‘T’ sound, but you don’t need them to make a ‘T’ or ‘S.’ Try it out; once you start thinking about when your throat vibrates and when it doesn’t, it’s pretty easy to differentiate between these groups of sounds.

The breathing sounds are pretty self-explanatory, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this means they’re not important. They are key to the art of throat-singing, because they can easily be layered on top of the vocal sounds, and add the percussive element that fills out any throat song.

Learning to Throat-Sing

As you can probably guess, throat-singing isn’t a skill that people have or don’t – it takes a lot of work to develop both the ear for the sounds, and the muscles that allow you to tighten or loosen your throat to create the sounds. You also need to learn how to mix the Inuktitut words with the meaningless sounds which make up the better part of throat songs.

Throat-singing teachers are becoming more common around Inuit groups since the ban on it was lifted a few decades ago. We’re all hoping that the younger generation continues to become interested in the art, so that future generations will benefit from having more teachers around to spread this rare talent.

Check out this video from Mark van Tongeren, an ethnomusicologist, who gives a little primer on the sounds of throat-singing.

He’s talking about the Tuvan tradition, which comes from Central Asia and differs significantly from the Inuit version. But, the breakdown of the creation of these sounds is nonetheless pertinent. Enjoy!