Space, Physics, and Math

How Tuvan vocalists sing two notes at once

These master musicians use the fundamental principles of sound to sculpt their overtone harmonies

February 17, 2022
Three Tuvan men, the members of Alash, stand in a green field holding instruments. Horses graze in the background.
The three members of the Tuvan music ensemble Alash — from left, Ayan-ool Sam, Bady-Dorzhu Ondar and Ayan Shirizhik —  are master vocalists and instrumentalists and have toured all over the world. [Credit: Alashensemble.com / Wada Fumiko | Used with permission]

The Republic of Tuva, located in the Russian Federation, is known across the world for its music. If you’ve ever heard Tuvan vocalists sing, you’ll understand why. A piercing whistle hovers over a deep, buzzing drone — two very different sounds coming from the same singer’s vocal tract as he harmonizes with himself.

So how do these master vocalists sing two notes at once? The answer lies in the most fundamental principles of sound. And in theory, anyone can learn to do it. 

On this episode of the Scienceline podcast, experience the captivating beauty of Tuvan throat singing and the physics that makes it possible. 

Effects:
Acoustic data from Bergevin et al. (2020) | Used with permission

Music:
My Throat” by Alash | Used with permission
Karachal” by Alash | Used with permission

About the Author

Allison Parshall

Allison Parshall has always felt torn between her loves for science and writing. She studied psychology and cognitive science at Georgetown University before pursuing her passion for storytelling as a documentary filmmaker. Now she is combining her interests as a science journalist-in-training at SHERP to tell stories about neuroscience, health, and their interactions with the world around us. Besides writing, she enjoys creating music, learning languages, and ballroom dancing.

Discussion

2 Comments

Nice article! I’ve visited Tuva three times and write a lot about the Alash Ensemble. The book is called My Adventures in Tuva.

Broacher says:

For another amazing polyphonic demo, check out Anna:
https://youtu.be/vC9Qh709gas

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