Traditional Mongolian music

adapted from Boris Avramets

Legends | Exclaimation singing | Throat singing | Shamans | Instruments

Mongolia, with its relatively small population, has a strikingly rich and varied traditional musical culture. It combines archaic elements dating from ancient times with musical traditions connected with borrowings dating from later periods. Traditional music was influenced deeply by the lifestyles and economy, as well as by the beliefs of the Mongols. Many specific features of Mongolian music the way the sound is produced vocally, the timbre and coloring of the sound, the way musical instruments are played all of this is determined by the close relationship of music to the natural environment and by the Mongol's notions about the essence of music and its purpose. It is a reflection of the relationship between people and nature as seen through the patterns of its inherited and evolving logic.

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Legends & Herdsmen  

It is not by chance that folk legends link the origin of some instruments and Mongolian music as such with the sounds of nature: the noise of the wind, or rivers and waterfalls, the cries of animals and birds. From the beginning of time it seems Mongolian tribes were engaged in cattle-breeding. A typical figure of the traditional Mongolian society is the shepherd arat,who wandered with his herds for weeks and weeks, facing only wide, boundless space. The key role of horses in the traditional lifestyle was reflected in the legends about the creation of the most important traditional Mongolian musical instrument- the spike fiddle Morinkhuur.

Although the legends are variously stated they all contain the following common elements: a cultural hero who is a nomadic cattle-breeder, and his friend - a winged steed. In the horses mane, which flutters in the wind, an enchanting melody appears; its sounds help the cattle-breeder to drive the horse-herds together. An evil witch interferes through the medium of the hero's jealous wife. She cuts the steed's wings and it dies. The inconsolable hero makes from the steed's remnants the first Morinkhuur. The Morinkahuur, or pike fiddle, consists of a trapezoidal wooden frame covered with horse's skin. In earlier days horse-ribs were used as the shaft of the bow. At the top of the wooden peg-box of the fiddle that head of a horse is carved. It is worth noting that when the legend about the origin of the Morinkhuur is performed, the singer, while playing the instrument, imitates neighing and the clattering of hoofs, and reproduces the sensation of galloping and flight using expressive melodic, rhythmical and onomatopoeic devices.

These ancient forms of musical expression directly connected with cattle-breeding and hunting, have been carried over to our time. Among these forms are exclamations-incantations and invocations-calls addressed to animals; instrumental playing, and melodic whistling. Many examples of more modern Mongolian music are closer to the western concept but are still rooted in melodic formulas as the types of expression dating from ancient times. Gyngo, or shepherd's signals-exclamations used to drive together herds are widely used in the open steppe spaces. It is worth noting that every arat family has its own favored and freely varied melodious cries usually sung by adolescent riders. The signal is often a long melodic phrase with a complex modal and rhythmical structure.

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Exclaimation singing  

Traditional competitions in archery were accompanied by group, actually, choral songs engaged in by all participants, and made up of special sung exclamations. The performing of collective exclamational refrain Uuhailakh has long been connected with competitions in national wrestling, and with races. In both cases the chorus of those present repeats the glorification of the winner in wrestling or of the horse-winner. According to the famous Russian investigator of Mongolian music B.F. Smirnow 1975 a collective game in deer bones Shagai is still one of the most common everyday past times. The game is accompanied by a continuous exclamational singing of the participants and the onlookers. Shagai-uuhai, as well as Surin-uuhai, during bow-shooting, reflect in their whimsical melodic and heterophonic-choral singing, all the peripetias of the ancient game's progress. Exclamational singing gave rise to non-textual accompanying songs such as Unshuu, which horsemen sing during their wanderings in the steppe. At the same time such songs function as a specific means of signalling, making it possible to recognize the singing shepherd across great distances.

The purpose of communicating across considerable distances and the expression of man's contact with majestic nature determined, to a considerable extent, the purely musical peculiarities of one of the highlights of Mongolian traditional music: the long songs called Urtin Duu. Urtin Duu is a strophic song without real refrain, performed with a full voice. The voice production is trained and guttural. The ornaments are largely improvised. The range up to three octaves and the size of intervals may be considerable, and this range is emphasized by the frequent passage from throat voice to falsetto. Urtin Duu are performed by women too, but male performances are characterized by greater variety of specific ways of sound production. In the highest registers their vibration and tremolos bear witness to a highly developed vocal technique. To expand the vocal range and to develop a unique vocal technique is an honored accomplishment. Mongolian folk music for the voice aims to overcome the natural limitations of the human voice. The Mongols have developed a technique whereby an individual can sing in two voices at the same time. It is true that one of these is a single prolonged droning, fundamental tone above which a flute-like melody is sounded in a high register. Even so, two voices are heard simultaneously from the same throat! These sounds were simulated from the Jew's harp which, in essence, is an instrument producing a drawing fundamental tone when the small vibrating metal tongue is held to the lips, and whose overtones are produced by altering the shape of the oral cavity.

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'Throat' singing or Khoomie

The Mongolians, however, can produce the same effect without the instrument by tensing their vocal chords and pressing air through them with great force. This gives the instrument-like effect of a fundamental note rich in overtones which can then be modulated by different formations of the mouth cavity. This vocal production makes great use of the diaphragm, demanding at the same time special use of the throat and mouth; all of these elements have to be learned separately. Not everyone can acquire this talent, but it is still fairly common among male singers, especially in Eastern Mongolia. And what is even more incredible, some individuals can produce this wordless, almost supernatural whistling while riding on horseback. This specific kind of singing called Khoomiy was cultivated by professional singers called Khoomchi. Another category of professional singers exists as well: Rhapsodes Ulgerchi, or raspodic poets, who sang and recited in the long winter evenings long epic poems called Ulgers which belong to the great heroic tradition of Central Asia. Singers accompany themselves on the Morinkhuur. Each singer has to be able to compose a plot freely. This is done by combining and varying particular strophes of the text and at the same time by leading a vocal melodic party accompanied by an instrument. It also involves improvising instrumental introductions and interludes. The performance of traditional epic legends can last up to three days.

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Music, as an essential part of the shamanic ritual, is a most important vehicle of influence. Singing and playing and the frame drum leads to the condition of trance. This music, especially, secures a communication with the supernatural. Obviously the practice of Shananisity, so widespread in Mongolia, is rooted in the Mongolian concept of music as a symbolic journey to the supernatural world. Music, and singing in particular, is an obligatory component of most of the actions in traditional Mongolian society. Thus well-wishers Yorolchi sing solemn songs at family and social festivals. In ancient times even the reports of counting in the form of singing - or reading any prose in a sing-song, even including newspaper - is noticed till this day. Moreover, even the record-keepers and accountants count money in this way; distinct melodious, rhythmical formulas are always utilized. In modern conditions this tradition sometimes produces astonishing results. B. Smirnov describes one such case: "A strange effect of multi-party sonority I once happened to hear in the choir of some tens of voices of 'The Trade Ministry's record keepers', placed under the roof of money-bills in a song form. But through the velvety sound haze and continuous glittering one could sense the common, basic principles and sounds of one pentatonic mode."

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In ancient times a great variety of musical instruments in Mongolia were used. These can simply be divided into three according to location:
1 church and palace
2 home, for marriages and other feasts
3 mass musical instruments.
Besides these there are also the shepherd's instruments - for example, the flute limba. Until the end of the XVI century instruments making loud ringing sounds were used during hunting and wandering. In Mongol Buddhist monasteries - till the revolution there were more than 740 site specific and original orchestras. Their instruments were identical to the orchestras of the Lamaic monasteries of Tibetan included copper trumpets, short trumpets made from human bones, and different percussion instruments. Most of the string instruments, associated with court music or with theatrical forms, came from China or were widespread throughout Asia. These include the Yatag board zither, and the Shurdaga or Shadz - a long necked lute which has three plucked or bowed strings. The Kluchir has four bowed strings which are tuned to a soprano register. A variant of tenor register - called Khuur, is the favorite instrument of tale-tellers - musicians Khuurchi from the east country. The yoochin is a string percussion instrument of trapezoidal body. Its sound is seduced out by the strokes of plaint reed sticks on its strings. Such instruments are popular in Asian countries. In Mongolia Yoochin is mostly used as an ensemble orchestral instrument.

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