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Overtone focusing in biphonic tuvan throat singing.

  • Bergevin, Christopher1, 2, 3, 4
  • Narayan, Chandan5
  • Williams, Joy6
  • Mhatre, Natasha7
  • Steeves, Jennifer Ke2, 8
  • Bernstein, Joshua Gw9
  • Story, Brad10
  • 1 Physics and Astronomy, York University, Toronto, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 2 Centre for Vision Research, York University, Toronto, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 3 Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences, Toronto, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 4 Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, United States. , (United States)
  • 5 Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, York University, Toronto, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 6 York MRI Facility, York University, Toronto, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 7 Biology, Western University, London, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 8 Psychology, York University, Toronto, Canada. , (Canada)
  • 9 National Military Audiology & Speech Pathology Center, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, United States. , (United States)
  • 10 Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, United States. , (United States)
Published Article
"eLife Sciences Organisation, Ltd."
Publication Date
Feb 17, 2020
DOI: 10.7554/eLife.50476
PMID: 32048990


The republic of Tuva, a remote territory in southern Russia located on the border with Mongolia, is perhaps best known for its vast mountainous geography and the unique cultural practice of “throat singing”. These singers simultaneously create two different pitches: a low-pitched drone, along with a hovering whistle above it. This practice has deep cultural roots and has now been shared more broadly via world music performances and the 1999 documentary Genghis Blues. Despite many scientists being fascinated by throat singing, it was unclear precisely how throat singers could create two unique pitches. Singing and speaking in general involves making sounds by vibrating the vocal cords found deep in the throat, and then shaping those sounds with the tongue, teeth and lips as they move up the vocal tract and out of the body. Previous studies using static images taken with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suggested how Tuvan singers might produce the two pitches, but a mechanistic understanding of throat singing was far from complete. Now, Bergevin et al. have better pinpointed how throat singers can produce their unique sound. The analysis involved high quality audio recordings of three Tuvan singers and dynamic MRI recordings of the movements of one of those singers. The images showed changes in the singer’s vocal tract as they sang inside an MRI scanner, providing key information needed to create a computer model of the process. This approach revealed that Tuvan singers can create two pitches simultaneously by forming precise constrictions in their vocal tract. One key constriction occurs when tip of the tongue nearly touches a ridge on the roof of the mouth, and a second constriction is formed by the base of the tongue. The computer model helped explain that these two constrictions produce the distinctive sounds of throat singing by selectively amplifying a narrow set of high frequency notes that are made by the vocal cords. Together these discoveries show how very small, targeted movements of the tongue can produce distinctive sounds.

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