Mongolian Singing

Inner Mongolia
Editing: Jackson Harvey
Camera: David Barnes, Ed Fry, Abby Sternberg, Albert Tong, Josh Cogan
Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
[Catalog No. CFV11266; © 2019 Smithsonian Institution]

Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region in northern China and is known for its distinctive musical traditions, which often tell stories of Mongolian life or religion. One of the most ancient Mongolian traditions is throat singing in which the singer is able to hit multiple notes at the same time. Because each syllable is greatly extended, a four-minute song may have only ten words and is called a Long Song. Singing is typically accompanied by the morin khuur, a horsehead fiddle, or the topshuur, a two-stringed plucked instrument. This video features the members of Ih Tsetsn (音和思琴樂團), a Mongolian music group that appeared at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program China: Tradition and the Art of Living. One member of the group explains that their parents are either singers or instrumentalists who use music to interpret their lives in Mongolia. “You cannot get away from nature, and the grasslands [of Mongolia] are closest to nature,” he explains. “No matter how the world develops, the music of the grasslands should spread across the world.”

Questions for Discussion

  • Research the history and geography of Mongolia. This name refers to an independent country as well as a region of northern China. What traditions are shared across these two areas?
  • What did you notice when listening to the Mongolian throat singing performance? Did it sound like anything you have heard before?
  • If you were going to write a four-minute song using only ten words, what words would you select and why? What story would these words tell?