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Fundamental Research on Musical Culture of Tuva in the Twentieth Century Ready for Publishing

Famous Tuvan music researcher Valentina Suzukei has finished her multifacetous study of Tuvan music culture in the XXth century. The scientist takes a closer look at the Tuvan musical phenomenon, analyses it in the context of the nomadic world perception, gives a full account of the ritual and labour musical practices, songs, instrumental music, Tuvan traditional instruments, makes a survey of both positive and negative consequences of the attempts to 'adapt' Tuvan music to European standards.

Here are abstracts of the above-mentioned work: Tuva is one of the most striking and original cultural centers of the Altai-Sayan region, remarkable for its diversity of musical forms and genres, and for the melodic richness and distinct national color and timbre of its traditional sound production. Tuva’s rich legacy of instrumental music merits special attention. Beginning in ancient times, the musical culture of the Tuvans has evolved exclusively in the context of a nomadic way of life characterized by specific cultural and economic conditions. The musical tradition of the Tuvans maintained an organic continuity and did not undergo any radical change until the second decade of the twentieth century.

The twentieth century was the first in the entire centuries-long history of the Tuvans to bring about a revolutionary transformation of musical life. This transformation occurred both as a result of the change from a nomadic way of life to a sedentary one, and as a result of the introduction of new musical forms and ideas. This social transformation had both positive and, to a greater degree, negative results. One of the main reasons for the unpremeditated destruction of tradition, which seriously degraded the foundations of Tuvan culture, was an a priori judgment that it was “primitive.” As a consequence, the condescending treatment of the culture as “undeveloped” or, more precisely, “backward” – stuck in a mere primordial state of existence, facilitated the idea that it was necessary to provide aid for its “rehabilitation.” Thus emerged the idea of “professionalizing” folk music, which became widespread from the first days of the foundation of Soviet power in Tuva.

It is imperative to highlight the consequences of misdirected efforts to professionalize traditional music. One consequence was that folk musicians began to evaluate their own music-making through the unfamiliar standards of academic music, and finding themselves wanting, developed a low self-image. The result of this experience was a mutation not only of instruments but of all the aesthetic-normative bases of the traditional sound system upon which the ethnic “sound ideal” had been oriented. Paradoxically, all of these transformations still have a place in the established educational system of culture and arts at all levels: in music schools, colleges, and conservatories, in institutes and in academies of culture. And this is one of the principal problems in modern systems (ethnic, ethno-artistic) of professional music education for the bearers of traditional culture, which today requires a fundamental review.

In the present day, against the backdrop of the events of the 1990s, which brought a major reconstruction of socio-economic and cultural systems in the post-Soviet republics, there is an urgent need for a re-examination of the gains and losses that have occurred in the ethnic cultures of the national republics of the former USSR.

In the post-Perestroika era a process has begun in the various ethnic republics of the former USSR to return to their own historical roots. These processes have not passed over Tuva. The professionalization of Tuvan music in essence was and is an attempt at adaptation, or more precisely, an attempt at remaking traditional music within the parameters of European classical music theory. The process of professionalizing Tuvan music brought with it an attempt to translate musical instruments and instrumental music from the drone-overtone system of tuning to the tempered tuning system. However, Tuvan music first debuted on the world stage in its pure, non-professionalized form in records produced by the Moscow Sound Recording Factory in 1934 at the request of the government of the Tuvan People’s Republic (TNR). Since that time, Tuvan music has commanded massive interest as an extraordinary example of creative human fantasy in the realm of sound. Tuva’s particular achievement in the sphere of musical culture, or more broadly, sound culture, is considered a unique contribution to the evolution of human culture.

The nomads’ experience of acoustical immersion in the sounds of their natural environment and the subsequent transformation of this experience into an artistic and creative consciousness gives rise to a unique effect: a considerably broader conception of music and musicality than that imparted by classical European theoretical musical knowledge.

Chapter I: The Musical Culture of Tuva at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century  

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the traditional musical culture of the Tuvans as a specific form that reflected life, domestic work, material and spiritual culture, history and worldview was an original aesthetic phenomenon that presented a complex sound-world corresponding to an ethnic sound-ideal. This traditional musical culture, or what one could call the process of understanding the world in sound, embodied people’s conception of the characteristics of sound, various ways of making it, and the organization and effect of this or that kind of sound on the surrounding world and on individuals.

The Traditional Tuvan Conception of Sound  

Understanding the specifics of Tuvan music carries a necessary condition: an ability to comprehend the world, and especially the nature of Tuva, with the eyes and ears of a nomad – an essential skill for perceiving the atmosphere of Tuva, its “aroma,” colors, sounds, and subtle nuances, sometimes barely perceptible in the ephemeral sound world of nature. It should be noted that what the author of this work is calling for is in fact quite far outside the classical research methods of theoretical musicology. Indeed, the concepts and physical variables that are principally developed and manipulated in Tuvan music lend themselves poorly to the conventional approaches of European music theory and musicology.

European music theory arose from a Christian worldview opposed to the traditions of the East. This worldview places man against nature, where man and nature are two opposite forces, contradictory and hostile to one another. “The Christians despised the earth: what is a creature compared to the creator? What are sun, moon, and earth compared to the spirit of man? Earthly life loses purpose for he who believes in God, who believes in eternal heavenly life,” wrote L. Feierbach in The Essence of Christendom. “Christianity separated man from all association with nature and through that fell into extremism, finding even in the remote comparison of man with animal an insult to human dignity.”[i]

The formation of the Tuvans’ traditional complex of sound perception was influenced in the pre-Revolutionary period by early forms of pre-shamanic beliefs (totemism, fetishism, animism), shamanism, and somewhat later syncretized with the genetically related philosophical-religious worldview of Buddhism. It must be emphasized that “the propagation of Lamaism in Tuva was characterized by its interweaving with local shamanic cults.”[ii]

Shamanic mythology is based on the cosmogonic conception of the universe (macrocosmos) as a three-tiered area with upper, middle, and lower worlds. Each world, accordingly, is populated with a pantheon of deities, spirit-lords, and a pandemonium of evil spirits and supernatural forces. The shamanists’ mythological complex of cosmogonic perceptions reflects the nomadic sense of sacred space and nourishes the feeling of an indissoluble connection with nature. This idea of the indivisibility of man and nature developed in the ancient past and exists among other peoples of Central Asia.

The traditional shamanistic conception of microcosmos and macrocosmos is tightly interwoven with a belief in supernatural forces inhabiting the Upper, Middle, and Lower worlds, and presents the main basis for determining a person’s place in objective reality. The awareness of an indissoluble connection with the natural world is a core value of shamanic cults, which sacralized the guiding mechanism of people’s daily lives. This mechanism was also founded in animistic conceptions connected with the deification of nature, and veneration of the living world and the terrible strength of nature.

Under these conditions, it becomes clear why images of nature occupy a central place in the artistic creations of the Tuvans. Singing a materially perceptible picture of the natural environment is not ideal contemplation, as Europeans have often perceived it, but a social manifestation of shamanic ideology rooted in an animistic perception of deified nature.

The Tuvans’ auditory and visual perception of the environment has left a significant imprint on their sound cognition. In instrumental music, it is exactly the three-dimensionality, multiplicity, and spatiality of the flow of sound that imparts such a subtle timbral color to the expressive language of Tuvan folk music, thus allowing reality to be perceived keenly and artistically. Thus a holographic rather than photographic image is created of the native environment that simultaneously incorporates concepts from the realm of spiritual culture as well as metaphysical and social ideas. Thus the traditional music of the Tuvans is influenced by domestic-economic and philosophical-psychological factors, by the forces of nature and climate, philosophy and psychology, economics and social life.

Laic and Ceremonial Folklore  

The Tuvans’ auditory perception of their environment has been reflected in their musical culture and significantly influenced the originality of their creative expression in the sound arts. The nomads’ perception of environmental sounds and noises allows them to interpret every reproducible sound, not always by means of a precise pitch, but through timbre.

A good musical ear – a fundamental characteristic of a good musician as well as a good listener – also implies the skill to reproduce or perceive sounds rich in timbre, which impart a special color and meaning to the performance of music. The timbral characteristics of sound are usually correctly and unambiguously deciphered by members of a traditional culture, and in many cases, timbre also serves as an organizing principle for musical form and genre. Nevertheless, many musical instruments of the Tuvans were cast aside as “primitive and dated trappings of the past” for the reason that it was impossible to play classical European music on them, as a consequence retarding the development of national professional art in the period of the foundation of Socialism. Aside from this, ruthless ideological struggle took place under the banner of uprooting the remnants and vestiges of feudalism. This banner was convenient, for what was not understood was briskly swept aside under the pretext of having primitive attributes of the past. National instruments were suppressed on the grounds that they represented counter-revolutionary intentions. Other instruments were reconstructed, modernized, or “improved” with the aim of facilitating the performance of harmonically-organized music.

Viewed through the prism of traditional domestic activity, the nuances and subtleties of Tuvan “sound culture” become clear. The seasonal herding cycle of the nomads, the daily pasturing of cattle, and the self-appointed mission of protecting the grasslands and allowing them to grow anew make for constant communication between man and animal. From their observations of the natural world, Tuvans have assembled a very precise and original sound calendar that plays an important role in the lives of nomads. While the lunar calendar marks the passing of standardized time -- hours, days, years, and so on -- the sound calendar is precisely calibrated to local climatic conditions and helps to maintain herders’ close connection to the natural world. This sound calendar divides the year into four quarters, each connected to a different pasturage, and provides aural cues that inform nomads when it is time to move their herds from one pasturage to the next. All genres of ceremonial folklore are organized according to the sound calendar and linked to a specific pasturage and its corresponding camp.

Vocal Music  

Tuvans’ love of music, and especially of song has been repeatedly noted by pre-Revolutionary authors. “The Tuvan satisfies his need for music everywhere he has the opportunity: he sings on the road, in leisure and at work,” wrote the Russian merchant N.F. Vesyelkov at the end of the nineteenth century. “Of all the Turkic tribes, the Soyot [Tuvans] are the most tuneful. In my observation, the Soyot are ninety-five percent singers,” noted A.V. Anokhin, a well-known collector of musical folklore of the Turkic-speaking peoples of Western Siberia. Popular vocal genres include kozhamyktar (quatrains), kyska yrlar (short songs), and uzun yrlar (long songs).

Musical Instruments and Instrumental Music  

The traditional musical culture of Tuva is distinguished by its variety of musical instruments, and by the important role of musical instruments in spiritual, expressive, and material culture. Traditional folk terminology includes a systematic array of terms for evaluating musical instruments, instrumental performance, and instrumental music. Both musical instruments and instrumental music express a distinctive sound-ideal that is reflected in the sound-producing potentialities of instruments and in the specific manner of their realization.

The Tuvan instrumentarium includes a large number of musical instruments that are performed in different genres of folklore. There are instruments to accompany lyric songs and heroic epics, instruments that reproduce hunting calls and signals for calling domesticated animals, and instruments in shamanist and Buddhist ceremonial practices.

Instruments Used in Work  

In Tuvan “intonational culture” (the musical-semantic domain based on Asaf’ev’s theory of “intonatsia”) instruments played outdoors systematically represent the natural sound world in the sphere of social and psychology activity.[iii] In the majority of cases these instruments can be made quickly, and be made to produce sound through simple physical procedures. The materials used to construct the instrument are also simple: the stalks of farinaceous plants (wild oats, barley, feather-grass), stems of buckwheat or umbellate (angelica, wild parsnip) plants, pieces or branches of trees, bark, leaves, etc. In many cases, making such instruments takes no more than one or two minutes.

Many of these instruments can be made only at a certain time of year. Instruments made from vegetable matter are particularly dependent on the season, for example, the terezin-ediski or kinds of murgu, which are made generally in the fall inasmuch as the stems that are the source material reach the necessary firmness simultaneously with the ripening of cereal grains. Another instrument, a variant of the shoor, made from willow bark, is made only in early spring at the time when the sap begins to run (chuluk uezi), and the bark is easy to remove whole.

One of the distinctive peculiarities of these instruments is their impermanence, right down to single-use, as for example, with instruments made from leaves. In the majority of cases, the materials from which they are made are very fragile, and over time, with the drying of stalks and stems, their sound qualities worsen or are completely lost.

Ceremonial Instruments 

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Buddhism gained significance in Tuva as the official religion. Nevertheless, shamanism retained a strong influence. A particular feature of Tuvan Buddhism was its interweaving with the local shamanic cults, and syncretism with shamanic beliefs and practices. The parallel existence of Buddhism and shamanism is reflected in many ceremonies and religious holidays, often conducted with the joint participation of lamas and shamans.

Shamanic instruments

Buddhist musical instruments

Musical Instruments  

The Tuvan instrumentarium includes a large number of musical instruments that exist in stable forms and are used primarily in artistic, as opposed to ritual or applied technological, forms of music. Such instruments are used to accompany lyric songs and heroic epics, as well as to perform a highly developed instrumental repertoire that is a testament to the richness of the instrumentarium, and to its important role in the historical development of national culture and music.

The majority of Tuvan instruments are stringed instruments, i.e., chadagan, igil, byzaanchy, doshpuluur, and chanzy. but aerophones and idiophones are also prominent in this group of developed instruments existing in stable forms. For example, shoor (end-blown flute) limbi (side-blown flute), demir-xomus (metal jew’s harp) and kuluzun xomus (bamboo jew’s harp) belong to this group (the metal jew’s harp was also formerly used in the ritual practice of shamans). These instruments are considered by the Tuvans as natively Tuva, despite the etymology of their names, their construction, and the non-native materials from which some are made (e.g., byzaanchy, chanzy, limbi). These factors suggest that such musical instruments were brought to Tuva long ago, and are evidence of the Tuvans’ historical and ethnocultural connections to other peoples in Inner Asia. Over time, changing political, social, and economic conditions among the Tuvans also changed the role of musical instruments, and not all of their older social, aesthetic, and religious functions were maintained.

Instrumental Music without Instruments  

An interesting aspect of Tuvan music is the imitation of musical instruments. The shoor, demir-xomus, and limbi all offer examples of such imitation.

Instrumental Music  

Traditional musical instruments and instrumental music comprise a major component of Tuvan musical culture that fully displays the creative use of sound. The principal feature that distinguishes Tuvan instrumental music is that it is rooted in a drone-overtone system of sound production. That is, overtones (harmonics) are sequenced to form melodies set against a fundamental drone pitch. Drone-overtone music represents a unique sound system with its own specific rules that has to date not been thoroughly studied by musicology.

In drone-overtone sound art, the fundamental semantic meaning is carried not by the pitch organization of the sound material, or even by the rhythm, but by timbre. As the fundamental parameter of Tuvan musical aesthetics, timbre represents one of the most striking qualities of instrumental music. It is indeed the prominent role of timbre in Tuvan music that accounts for the large number of instruments on which pitch is not fixed, either in space or in time. These conditions influence morphological features of instruments such as non-standardization of size and the absence of frets on stringed instruments. Moreover, bowed instruments do not have a fingerboard on the neck inasmuch as only harmonics are played on them.

The ergonomic, morphological, and acoustic characteristics of instruments that reflect the drone-overtone system are all oriented toward representing the Tuvan sound world. A significant difference in the size of different instruments of the same type does not cause any inconvenience for a folk performer, nor does it affect the structure of the sound. The size of traditional musical instruments is mainly a function of the size of its performer, who, in the majority of cases, has made the instrument himself.

The role of timbre and texture in musical style are clearly demonstrated not only in instrumental music, but in the art of “playing” the throat: xöömei. As a sound structure, xöömei is represents a purely drone-overtone approach to sound production. Outside of this structure, xöömei simply does not exist. It is precisely in xöömei that the specific features of the Tuvan sound-ideal are brilliantly presented in their most refined form -- a complex sound world reflected in the aesthetics of instrumental music.

Xöömei can be called “singing” only because the fundamental tone is emitted from the vocal cords as a result of applying pressure in a particular way. In its sound structure, and in the logical development of its musical substance, xöömei is much more similar to instrumental music. This similarity is confirmed by the shared use of the drone-overtone system.

A.V. Anokhin was the first to understand that xöömei represented a musical phenomenon that required a hitherto unknown music theory to make sense of it: “the throat-singing of the Tuvans stands outside all established theories (my emphasis-V.S.), and perhaps constitutes a unique phenomenon in the arena of vocal art.”[iv]


As a specific genre of folk music in the general system of Tuvan cultural values, xöömei is an autonomous and highly specific phenomenon. While xöömei is produced by the human vocal apparatus, its sound has nothing in common with what is typically considered to be “singing.” In our time, it is still not completely understood how a single performer can produce two sounds simultaneously – a drone and an overtone melody. Still not understood in the secret art of throat-singing is the location of the second sound source. No one doubts that the drone originates in the region of the performer’s vocal cords. But where and how the whistle-like melodic overtone sounds are produced, and how their pitch changes are regulated – these questions remain to be answered.





The art of xöömei has been passed down to the contemporary generation as an empirical system of cognizing sound space developed by their ancient ancestors. The structure, closure, and logical completeness of the system is what has allowed it to be preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next through the centuries. The real functioning of this sound system appears in practice in the sound structure of Tuvan xöömei and instrumental music.

Part II: The Musical Culture of Tuva in the Soviet Period (1921-1991)  

The Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 also drew the Tuvans into the orbit of the worldwide revolutionary movement, and served as a historical boundary beyond which cardinal changes were introduced into the centuries-long nomadic way of life.

Tuvan Musical Culture in the Tuvan People’s Republic (TNR), 1921-1944  

Inasmuch as the founding idea of the Great October Revolution was above all the irreconcilable class struggle of the subjugated workers with their exploiters, Tuva’s pre-Revolutionary culture was also interpreted from the perspective of this struggle. For that very reason, from the entire rich musical legacy of the people, the songs that best served the “call to arms” were those that sounded themes of protest against the feudal yoke – songs about hard labor, and laments about the callousness and cruelty of the noyons, or feudal lords, who oppressed the poor arat. Great importance was attached to song texts, since only in these songs could one find concord with revolutionary ideas.

In particular it was the song genres kyska yr (short song) and kozhamyk (quatrain) that best expressed the relationship of the people to the events taking place around them. All other genres of Tuvan traditional music culture were too specific and foreign-sounding to be deployed in the service of revolutionary ideas. For that reason, it was easier to dismiss them as “primitive” or as religious vestiges of the past.

The Beginning of Professionalization  

Along with the large-scale sedentarization of nomads and deep rupture of the nomadic way of life, professional musical life began to take shape in the republic beginning in the 1940s. Educating Tuvans in reading musical notation and other aspects of the European system of music education was considered as a necessary step in the evolution of Tuvan culture.

When people spoke about the professionalization of Tuvan music, in fact what they meant was academicization, i.e., the total substitution of one sound system for another. But in the 1940s, no one suspected or could admit the idea that Tuvan music had its own sound system with its own theoretical basis.

Amateur Arts Activities in the Tuvan People’s Republic (TNR)  

The majority of musical genres that had not been professionalized in the first years of Socialism were actively included in the concert programs of amateur arts groups that were organized throughout Tuva. Naturally, these genres were also “reformed” in accordance with Revolutionary principles. It was during this period that Tuvan musical culture underwent a major loss in the area of traditional instrumental music. Reconstructed and modernized, Tuvan musical instruments were retooled to the specifications of European instruments, in the process losing their traditional, purely instrumental repertoire and gradually becoming merely accompanying instruments for vocal performance. In the following years, instruments were used only for playing song melodies.

During this period, academic music specialists assimilated traditional Tuvan music, in particular, songs, at the same time that they familiarized themselves with a range of foreign musics.

The Musical Culture of Tuva in the Soviet Period (1944-1991)  

The unification and merger of Tuvan culture with the “great” Soviet Socialist culture at last took place. This event had been intensively prepared by the cultural politics of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the TNR during the previous 10-13 years of its existence as the world’s second (after the USSR) socialist government. From the moment that the TNR joined the USSR, an analogous model of culture was formed in which music was divided into “professional” and “amateur.” And thus Soviet Tuva also had a “professional” and “amateur” musical culture that didn’t allow for any other form of musical activity. The only kinds of performance that Tuva was missing to fill out its Soviet-style musical life were opera and ballet.

Professional Music in Soviet Tuva  

By the beginning of the 1980s, the work of establishing a professional school of composition in Tuva had been essentially completed. This was largely made possible by the creation of the Union of Composers of the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1978.

Survey of Basic Genres of Composed Works  

Song genres

Symphonic works

Cantata-Oratorio genres

Chamber music works

Genres particular to composers in Tuva

Amateur musical arts in Soviet Tuva  

A wide network of amateur choirs and orchestras was established within the republic-wide system of culture “clubs.” These ensembles and orchestras included both Tuvan and Russian folk instruments that were played together in one and the same group.

The System of Music Education in the Republic  

The uniform system of standardized state music education created in the Soviet era corresponded to the ideological directives of that time. The totalitarian regime’s bent for unifying culture throughout the territory of the super-state found a basis in theories of cultural development. New forms of culture, created in great haste, were called upon to serve as a visible embodiment of results hitherto unseen in the history of humanity, for example, the leap of many “backward” Eastern peoples from feudalism to socialism without the intermediary stage of capitalism.

The oral system that had been used to train carriers of traditional culture was ignored, and the Soviet system of European notation-based music education was instituted in its place in training folk musicians in state institutes of culture and art.

Part III: The Musical Culture of Tuva at the End of the Twentieth Century (1991-2000)  

After the break-up of the USSR in 1991, Tuva, as one of the fully entitled subjects of the Russian Federation, became known as the Republic of Tyva, with all of the attributes of state power: a president elected by the populace, parliament, constitution, and so on.

The Situation in the Performance of European Art Forms  

In the last decade of the twentieth century, myriad problems arose in the sphere of “professional” music (as it has become acceptable to call this sphere of musical art). Insufficient resources were allocated to training performers of ballet, opera, and orchestral music, thus retarding their growth—insufficiencies that go back to the Soviet era, when an institutional base for classical European music had not been fully developed. Neither ballet nor opera had their own organizational structures, nor for that matter, did almost all other forms of European performing arts. Qualified ballet dancers and symphony orchestra players are insufficiently represented in the Republic of Tyva, and there is not a single opera singer.

The Situation with Folk (Amateur) Arts  

Following the weakening and disappearance of communist ideology in the life of the Russian public, a spiritual vacuum was created that needed to be filled. After the break-up of the USSR, there arose a sense of freedom that brought about the realization by different peoples of a desire to find and return to their own roots. Culture and religion began to play an important role in this, since they offered the possibility of finding a new purpose in life, as well as serving as a basis of morals and interpersonal relations.

Possible Directions for the Development of Culture in Tuva  

Local level

Regional level

Russian and international level

Part 4: Theoretical Problems of Tuvan Musicology  

The socialist cultural politics that reigned at the beginning of the twentieth century did not allow for the idea that a “backward” culture like that of Tuva could have its own theory, and led to the loss of a valuable layer of traditional culture, namely, its instrumental music. Aside from that, beginning in the first years of Soviet power, attempts to modernize traditional musical instruments amounted to making bad copies of European instruments. This was from the start an unpromising and unproductive practice that distorted not only the foundation of traditional culture but also undermined the authority of European music itself.

A theoretical summary of the way Tuvans conceive musical sounds as the smallest structural elements of a musical language point to the necessity of studying the characteristics of natural sounds that inform the development of instrumental music. The specifics of the ethnic sound-ideal as a complex sound world reflected in the aesthetics of instrumental music is examined in the first chapter.

The Nature of Sound and its Connection with Instruments  

The following instruments are particularly interesting in the scheme of drone-overtone organization: igil, demir-xomus, and xöömei.

Features of drone-overtone music-making on the igil

Features of drone-overtone music-making on the demir-xomus

Features of drone-overtone music-making in throat-singing

Basic principles of performance in drone-overtone music-making

Theoretical and Practical Problems of Tuvan Musical Culture  

The prominence of the drone-overtone texture in Tuvan instrumental music leads to a host of theoretical problems. One of these involves theoretical generalization about the internal organization of a distinctive musical system that exists in the aural tradition of a people and in the expressive language of its national music. The actual performance practice of traditional instruments shows that the instrumental music of the Tuvans functions on the basis of the natural scale.

Moreover, Tuvans repeatedly use the effect of a reinforced natural scale (on account of the imposition of micro-irregularities, or nonlinear oscillations). With such a reinforced dispersion of the fundamental tone due to the (extroverted) centrifugal dynamic of the emitted sound, the overtone is not separated from the fundamental, as occurs in European music in the use of flageolet (when the fundamental pitch is not heard). In the drone-overtone system, the extraction of the melodic overtone occurs only against the background of a drone pitch. If you remove the drone, all overtones will disappear, including the melodic ones. Introverted (centripetal) and extroverted dynamic characteristics of a basic sound unit in music have not hitherto been discussed in world music practice either by musicians or musicologists, and is being introduced for the first time in this work. The difference between the two systems is intuitively sensed by musicians, whose understanding of sound production corresponds to the method of sound production on the instruments they play. And here there has been – and continues to be – a lack of understanding particularly about the modernization of traditional instruments.

Oral tradition, without resorting to developed theoretical concepts, fixed its achievements in the system of the phonic complex of musical instruments and in the specifics of traditional performance styles. The more theoretically developed European classical tradition trained and trains musicologists who, in their analytical assessments, never examine the fundamental sound unit as such. All theoretical conclusions were based on – and continue to be based on – the conception of intervals between non-overtone sounds corresponding to the European sound-ideal.

From the History of the Tuvan Sound System  

One of the natural, yet most complex questions concerns the origins of the specific musical structure at the root of Tuvan instrumental music. Nomadic culture did not leave written sources. Nonetheless, on the basis of many indirect sources, it is possible to speculate about the epoch in which the musical system of the nomads was formed.

The Turks – the descendents of ancient nomadic cultures of Central Asia – are one of the greatest consolidated ethnoses, today populating a significant part of Eurasia, from northeast Siberia to the Mediterranean Sea, and the world of Turkic musical culture – rich and diverse – has long served as an object of attention for scholars.

As far as instruments, instrumental music, and xöömei are concerned, Tuva itself represents a completely original epicenter of drone-overtone music, clearly distinguished from Central Asian types of sound culture.

The musical culture of modern Turkic-speaking peoples has been presented in all its richness and variety of sound material. Nevertheless, in the ancient, archaic layers of these cultures, many elements of an enduring unity unique to these cultures continue to be kept. Such a long-standing endurance, which has not been subject to destruction over the march of centuries, allows us to propose that in the period of their historical commonality, i.e., in the period of the nomadic empire of the ancient Turks (6th-8th century), a particular type of musical civilization was founded, formed on the basis of a conscious and active ideology. A somewhat more manifest support of this idea lies in the fact that “many themes, styles, heroic epics (accompanied by music), and various musical-poetic genres prove to be all-Turkic and can be traced back to the earlier and later nomads of Eurasia.”[v] Moreover, that period in all likelihood can be connected to the formation among the Turks of a special manner of absorbing a sound-space “with a love for thick, nasal timbres rich with overtones… and an abundance of drone forms.”[vi]

In very ancient musical genres such as throat-singing, epic tale-singing, performance on the khomus-kubyz-gopuz, kuraye-shoor-sybyzgy, igil-ikili-kylkoboz, etc., a single principle was used to produce specific sounds that carried in them features common to the Central Asian Turks. Musicology and music theory have yet to fully understand this sound system, in part, perhaps, because the ancient Turks did not leave written evidence about it. Nonetheless, the sound material itself – the music of Turkic peoples – can serve as an empirical “sound” document, preserving through successive centuries one important source about the ethnogenesis of these peoples. Moreover, in the absence of extensive theoretical generalizations, oral tradition has the ability not only to transmit but to reproduce the principles through which a sound-space is assimilated, and to preserve and demonstrate the principles of sound organization inside the system itself.


Until the 1920s, Tuvan traditional music preserved the specific character of nomadic culture. The twentieth century has gone down in history as a time of worldwide revolutionary correctives. The Tuvan people, inspired by the idea of a Socialist society, enthusiastically embraced the idea of building a new culture, firmly discarding everything that was branded as “primitive vestiges of feudalism.”

Beginning with the period of the Tuvan People’s Republic, in connection with changes in social conditions, traditional musical culture also began to change. Beginning in the 1930s, state cultural politics focused on the cultural backwardness of non-Slavic ethnic groups throughout the Soviet Union. In Tuva, the destructive influence of state cultural policies on traditional music centered on the Europeanization of musical instruments and musical repertories as part of the attempt to integrate Tuva into a unified cultural front with a Socialist orientation. Music in Tuva changed accordingly: there was a sharp decrease in work-related and ritual folklore, as well as in traditional instrumental music. By contrast, new genres of composed music appeared, including arrangements of folk music.

The last decade of the twentieth century, marked by the break-up of the USSR, weakened the ideological pressure that drove class-based cultural politics and affected science and scholarship. The indisputable value of traditional music was recognized, as were the specifics of its conceptual basis and aesthetics, knowledge of which is essential to approach traditional music as an object of research. The extraordinary phenomenon of Tuvan musical culture consists of the fact that, notwithstanding the relatively small number of carriers of traditional culture, and notwithstanding the ubiquity of Eurocentrism that came with the building of Socialism, and even notwithstanding the massive “attack” of mass culture and its novel means of audio and video recording, Tuvan music has begun to have its own significant effect on the world music community. This specific experience in the sphere of musical (or more broadly, sound) culture should be valued as the Tuvans’ unique contribution to the development of world culture.

Translated by Sean Quirk and Theodore Levin

[i] L. Feuerbach, “The Essence of Christendom.” In Selection of Philosophical Works. Vol. 2., Moscow, 1955, p. 183.

[ii] History of Tuva, vol. 1. Moscow, 1964, p. 214.

[iii] Yu. I. Sheikin, V.M. Tsekhanskii, V.V. Mazepus, Intonatsionnaia kul’tura etnosa (opyt sistemnogo rassmotreniia). Musical Cultures of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East, 1986, p. 235.

[iv] A.V. Anokhin, manuscript, Archive of the Tuvan Institute for Humanities Research, no. 864, p. 19.

[v] Karakulov, B.O. “Perspectives on the development of musical Turkology in Kazakhstan.

[vi] Mukhambetova, A. “The Musical Space of Turkic Music.” Paper presented at First International Symposium, “Music of the Turkic Peoples,” Almaty, 1994, p. 131.

Valentina Suzukei is contactable by e-mail:

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