Tooth and Throat Singing

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"Corrections: April 19, 2013", NYT 4/18/2013:

An article on Thursday about Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music this week, referred incorrectly to a vocal technique explored by a group she has sung with, Roomful of Teeth. It is Tuvan throat singing — a tradition of the Tuvan people of Siberia — not “tooth and throat” singing.

It might have been a band-name problem — I mean, what other kind of singing would Roomful of Teeth practice? Here's the original context:

Shaw wrote the work during three successive summers, starting in 2009, during which Roomful of Teeth was in residence at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The new ensemble wanted to explore untraditional vocal techniques and was focusing on tooth and throat singing, yodeling and belting, all of which found their way into "Partita."

[via HeadsUp the Blog]


  1. amandachen said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    Okay, so the article was phoned in.

    [(myl) The original article describes a face-to-face interview with Caroline Shaw, but maybe the "Tuvan throat singing" part came up in a phone interview with her or with someone else. And the difference between ['tu.vən] and ['tu.θən] would be especially small in telephone bandwidth — though you'd think that a music critic would know that "Tuvan throat singing" is a thing.]

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    The media is woefully unprepared to cover any possible future terrorist acts allegedly committed by ethnic Tuvans. Maybe Tuvalu would get the blame?

  3. Howard Oakley said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

    Search for "Roomful of Teeth" on Google, and you may be surprised to see a delightful Cupertino in Google's preview lines for the Pitchfork review, which read:
    "Dec 5, 2012 – Vocal octet Roomful of Teeth is interested in the places where the human voice is stretched to extremes: Intuit throat singing, Korean p'ansori, …"
    Presumably Intuit throat singing is that ghastly gargling sound made when completing your accounts? Sadly the Cupertino does not extend into the review itself.

    [(myl) "Throat singing" seems to be a cross-Bering-Strait feature — there's the Inuit version, and the Tuvan version, and an Ainu version, and a Mongolian version, anyhow. I haven't been able to find any scholarly attempt to determine whether there are historical connections among these singing styles, and if so what they are.

    I'm pretty sure that your aptly-described Intuit version is an independent development, though.]

  4. Joe said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

    @myl: "you'd think that a music critic would know that "Tuvan throat singing" is a thing"

    Either a music critic or a rocket scientist:!

  5. D-AW said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    Either "untraditional" is another error, or it's a based on a rather restrictive idea of "traditional" (and an unusual one in music circles).

  6. David Morris said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    Some choral directors use a warmup exercise with the words "the tip of the tongue and the teeth and the lips".
    D-AW, yes, I think the writer is implying 'traditional = standard Western classical'. Perhaps 'unconventional', would be a better word, but it still implies 'conventional = standard Western classical therefore unconventional = everything else'.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    I take traditional there to mean traditional within a specific cultural context, which, yes, is quite the opposite of how "traditional" is sometimes used.

  8. fev said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

    I think it was Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick who had the tale about the banjo contest in which there was a prize for originality. He asked what the criteria were. The answer: How close to the original you played it.

  9. David Morris said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

    There is a story that a composition teacher once said to a composition student "Your work is original and good. Unfortunately, the parts which are original are not good, and the parts which are good are not original."

  10. marie-lucie said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

    Some choral directors use a warmup exercise with the words "the tip of the tongue and the teeth and the lips".

    Mine uses the phrase without the "ands", and it is very hard for me as a French speaker to say "the teeth the lips" distinctly, especially at the speed he requires.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 8:49 pm

    myl: I haven't been able to find any scholarly attempt to determine whether there are historical connections among these singing styles, …

    I would be very surprised if there were no such connections. It can't be just the climate creating suitable conditions!

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 9:10 pm


    But think what that climate does to your adenoids. All you can manage is throat-singing.

  13. maidhc said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 1:52 am

    The name of the band reminds me of the classic Goon Show episode The House of Teeth, a musical story featuring Señorita la Tigernutta and her 48 castanets performing at the Café Filthmuck. I suppose Roomful of Blues is another inspiration.

  14. Ken Fasano said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    There are many classical music lovers (and critics) who think "classical" music ended around 1905, and that Debussy (b. 1862, before my great-grandfather) is a modern composer. How should we expect them to know about anything that's happened in classical music since World War I?

  15. H said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    @David Morris:
    Every single choral director I've ever had has used a different version of that.
    Also, I've heard the 'original and good' story of Disraeli, who apparently once wrote to an aspiring author:
    "I just received your manuscript. I shall waste no time in reading it'.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 10:11 am

    I'm thinking t-fronting could be a factor. For someone used to hearing t-fronting "Tuvan" and "tooth and" are one step closer, just a difference in voicing.

  17. Bobbie said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 10:27 am

    Here in Eastern Virginia I have heard local people say TOOF instead of TOOTH. (And MOUF instead of MOUTH). So Tuvan heard as "tooth and" would make sense….

  18. Ellen K. said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    Oops… I meant th-fronting (not t-fronting). Just what Bobbie describes.

  19. David Morris said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

    My suburb of Sydney, Penrith, is pronounced Penriff by many.

    Dr Teeth was the leader of the Muppet Show band. Throat was a minor character on the Goon Show. Somewhere in artistic heaven, Jim Henson and Spike Milligan are producing teeth and throat singing.

  20. Bob Wright said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

    IIRC Frank Zappa was interested in Mongolian throat singing, perhaps leading to Martian thoat singing.

  21. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 2:32 am

    Yes, I can imagine if someone said "tuvan froat" one might instinctively correct both the f and the v.

    I don't know if "throat singing" is a very accurate word for what the Tuvans do, in German it seems to be called Obertongesang and it is about emphasizing the overtones in the normal singing voice.

    For a musical vocalization marriage made in heaven, you have to see this film:

    It unites the Swiss artist Christian Zehnder with the Tuvan throat-singers. Zehnder I can only describe by saying that he probably takes yodelling to places that haven't occurred to many people in the presumably long history of alpine yodelling.

    Here's Zehnder singing a little trilogy of pieces:

    The film also includes Erika Stucky, whose biography involved being transplanted from flower-power San Francisco to a remote village in the Valais/Wallis.

    Both of them I find impressively bonkers. Somewhat saner is the third musician in the film, Noldi Alder, who simply escaped from a family folk group and does contemporary-classical compositions based on elements of the folk music. Though his fellow Appenzellers found that pretty radical.

  22. mirhond said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    I've heard from shaman\programmer from Novosibirsk that throat thinging was invented by tibetan monks for ritual chants, and then it spread all over Syberia. Never tried to verify this, but tibetan and tuvan buddist chants sounds pretty similar

    Tuvan band "Huun-huur-tu"

    Tibetan monks

  23. zythophile said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 7:47 am

    I am reminded of the expression coined to illustrate elements of Cockney pronunciation, faw'ee farzand fevvers on a frush's froa' ("forty thousand feathers on a thrush's throat").

  24. Alex Temple said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 8:51 am

    @Ken Fasano —
    What you say is true, but the New York Times is probably more up-to-date on contemporary classical music than any other major newspaper. They regularly have articles not only about music written in the last 50 years, but about music written in the last 50 weeks, often by composers in their 20s and 30s. The most recent online issue includes a review of a new-music festival in Reykjavik. I'm really surprised they made this mistake.

  25. F said,

    April 24, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    Given the context, shouldn't the NYT be saying that Shaw won the Pullet Surprise?

  26. Jason said,

    April 25, 2013 @ 4:11 am


    Many peoples in Central and Inner Asia use throat singing, including Tibetans, Mongols (both of which include sub-groupings), Tuvans, etc. The claim that it was 'invented' by Tibetan Buddhists is dubious; Tibetans often claim to be the locus classicus of many practices because their language and religion were treated as a kind of 'high culture' among several peoples. They can be quite arrogant when comparing Tibetan culture to their Central and Inner Asian neighbors (and then complain about being looked down on by the Chinese in the same breath…).

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