Face Music - Traditional Instruments - Mongolia
  • Traditional Music and Instruments of the Mongolia poeple

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

- more information in German

The traditional Mongolian Folk music is influenced by the large variety of tribes, having been united for the first time in the 13th century under the rule of Genghis Khan with Turkish tribes in order to establish the Mongolian people. The nomad shepherds in Mongolia, like other nomads in Central Asia, use to play string and wind instruments.

Percussion instruments, though, were only played in connection with Shamanism and Buddhism, the origins of which can be found in Tibetan Lamaism, as well as with the "Tsam dance", which was performed in Mongolia for the first time in the 8th century.

- Hel khuur (Jew's harp)

Nowadays, a Jew's harp is made of brass or steel, but in earlier days it was made of wood or bamboo. A spring, acting as a vibrator, is fitted into a horseshoe-shaped metal holder and is called ,tongue'. The player places the long part of the instrument close to his mouth, touching it with his front teeth and manipulating the tongue with his right hand. Changing the shape of the mouth cavity, which at the same time acts as a resonance chamber, can vary the pitch.

bamboo / wood jews harp

- Tsuur (wind instrument)

The tsuur is a traditional Mongolian wind instrument (flute) made of uliangar wood (bur chervil - umbellifer). Melody and sound resemble the sound of the waterfall of the River Jeven. The "aman tsuur" made by the Altai-Uriankhai tribes are the most popular ones and produce the best sound.

- Limbe (wind instrument)

The instrument is frequently used in accompaniment, occasionally also as a solo instrument. In former times it was made of bamboo or wood, nowadays mostly of plastic, particularly those imported from China. These flutes (transverse flutes) are closely bound up with the nomads of Central Asia.
The length of this instrument is approx. 64 cm, with nine holes, whereof one is the blowhole and two others are reserved for the tuning. It is often played with circular breathing*. The sound reflects what is heard in the nature or the sounds of the natural and social environment.
- *Circular breathing (bituu amisgal): one note is blown while the musician inhales through his nose. The air is collected inside the cheeks and exhaled by the pressure of the cheeks' muscles (same principle as for the bagpipe). The base of the tongue is used as a valve.

- Surnai - ever buree (wind instrument)

Reed instrument - a folk oboe with a conical body made of wood or horn (ever buree = horn), widening towards the end. It has seven finger holes and one thumbhole. A metal staple carries the reed and a lip-disc in the shape of a funnel. The short form of the instrument is known as "haidi", meaning 'flute of the sea'.

- Lavai - tsagaan buree (wind instrument)

"Tsagaan buree" - white shells.
White shells with whorls leading from the left to the right handside are considered a lucky charm, and therefore they are very much in demand. In order to blow them, they are equipped with a mouthpiece made from brass.
According to a Lamaistic legend, Buddha himself gave this instrument to the Dragon King as a present.

- Bishgüür (wind instrument)

A richly ornamented metal trumpet, in Mongolian also called "shell trumpet" (bishgüür).

Bishgüür (Mongolia) Metal trumpet (Tibet)

- Khuuchir (string instrument)

Formerly, the nomads (called "the savages") mainly used the snake skin violin or horsetail violin. The Chinese call it "the Mongol instrument" or "Huk'in". It is tuned in the interval of a fifth and is small or middle sized.
The khuuchir has a small, cylindrical, square or cup-like resonator made of bamboo, wood or copper, covered with a snake skin and open at the bottom. The neck is inserted in the body of the instrument. It usually has four silk strings, of which the first and the third are accorded in unison, whereas the second and fourth are tuned in the upper fifth. The bow is coated with horsetail hair and inseparably interlaced with the string-pairs; in Chinese this is called "sihu", that is "four", also meaning, "having four ears". The smaller instruments have only two strings and are called "erh'hu", that is "two" in Chinese.

- Khun tovshuur - Tovshuur (string instrument)

The khun tovshuur is a two-stringed instrument similar to the lutes of Tuva, Altai or Kazakhstan. The body and the neck are carved from cedar wood and the body is often covered with the leather of wild animals, camels or goats. The head of the neck is formed like a swan. The Mongol legends say that they originate from a swan. The strings are wound from horsetails hair and tuned in the interval of a fourth.

The West Mongols used this traditional instrument to accompany the "tuuli" (heroic-epic myths) and "magtaal" (praise songs).

- Morin khuur (string instrument - horse-head-violin)

The morin khuur is a typical Mongolian two-stringed instrument. The body and the neck are carved from wood. The end of the neck has the form of a horse-head and the sound is similar to that of a violin or a cello. The strings are made of dried deer or mountain sheep sinews. It is played with a bow made of willow, stringed with horsetail hair and coated with larch or cedar wood resin.
This instrument is used to play polyphonic melodies, because with one stroke of the bow the melody and drone-strings can be played at the same time. The morin khuur is the most widespread instrument in Mongolia, and is played during celebrations, rituals and many other occasions, as well as an accompaniment for dances or songs. Even the sound and noises of a horse herd are imitated on the morin khuur.

People say that it is connected with a handsome man. It is also played when a ewe doesn't want to suckle her lamb. It is believed that the ewe, hearing this music, will feel better and accept her lamb.
There is a legend about the origin of this instrument. A Mongol missed his dead horse so much that he used its head, its bones and its hair to build an instrument on which he started to play the familiar noises of his beloved horse.

The history of this instrument is based on two other legends:
- A shepherd received as a gift from his beloved woman a magical horse that could fly. He used it at night to fly to meet his beloved. His jealous wife cut the horse's wings off, so that the horse fell from the sky and died. The grieving shepherd made a horse-head fiddle from his beloved horse.
- A boy named Sükhe (or Suho). After a wicked Lord (Pagan God) had slaughtered the boy's prized white horse, the horse's spirit came back to Sükhe in a dream and instructed him to make an instrument from the horse's body, so that the two could still be together and neither of them would have to be alone.

- Yoochin (string instrument)

Box zither - dulcimer with 13 double-wire strings. The strings are struck with two wooden sticks, so-called little wooden hammers (comparable with the santur of the Persians). It has a black wooden soundboard richly decorated with ornaments.
The instrument was only familiar to townspeople and first of all only they played it.

- Shudraga / Shanz (string instrument - with a sound comparable to that of a banjo)

The shudraga or shanz is a long-necked spiked lute with an oval wooden frame with snake skin covering stretched over both faces. The three strings are fixed to a bar, which is inserted in the body. The instrument is struck or plucked with a plectrum made of horn or with the fingers. As the tones do not echo, every note is struck several times.

- Yatga - Yatuga (string instrument)

The yatga is a half-tube zither with a movable bridge. It is constructed as a box with a convex surface and an end bent towards the ground. The strings are plucked and the sound is very smooth. The instrument was considered to be sacrosanct and playing it was a rite, bound to taboos. The instrument was mainly used at court and in monasteries, since strings symbolised the twelve levels of the palace hierarchy.

Shepherds were forbidden to play the twelve-stringed zither, but they were allowed to play the ten-stringed zither, which was also used for interludes during recitations of epics.

Mongolians traditionally play three types of this zither, differentiated by their resonators or hollow bodies in which the sound is amplified. Designs include the master yatga; ikh gariing yatga, the national yatga; akhun ikh yatga, and the harp, called the bosoo yatga.

- see following; master yatga with 21 strings (ikh gariing yatga)

- Tuur - frame drum - shaman drum (percussion instrument)

A single-headed shaman drum. It's frame is usually oval but sometimes round. The membrane is ornamented with drawings on one ore both sides.

- Cymbals = small sound plates (Mongolian: Tsan)
They look like small brass plates, in the middle of which there are put knob-like handgrips.


- Shigshuur - shaman rattle (percussion instrument)

The Mongolian Shamans also use a type of rattle called the Shigshuur. It is made from a cow horn, with the pointed end being carved into the shape of a raven's head. The Shigshuur is used to direct and send energy in a specific direction, the rattle being shaken like a raven pecking

- Rattle

- Denshig – small bells (percussion instrument)

They are only used in the Mongolian region. These are two plainished brass plates, the grips (knobs) of which are connected by means of a small band. On the occasion of services, a lama bangs the two little plates together, thereby producing a sound similar to the touch of a small bell but significantly softer and more melodic.

- Damar (percussion instrument)

Small drums used in monasteries, a wooden casing with resemblance to a coil. On both outer surfaces it is coated with leather. In the middle of the coil there is a band made from silk with emobroidery and two buttons attached to a string. By moving back and forth, these two buttons are hit on the stretched leather of this small drum.

- Shaman bells (percussion instruments)

The bells are made of brass, or iron. They are fixed up on the cloth. These bells are mostly signal bells which shamans used in a dance to awaken the gods.

- khuuchir - yoochin - yatga -

Vocal music

Urtyin duu (long song) - melismatic and richly ornamented, with a slow tempo, long melodic lines, wide intervals and no fixed rhythm.

It is sung in verses, without a regular refrain and with a full voice in the highest register. The melody has a coat, which covers over three octaves. This requires a strict observance of the breathing rules. The breathing is actually free, but the singer has to keep to the strict rules of performance, making only the absolutely necessary breathing breaks without interrupting the melodic ornaments. The richer the voice is and the longer the singer can hold it, the more intensive is the attention paid by the auditors and the more this performance is appreciated.
People usually practise these long songs while being alone in the open steppe and riding along slowly. The repertory is an expression of the liberty and the vastness of the Mongolian steppe and is used to accompany the rites of the seasonal cycles and the ceremonies of everyday life. Long songs are an integral part of the celebrations held in the round tents and they must be sung after the strict rules of performance.

The Mongols don’t use time units to express the time it needs for a certain distance, but they say e.g. that their trip lasted three long songs

There are three categories of long songs

- The extended ones with uninterrupted flowing melodies, richly ornamented, containing long passages in falsetto.
- The usual ones are shorter, less ornamented, and without falsetto.
- The shortened ones have short verses, refrains and melodic courses full of leaps and bounds (Besreg song).

- Bogin duu (short song) - strophic, syllabic, rhythmically tied, sung without ornaments.

Short songs are never sung at celebrations, since they are spontaneously improvised and rather satirical. They are often sung in the form of a dialogue and speak of certain friends and incidents, or they are lyrical tales about love, about everyday life and about animals, especially horses.

- Tuuli (heroic-epic myth)

Mongolian epics report about fierce fights between the good end evil powers in a highly qualified literary poetry.
The recital of epics was always bound to rituals, and it was believed to have magical power. The recitation should have a favourable influence on natural spirits, as well as the power to expulse evil spirits. Generally, the epics were sung inside the round felt tents of the shepherds during the period of their search for the winter quarters, before the hunt or a battle, and against infertility or disease.

- Magtaal (praising songs)

Magtaal are sung in honour of the gods of Lamaism and the spirits of nature, heralds or particular animals. Epic texts also contain praise songs for the mountains, the rivers and nature in general. This is an ancient tradition still practised up to date by the tribes in the region of Mongol-Altai in Western Mongolia.

Khöömij (guttural singing)

The performance of overtone singing takes usually place during social events such as eating or drinking parties.

The Mongols call their overtone singing höömij (= throat, pharynx). The singer creates a constant pitched fundamental considered as a drone, and at the same time modulates the selected overtones to create a formantic melody from harmonics.
Several techniques are known, depending on the vocal source and the place of resonance: kharkhiraa = lung, khamriin = nose, tövönkhiin = throat and bagalzuuriin = pharynx. Overtone singers form and vary sound and timbre with their mouth, teeth, tongue, throat, nose and lips. They always form two distinct tones simultaneously sustaining the fundamental pitch.
Overtone singing can also be heard from Turkic-speaking tribes in disparate parts of Central Asia. The Bashkir musicians from the Ural Mountains call their style of overtone singing uzlyau; the Khakass call it khai, the Altai call it koomoi and the Tuvinians khoomei.
Up to date, overtone singing is a common feature of Siberian peoples as well as the Kazakhs and Mongolian tribes. Overtone or throat singing is a special technique in which a single vocalist produces two distinct tones simultaneously. One tone is a low, sustained fundamental pitch (a kind of drone) and the second is a series of flutelike harmonics, which resonate high above this drone. Who masters this singing technique may even make the overtone sound louder then the fundamental pitch, so the drone is not audible anymore. A different technique often used by overtone singers combines a normal glottal pitch with the low frequency, pulse-like vibration known as vocal fry. The Turkic tribes in the Altai use to sing their texts in such a low vocal fry register of about 25-20 Hz).


- Folk dance

When the Zakhchin and the tribes of Western Mongolia dance their folk dances ("bij" - "bielgee"), they mainly move the upper part of the body. With their movements they express their identity and gender as well as their tribal and ethnic affiliation. Besides the gender-specific movements, there are others that imitate typical activities of their everyday life, such as the nomadic herdsmen's life, the daily work in the fields or the historical events of their tribe. This kind of dance is mainly performed during celebrations inside the ger (round tents), during festivals of the local nobility or during ceremonies in the monasteries.

Every tribe has its particular forms of expression, e.g.:

- the Dörbed and the Torguts accompany their dances with dance songs;
- the Buryats dance in a circle, always moving in the direction of the sun; a solo singer improvises pairs of verses followed by the chorus singing the refrain;
- the Bayad dance with their knees bent outwards, balancing on them mugs filled with sour mare-milk (airag).
- the Dörbed balance mugs filled with airag on their heads and hands.

- Religious dance - "Tsam"

In the past, the mystery dances were of considerable significance in Mongolia. They were always accompanied by music. For these ritual dances the monks wore dance masks made of papier maché. The tsam symbolised the battle of the gods against the enemies. In animism, the oldest form of religious belief (e.g. the Bon-religion), one believes that the whole nature is animated. Human beings and animals are surrounded by good and evil spirits.

Old White Man

- white old man -

- The White Old Man - The Mongols worship an important god of fertility, who is represented by the mask of an amiable, white-haired and white-bearded old man with waggish and cunning features. He is considered as the master of earth and water. His attributes, such as the white clothes and the wand with the dragonhead, are reminiscent of shamanism.
He is the main figure in the tsam mask dance, in which he appears in the role of a clown and dolt.

Artistic music

In Soviet times European arts, such as the classical music, the opera and the ballet, were introduced to Mongolia. The traditional vocal and instrumental music was adapted to the tempered tuning and so the Western tone system gained ascendancy.

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