Mongolians love to sing. At ger camps you can often hear women singing. Many songs are directed at animals: to soothe them or get them to perform some desired act, whether to move along, hoist a heavy load or provide milk. There may be more love songs directed towards horses—like "Horse of the Narrow Gobi" and "Small Light Bay"—than there are towards either a women or men. There are even songs for wild animals to lure them close enough for hunters.

Mongolia has its own very unique styles of music. There is saying, "For Mongolians, a person who can not play a morin khour [see below] or sing a song is not a human being." In the old days, people who refused sing or play at a feast were tortured or punished. Music is played during the three manly sporting events at the Naadam fare, and is key element in shaman and Buddhist rituals.

According to the Chinese government: “The Mongolians have been known as "a people of music and poetry." Their singing, sonorous, bold, passionate and unconstrained, is the true reflection of the temperament of the Mongolian people. "Haolibao" is a popular Mongolian form of singing to set melodies with the words improvised extemporaneously. Also very popular are many other forms of singing including "Mahatale" (paean), "Yurele" (congratulation), "Dairileqi" (antiphonal singing), riddles, proverbs, stories, legends, fairy tales and fables. [Source: |]

Mongolian musical instruments include fiddles, lutes, Jew’s harp, drums, khuunchir (two string fiddle similar to a Chinese ehru) and tovshuur (lute) . The yatga is a Mongolian musical instrument similar to Japanese koto. Singers often sing unaccompanied. When percussion is provided it comes from a zo (small drum) and damar (large drum). The Mongolian Horse-head fiddle is a musical instrument favorite with the Mongolians. It provides fine accompaniment to solos with its low and deep, broad and melodious sounds.

In Outer Mongolia in the Soviet era, Western classical music was popular and still is. Tchiovsky, Beethoven, Bizet and Chio are regularly performed at concert halls in Ulaanbaatar and even minor cities and towns. Modern Russian folk music and pop music and dances are popular in Mongolia.

Mongolian Musical Instruments

Mongolian musical instruments include fiddles, lutes, Jew’s harp, drums, “ khuunchir” (two string fiddle similar to a Chinese ehru) and “ tovshuur” (lute) . The “ yatga” is a Mongolian musical instrument similar to Japanese koto. Singers often sing unaccompanied. When percussion is provided it comes from a “ zo” (small drum) and “ damar” (large drum).

The Mongolian Horse-head fiddle is a musical instrument favorite with the Mongolians. It provides fine accompaniment to solos with its low and deep, broad and melodious sounds. The Tsuur is a vertical pipe-shaped wooden wind instrument with three fingerholes. Simultaneously touching the mouthpiece of the pipe with one’s front teeth and applying one’s throat produces a unique timbre comprising a clear and gentle whistling sound and a drone.

Limbe (Circular Breathing) Flute

In 2011, the folk long song performance technique of Limbe performances — circular breathing — was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: The Limbe is a side-blown flute of hardwood or bamboo, traditionally used to perform Mongolian folk long songs. Through the use of circular breathing, Limbe performers are able to produce the continuous, wide-ranging melodies characteristic of the long song. Players breathe in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the mouth, using air stored in their cheeks to play the flute without interruption. Single stanzas of folk long song last approximately four to five minutes. A single song consists of three to five or more stanzas, which requires performance of the flute to continue uninterrupted for twelve to twenty-five minutes. [Source: UNESCO ~]

Traditional training methods used to acquire this technique include continuously blowing at a candle flame without extinguishing it and blowing through a straw into a glass of water. Limbe playing is characterized by euphonious melodies, melisma, hidden tunes and skillful and delicate movements of the fingers and tongue. The small number of bearers of the element has become cause for concern with a considerable decrease in groups and individual practitioners. This has been caused in part by the predominance of international musical forms and training systems. At present, the frequency and extent of this traditional element’s practice are unstable with only fourteen Limbe practitioners remaining. ~

According to UNESCO Limbe circular breathing performances were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) The technique of performing the Limbe during the folk long song provides a sense of identity to the community of Limbe players; 2) Although tenacious elders continue to convey their expertise and a large number of skilled flute players exists among whom the circular-breathing technique can potentially be spread, the technique of Limbe performance to accompany the folk long song is not widely encountered.

Morin Khour: the Horsehead Fiddle

The “morin khour” (literally "force fiddle") is a two-string lute, with a scroll at the top carved like a horse's head, played with a horsehair bow. It is often used as solo instrument or self-played while singing. In the old days, they were used by bards who recited epic poems and stories and used by nomads to calm and sooth their animals. The morin khour has traditionally been made from tortoiseshell, wood and metal and decorated with green horse heads. Today, the morin khour is made of hand-carved wood but still uses traditional horse hair strings. The morin khour is composed of many parts, including the resonator, the shank, the head, the tuning page, Mazi, the string and the bow. The strings used in the male version of the instrument, which produce deep cello-like sounds, are made from 130 straight unwoven horse hairs while the strings in the female version of the instrument have only 105 hairs and produce a higher pitched sound. As a reminder of its origins, a carved horse-head is at the top of the instrument. Musicians, it is said, only master the instrument after playing it all night on the open steppe while standing next to a horse’s skull.

According to UNESCO The design of the morin khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse. The instrument’s hollow trapezoid-shaped body is attached to a long fretless neck bearing a carved horse head at its extremity. Just below the head, two tuning pegs jut out like ears from either side of the neck. The soundboard is covered with animal skin, and the strings and bow are made of horsehair. [Source: UNESCO]

The morin khour is also called "HuWuer", "HuQin", "Horsetail HuQin", "Molin Huwuer" and “MaTou Qin”—names that refer the horse's-head-shaped decoration on the top of the instrument. Most of the resonators are trapezoid in shape, but some are square, rectangular, hexagonal and octagonal. The frame of the resonator is made from horny wood blocks, with horsehide or oxhide, sheepskin covering both sides, or with hide covering the front and the thin slab covering its back. The shank is made from colored wood such as pear wood or rosewood, with a tuning page on each sides of the upside, and the head of the instrument on its top. The bows are mostly made from the cane, or the wood pole and the horsetail. The two stings are made from 40 (the inner string) and 60 (the outer string) horsetails, using silk strings to tie them to the musical instrument. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

In the recent decades, some changes have been made to the traditional morin khour. The resonator was broadened, the cover was changed into python hide, and the elasticity of the bow was raised. The nylon string have replaced the horsetail string so that the volume has become louder and the tone rose by four degrees. Such improvement not only maintained morin khour’s original gentle, deep and rich timbre, but also made it more clear and bright. ~

Morin Khour Playing

The way a morin khour is played is quite different from that of other drawn string instruments. The bow is not put between the inner and outer string, but is kept outside them to brush and play. Its timbre is gentle, deep and low, and it sounds melodious and mellow, full of the flavor of the grassland. Therefore, it is said that, "In describing the beauty of the grassland, a melody performed by morin khour is much more vivid than the color of the painters or the language of the poets". ~

John M. Glionna wrote in Los Angeles Times, “The instrument dates back 800 years, to the era of Genghis Khan. Its sound can be mournful, but also expansive and unrestrained, like a wild horse's neighing. Below the elegant figure of the horse head is the frightening face of a gargoyle — carvings that express the matouqin's range. Herdsmen used to summon musicians whenever a pregnant camel had trouble delivering. If shepherds assisted in the birth, they often left a human scent, causing the mother to reject the calf. The strains of the fiddle could make her reconsider.” [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2005]

The film “The Story of the Weeping Camel” (2004) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2005. It is about a group of Mongolian nomads who use a musical ritual to get a mother camel to weep and accept and nurse her rare white calf, which she previously rejected. As the musician plays his cello-like lament the mother camel appears to weep. The film was directed by Byambasuren Davaa, a Mongolian woman film maker, and financed with German money.

Legend of the Morin Khour: the Horsehead Fiddle

According to legend, the first Morin Khour was made by a hero from the parts of his beloved horse after it died. The head formed the body, the thigh bone made the fingerboard and the hair from tail and mane were made into the strings and bow. The hero then spent the rest of his life thinking about the horse while he played the instrument and sang sad laments about his loss. In one version of the story the horse was a winged creature used by the hero to visits his lover, a lake spirit with a beautiful green dress. The horse died after the hero’s wife discovered the wings of the horse hidden behind the animal’s leg and clipped them, causing the horse to plummet to earth during mid flight.

According to a longer version of the legend: Long ago, on the Chahaer grassland, there was a Mongol youth named Su He. He grew up with his grandmother. They made their living herding sheep. One day, on his way back home, Su He found a little white horse, and brought it home. He took great care of the horse, and it grew up day by day. The horse was snow white all over, lovely and strong, and the grandma and grandson liked it very much. All day long, it stayed with Su He. One spring, the king held a horse race promised that the winner could marry his daughter. Inspired by his friends, Su He took part in the race along with his beloved white horse, and won. However, the king not only broke his promise, but also hurt Su He and took the horse away from him. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

One night, while Su He was sleeping, he was woken up by a noise outside. He went out of his yurt to have to look. It was his little white horse; it had escaped from the king and come back. But it was shot by several arrows and hurt badly. The horse died the next day. Su He sank into deep sorrow and even lost his appetite for drinking and eating. One night, he dreamed of the little white horse. He gently stroked it. The horse said: "my master, if you want me to accompany you for ever, and never leave you lonely, then use my bones and muscles to make a musical instrument!" After Su He awoke the other day, he followed the little white horse's words, and made a musical instrument, using its shank as the pole, its skull as the muff, and its tail for the bow and string. He also carved a horse head on the top of instrument according to the white horse's appearance. Whenever he missed the little white horse, he played the musical instrument. After that the morin khour spread all over the whole grassland. ~

Music of the Morin Khour Recognized by UNESCO

In 2008,the music of morin khour was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: The two-stringed fiddle morin khuur has figured prominently in Mongolia’s nomad culture. String instruments adorned with horse heads are attested to by written sources dating from the Mongol empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument, for it was traditionally an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of the Mongolian nomads. [Source: UNESCO ~]

The instrument’s characteristic sound is produced by sliding or stroking the bow against the two strings. Common techniques include multiple stroking by the right hand and a variety of left-hand fingering. It is mainly played in solo fashion but sometimes accompanies dances, long songs (urtiin duu), mythical tales, ceremonies and everyday tasks related to horses. To this day, the morin khuur repertory has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame animals. Owing to the simultaneous presence of a main tone and overtones, morin khuur music has always been difficult to transcribe using standard notation. It has been transmitted orally from master to apprentice for many generations. ~

Over the past forty years, most Mongolians have settled in urban centres, far from the morin khuur’s historical and spiritual context. Moreover, the tuning of the instrument is often adapted to the technical requirements of stage performance, resulting in higher and louder sounds that erase many timbral subtleties. Fortunately, surviving herding communities in southern Mongolia. ~

Horsehead Fiddle Performer in China

A Mongolian vocalist named Hajab was regarded as a master of morin khour music. Describing him in 2005 in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, John M. Glionna wrote in Los Angeles Times, “Imprisoned as a traitor in the 1960s, Hajab says he drinks to forget the past. He is 85 now, and his hearing is nearly gone. A lone yellow tooth protrudes from his lower gums, and cataracts have stolen his sight. Once known as the King of the Grasslands, he rarely sings anymore. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2005 +/+]

“Hajab explained that during the Cultural Revolution, one of his songs angered the Communists. The lyrics evoked a mountain in bordering Mongolia, which became independent from China in the 1920s. Party leaders demanded to know why he had immortalized a foreign landmark even though China had many beautiful mountains. Red Guard students smashed most known recordings of his music and burned his scores. Hajab spent 11 years in prison. Talking of the ordeal, he began to weep. +/+

“Then two Chinese musicians, one a former student of his, began tuning their Mongolian horse-head fiddles. Hajab grew silent. As the two played the song "Old Bird," his head began moving to the rhythm. Slowly, he began to sing...On a cool summer morning, the master performed a favorite piece called "A Fine Horse." "Riding a quick red horse, you should tighten the halter going to a far distance," he sang in his native Inner Mongolian dialect as the two fiddlers accompanied him. "You should persist and be patient." +/+

Tracking Down Horse Head Fiddle Masters in Inner Mongolia

Wang Hong is a San-Fransisco-based musical archeologist who tracked down Hajab. John M. Glionna wrote in Los Angeles Times, “went to Inner Mongolia in search of the sages who played it best. Wang's muddied SUV rumbled over an axle-snapping dirt road near Xilinhot. All around him, the grasslands reached out in rolling waves. He passed ox carts and shepherd boys atop motorcycles tending to their flocks. As wandering cows slowed the flow of battered trucks and cars, he stared out a grimy window — humming an old Mongolian folk tune that was stuck in his head. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2005 +/+]

“A day after interviewing Hajab, Wang recorded the music of one of the master's pupils, Li Bo, also a grassland native. Wang wanted to videotape Li inside a yurt, a dome-shaped Mongolian herdsman's tent. The two sat cross-legged on the yurt's carpeted floor, dining on a freshly slaughtered lamb, drinking sour horse milk. Li told about how he once used his matouqin [morin khour] to make camels weep. Li explained that he would draw his bow across the horsehair strings in languid strokes, trying to evoke tears from the moody animal so she would accept the newborn. "Camels, like humans, have complex emotions," he said. +/+

“Later, Li and Wang visited a 92-year-old matouqin player named Maxibataar, who was imprisoned for 15 years by the Communists. His brother, a more celebrated player, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge rather than face such a fate. The old man, frail and bent, listened as Li played the matouqin. His eyes had a distant look, as though he was remembering his own performances. Li coaxed him into playing for the first time in years. He finished with a flourish, playfully plucking the strings.He asked for a cigarette, exclaiming: "I am happy." +/+

Mongolian Songs

The Mongolian people have hundreds of folk songs about nature, love, and loneliness; some of them are many centuries old and go back to Genghis Khan. C. Le Blanc wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” They may be divided into two different groups. One is common in pastoral areas, slow in tempo and free in rhythm. The other is popular in seminomadic districts, with quicker tempo and regular rhythm. Haolibao is a popular style of singing performance. The melody is rather fixed, but the words are impromptu (spontaneous), usually inspired by a sudden event that touches the singer. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

Traditional Mongolian songs include praise songs and epic songs that recount myths, historical events and legends. These have been traditionally performed at festivals by traveling bards. Many songs are about the toughness of Mongolian horses. There are songs about the mythic origins of the horse of the morin khour. In the film the Story of Weeping Camel a sad song played on the instrument encourages a mother camel to accept a calf she had previously rejected.

Long song singers sing in a rich, passionate full voice but they hardly move their mouth when they are singing. Urtyn duu ("long songs") are so named not for their length but for the complicated way singer chants and draw out notes. According to some Mongolians, the songs sound best when riding a hose at full gallop. "The long song songs are about the expanses of Mongolia," one singer told National Geographic,. "Who to talk to? What to talk about? Sometimes the songs would be happy and sometimes sad...The long songs are about the steppes and about life being a very broad a very wide experience...But people can only think of their horses galloping through life. Every song is about this wonderful horses flying against the wind like a bird."

Urtiin Duu, Traditional Folk Long Song

In 2008, Urtiin Duu, traditional folk long song was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: The Urtiin duu or “long song” is one of the two major forms of Mongolian songs, the other being the short song” (bogino duu). As a ritual form of expression associated with important celebrations and festivities, Urtiin duu plays a distinct and honoured role in Mongolian society. It is performed at weddings, the inauguration of a new home, the birth of a child, the branding of foals and other social events celebrated by Mongolia’s nomadic communities.The Urtiin duu can also be heard at the naadam, a festivity featuring wrestling, archery and horseracing competitions.[Source: UNESCO ~]

The Urtiin duu is a lyrical chant, which is characterized by an abundance of ornamentation, falsetto, an extremely wide vocal range and a free compositional form. The rising melody is slow and steady while the falling melody is often intercepted with a lively rhythm. Performances and compositions of Urtiin duu are closely linked to the pastoral way of life of the Mongolian nomads on their ancestral grasslands. ~

Widely believed to have originated 2,000 years ago, the Urtiin duu has been recorded in literary works since the thirteenth century. A rich variety of regional styles has been preserved until today, and performances as well as contemporary compositions still play a major role in the social and cultural life of nomads living in Mongolia and in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Republic, located in the northern part of the People’s Republic of China. ~

Since the 1950s, urbanization and industrialization have increasingly superseded traditional nomadic lifestyles, leading to the loss of many traditional practices and expressions. Parts of the grasslands where tradition-bearers used to live as nomads have fallen victim to desertification, causing many families to shift to a sedentary way of life where many classical themes of Urtiin duu, such as the praise of typical nomads’ virtues and experiences, lose their relevance. ~

Traditional Music of the Tsuur

In 2010, traditional music of the Tsuur was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: Tsuur music is based on a combination of instrumental and vocal performance – a blending of sounds created simultaneously by both the musical instrument and the human throat. Tsuur music has an inseparable connection to the Uriankhai Mongolians of the Altai Region, and remains an integral part of their daily life. Its origins lie in an ancient practice of worshipping nature and its guardian spirits by emulating natural sounds. [Source: UNESCO ~]

The Tsuur is a vertical pipe-shaped wooden wind instrument with three fingerholes. Simultaneously touching the mouthpiece of the pipe with one’s front teeth and applying one’s throat produces a unique timbre comprising a clear and gentle whistling sound and a drone. The Tsuur is traditionally played to ensure success for hunts, for benign weather, as a benediction for safe journeys or for weddings and other festivities. The music reflects one’s inner feelings when travelling alone, connects a human to nature, and serves as a performing art. ~

“The Tsuur tradition has faded over recent decades as a consequence of negligence and animosity toward folk customs and religious faith, leaving many locales with no Tsuur performer and no families possessing a Tsuur. The forty known pieces preserved among the Uriankhai Mongolians are transmitted exclusively through the memory of successive generations – a feature making this art highly vulnerable to the risk of disappearing.

According to UNESCO, traditional music of the Tsuur was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) Deeply rooted in the nomadic ways of life of the Uriankhai ethnic group of the Altai Mountains in north-western Mongolia, the traditional music of the Tsuur is an important part of the people’s relationship with their natural environment and a critical element in assuring their survival within it, as it accompanies daily activities and animal herding as well as religious ceremonies and rituals; 2) Despite a growing awareness and concern about local and regional traditional cultural forms, and the willingness and active commitment of apprentices to preserving the element, the tradition of the Tsuur is threatened by developments such as an ever-growing appeal of cosmopolitan lifestyles, migration to urban areas, processes of urbanization and industrialization, the loss of the cultural contexts for its practice and the passing of Tsuur performers.

Prize-Winning Mongolian Classical Western Singer

Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar won first prize in the male-vocalist category in the fifteenth International Tchaikovsky Competition, held in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the summer of 2015, and was the competition’s Grand Prix winner for over-all excellence. Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker : Ganbaatar “ is a tall and rangy young guy. Offstage, he wears jeans, a dark shirt, a thin quilted vest, and shiny black ankle boots. Onstage, he wears black tie, which his shock of black hair complements. He walks with the confidence of someone whom the world is discovering and vice versa. No Mongolian has ever won the competition before.” In November 2015, he made his American début at Carnegie Hall. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, November 16, 2015]

“He talked to reporters in his dressing room beforehand...He said he was born in a rural area west of Ulaanbaatar, in 1988. His father named him Ariunbaatar, which means “Pure Hero.” His friends call him Ariuka. The family are nomads, herding cows, sheep, and goats over a range of about four hundred kilometres on the steppe, except in the winter, when they move to apartments in Ulaanbaatar. They use horses, and motorcycles of Japanese and Chinese manufacture, which he knows how to repair. He began singing folk songs when he was seven.

“When he was seventeen, he was admitted to the Mongolian State University of Culture and the Arts and began to take singing lessons. Because of a lack of money, he left after two years. He then became a traffic policeman. The police department of Ulaanbaatar has a men’s chorus that performs all over Mongolia and sometimes in Russia. He became a soloist in the chorus. During a performance in Ulan Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia, in Siberia, staff members from the Buryat State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre heard him and invited him to join. For the past year, he has been a singer at the theatre, dividing his time between apartments in Ulan Ude and Ulaanbaatar. He has been to New York City once before; on that visit he stood in front of the Metropolitan Opera House and put his hands together and prayed that someday he would sing there. Now, he said, he needed to eat his lunch—a paper cup of soup and half a sandwich from a nearby deli—so that he would have an hour between when he finished eating and when he performed.

“Valery Gergiev, the conductor, who is the co-chair of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, hosted the sold-out recital. Ganbaatar sang “Silence of the Secret Night,” by Rachmaninoff, and “I love you beyond measure,” from Tchaikovsky’s opera “The Queen of Spades.” In the exuberance afterward, admirers said, “Ganbaatar goes inside the music,” and “He’s got soul,” and “If the Met knows what it is doing, it will grab him.”

“At a post-concert luncheon at the hall’s Weill Terrace, the radio host Naomi Lewin interviewed Ganbaatar as prelude to a brief encore. She asked what was the first opera he ever saw. He said it was an opera on television. She pressed: which opera? He did not want to say. Then he admitted it was a cartoon: “Tom and Jerry.” Baatar, the translator, explained that the “Tom and Jerry” episode in which Jerry, the mouse, sings “Figaro” appears often on TV in Mongolia. Ganbaatar, a baritone, then sang the “Figaro” aria for the guests. Somehow the “Tom and Jerry” influence showed—he rocked the joint. An American composer at Table 7, who had to turn his chair around to watch, turned back to the table with tears in his eyes and declared Ganbaatar the real thing.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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