Exploring the Mysteries of Tuvan Throat Singing

Chris Bergevin
York University
Tuesday, January 12, 2021

``Throat singers" from central Asia are well known for their unique song vocalizations. In particular, singers from Tuva (a federal subject of Russia) have become popularized in part due to the exploits of the late physicist Richard Feynman. A salient example is the Sygyt style of ``Khoomei", which creates an otherworldly yet organic sound. Singers produce two pitches simultaneously: a booming low-frequency rumble alongside a hovering high-pitched whistle-like tone. The biomechanics of this biphonation are not well-understood. We use sound analysis, dynamic magnetic resonance imaging, and vocal tract modeling to demonstrate how biphonation is achieved by modulating vocal tract morphology. Tuvan singers show remarkable control in shaping their vocal tract to narrowly focus the harmonics (or overtones) emanating from their vocal cords. 

Prof. Christopher Bergevin is an Associate Professor and biophysicist in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at York University, which he joined in 2012. He is a past Chair of the CAP Division of Physics in Medicine and Biology. As an undergraduate, he double majored in mathematics and physics at the University of Arizona, with several research experiences dealing with dynamical systems. He obtained his graduate education at MIT, where he explored the biophysics of the inner ear.  Overall, his research focuses on the biophysical processes underlying our sensory systems, with a particular emphasis on how our ears encode sound.

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