Mongolia has a rich and unique culture that makes it a popular travel destination and topic of study. In particular, Mongolia is noted for their music, in that their songs and the instruments that they are played on are fascinating. As a person of Mongolian heritage, I have had first hand experience with this cultural tradition and have spent countless hours engaging with this unique part of the culture. Therefore, below is a brief look at the music of Mongolia, so that others can experience it as well.
First of all, like most music, the music of Mongolia is a reflection of their history and environment. Mongolia is in central Asia in the steppes, which characterized by wide open grasslands, roaming bands of horses, and beautiful nature. Therefore, this can be found in all aspects of Mongolian music. For example, Mongolian music often has long, simple songs that reflect the simplicity of their surroundings. These have been described by some resembling the wind that flows across the grasslands. Mongolian songs also often have drums of all sizes, which feature prominently in many songs. Again, this is said to reflect their surroundings, in that some believe they represent the bands of horses that roam throughout the grasslands. A good example that demonstrates the above is what is called the Long Song, which features a singer that must sustain notes for as long as he or she is able. This is not meant to be lively, but, rather, meant to convey the never ending wind and grasslands. Therefore, while listening to Mongolian music, people can begin to understand the land from which the music came.
Furthermore, Mongolian music is deeply rooted in history. That is, the songs tell the stories of famous people that helped build the country. These types of songs are sung by bards during ceremonies and festivals to help unify the people. For example, songs are often sung about Geser and Jangar, two important figure from Mongolian history. These songs are not just a form of entertainment, but they are played during important events, such as national holidays to help educate the people and to help foster a sense of national pride. Therefore, while listening to Mongolian music, their appreciation and celebration their own history can certainly be heard.
Moreover, Mongolian music uses several unique instruments. The most popular of these is the Morin khuur, which translates to the horse head fiddle. This is usually a square shaped stringed instrument that often is decorated with the engravings of horses, as this animal is widely celebrated by Mongolians throughout the country. The origin story of this instrument is that it was made by a man who had a wonderful horse that eventually died. He was so heartbroken when the horse died, that he made a fiddle out of the horse’s bones and the horse’s hair for the strings. In fact, it is said that he placed the horse’s head on the neck. While this is probably not true, as it is a simply a traditional story, it demonstrates the influence that horses have on Mongolian music. Other types of instruments that are used in Mongolian music are the shants, the yoochin, the khuuchir, the yatga, the everburee, teh khel khuur, the tobshuur, the ikh khuur, and the bishhuur. All of these are unique to Mongolian culture, although there are similar versions of them in surrounding countries. These instruments also produce unique sounds that give Mongolian music a distinct sound.
Another unique aspect of Mongolian music is the singing. In particular, Mongolian singers use a technique known as overtone singing. This type of singing produces two tones simultaneously, and this is accomplished by using two different types of breathing. This produces a high pitched whistle sound and low bass tone, creating a unique sound. Therefore, singers can create two notes at once that harmonize with each other, which is in stark contrast to every other form of singing. This creates an almost eerie sound, much like the whistling of the wind through the grasslands, again demonstrating the connection between the music and nature. In fact, some consider this to be an instrument, not a form of singing, as it does not use words. Rather, it uses the vocal cords much like a stringed instrument. Furthermore, singing is often the centerpiece of Mongolian songs, making the art of singing a well respected profession. Other than overtone singing, the types of singing that can be found vary widely, even by the different regions of Mongolia.
In the modern day, Mongolian music has been influenced by Western styles of music. That is, it has become more vibrant, shorter, louder etc. Mongolians today still enjoy traditional forms of music, but they can also be found listening to pop music, classical music, rock and roll, etc. However, not all of this is produced outside of Mongolia, as many Mongolian bands have adopted this style and begun to make it themselves. Therefore, Mongolian music today is an interesting mix between the old and new worlds, thus representing the long and rich history of the country itself. For me, Mongolian music represents the rich history of the country, as well as the modern struggle to integrate into the global economy. That is, the country has been influenced by surrounding nations and Western nations, while still struggling to maintain the aspects that make them unique. Therefore, there are a lot important lessons that can be learned about Mongolia from there music and songs.