Odes about the open steppe, nature and horses make for popular themes in the various genres of traditional Mongolian music. A popular one of these is known as long song (Urtyn Duu)—a name which refers to the technique of elongating every syllable in a ballad. The original long songs were written about eight hundred years ago, and a well-trained singer can extend 10 to 15 words of lyrics into a five minute song, much to the delight of an audience.
However, Mongolia is best known for its hoomii, described as “throat singing”. Perfecting this beautiful, almost otherworldly, acoustic singing takes lengthy training. The style originates from western Mongolia, but is performed across the country.
In addition to singing, Mongolians also play a variety of string and wind instruments, as well as drums and gongs. Mongolians have made their music through the ages using metal, stone, bamboo, leather and wood. The country’s most recognizable and beloved musical instrument is the morin khuur (the horse-head fiddle), which Mongolians say can recreate sounds akin to the movement of a horse. A square fiddle, the instrument has a long, straight handle curving at the tip and topped with a carving of a horse’s head. Every Mongolian family strives to have a morin khuur in their ger, although they are handmade and fairly expensive instruments. Small flutes and pipes are also popular.
While music is a popular form of entertainment in the country, many musical instruments are used purely for religious ceremonies. A shell shaped bugle called a dun is used to gather lamas before a ceremony and ganlinhorns are still used to dispel bad spirits. The ganlin is made from the femur of an eighteen-year-old female virgin (who died of natural causes), and is filed down to size. An example of this instrument can be found at the Choijin Lama Museum in Ulaanbaatar (see the city guide section) and at the Manzushir Monastery, 50 kilometers south of the capital.
Mongolia is also home to some remarkable dances, and the nation’s Buddhist temples host the spectacular tsam dances during special religious ceremonies. Lamas wearing huge, ornate masks and brilliantly decorated costumes sway and circle to the sound of gongs and trumpets. It is theatrical art form, requiring dancers to assume the external attributes of different apostles and devils, animals and real people. The scenery, opening, action, musical climax and outcome of a tsam all play an important role in illustrating the characters of the personages depicted: whether cruel, calm or humorous.