Enthusiasms: Yodeling

I’m going to try to make a biweekly blog post this year (of the twice-per-month variety, not twice-weekly). When I asked for advice about what theme(s) I should pursue, I was encouraged to focus on my interests, so I’ve decided to call this series Enthusiasms. As my enthusiasms tend toward the fitful, I hope they’ll make entertainingly brief blog entries. I’m a musician and writer with an aimless but sincere interest in classical and avant music, poetry, world traditions, and prog rock.


I ended 2009 unexpectedly fascinated with yodeling, spurred by my purchase of World Music Network’s excellent 2006 CD The Rough Guide To Yodel. Yodeling, which had always seemed silly to me, suddenly seemed great. Rather than trying to help singers keep their voices from cracking, yodeling asks that they make a virtue of necessity. Physiologically, yodeling involves a basic fact of human vocal production: there is a boundary, or break, between singing registers, commonly termed “normal” voice and “falsetto.” There is also considerable debate about the nature of the mechanism, with some suggestion that yodel effects may be produced differently by men and women (see the link to Timothy Wise’s essay, further down). Here is a video from the UW of a vocal endoscopy that shows the switch between normal voice and falsetto.

Outside of European art music, there’s been considerable yodeling. An excellent essay from Excavated Shellac covers some theories about the development of the practice, and references this beautiful recording of alpine yodeling, hosted at the Free Music Archive:

Though yodeling traditions have sprung up in many cultures, there are two fairly common origin stories. One has to do with mountain echoes, and many echo-oriented yodels, such as this one, exist. The other theory involves agrarian people wanting to shout to their livestock across distance, an example of which is an Alpine yodel type known as Viehlöcker, or “cattle call.”

If your interest runs toward the types of yodeling, Timothy Wise’s essay “Yodel Species: A Typology of Falsetto Effects in Popular Music Vocal Styles,” online here at Radical Musicology, is excellent, and even contains an analysis of a brief yodel David Bowie transacts during this live version of “Queen Bitch.” The article theorizes why yodeling is today so foreign to classical music. Two reasons Wise posits are the centuries-long aesthetic preference for smooth vocal transitions in European art music and, surprisingly, that there’s simply no recognized way of writing down a yodel (in other words, no way of telling a singer clearly that one note is falsetto, and another isn’t): “So partly because of the centrality of notation to the idea of classical music, and partly because its technique is antithetical to the technique of classical singing, which for two centuries or more has valorised smooth transition over the entire vocal range of a singer, the yodel lost its home in classical music.”

After marveling at eleven-year-old Taylor Ware’s performance (below) on America’s Got Talent, I started wondering how one (i.e. me) might learn to yodel. This led me to yodelcourse.com, a site maintained by longtime yodeler and yodel-advocate Norman Gwaltney. At the top of the site is a disclaimer reading, “I take no responsibility for the consequences of yodeling in social situations.” Comic irony? Regardless, I’ve been trying a little bit. So far, it’s proven an uncomfortable but compelling combo of liberation and embarrassment!

Steven Arntson is a writer and composer who performs as a concertina soloist and with the quartet The Toy Boats. Upcoming appearances are posted on his facebook page, and recordings, scores, and articles reside at his website.

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One Comment

  1. Space Martini
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I was reminded of a track over at UbuWeb (under their 365 Days Project) that had some Cambodian Funk Yodeling: http://www.ubu.com/outsiders/365/2003/050.shtml

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