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What is Yodeling?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Yodeling is a type of wordless singing which appears in many cultures, although it is most closely associated with Swiss folk music. It involves holding an extended single note and modulating it so that it fluctuates from the deep sound of the chest voice to the falsetto sound of the head voice. A tradition of yodeling can be found in American country and western music, and in some Middle Eastern music as well. It has a distinctive sound, perhaps best characterized by the famous “yodl-ay-ee-oooo.”

The term comes from a German word, jodeln, which is related to a German slang word, jo, for an expression of delight. Yodeling tends to be triumphant and celebratory, so the link with words related to exclamations of happiness makes sense. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all have yodeling traditions, as well as an assortment of styles. Some visitors to these regions are not aware that yodeling encompasses many vastly different schools, leading to a wide variation in sounds, although most involve vowel noises only.

According to legend, yodeling developed as a method of communication in the Swiss alps. By calling in an area which could echo, the yodeler could project sound across long distances. Large horns were also used to communicate through the mountains. Swiss yodeling is still frequently practiced in an area which will generate an echo, and horn players often accompany yodelers. Other cultures may also have used this method of singing for communication as well.

With some work, most people can learn to yodel, although they may not demonstrate the peak of potential achievement. Yodeling well requires a large lung capacity along with the ability to create fluctuations in the voice. It is sometimes compared to scat singing, which is used in jazz music. Although wordless, a yodel can still be used to convey emotions or information, and in some regions, specific patterns of vowel sounds have unique meanings.

Numerous recordings of traditional Swiss yodeling can be found in specialty stores. For visitors to regions of Europe where it is practiced, live performances are often available, along with instruction in the form. Yodeling can also be heard in the music of other cultures, from the chorus of country sounds to accompaniments to Middle Eastern music. Each culture has a number of specific techniques, leading it to sound very different from Swiss yodeling.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By John57 — On Jun 10, 2011

I find it interesting that the slang for the word yodeling means an expression of delight - especially because it is hard to hear someone yodel without being delighted.

Listening to people yodel has always been fascinating to me. Every year our state fair has a yodeling contest and I love to sit and listen as long as I can. Some of the contestants have made their own yodeling cd which they have on sale at the fair. This is a talent that they make look very easy, but it really is much harder than it looks.

By mendocino — On Nov 16, 2008

I think yodeling was a melodic way of herders to communicate with cattle. It is a very old vocal technique.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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