Musical characteristics of Kyrgyz songs

The Kyrgyz name of a song is ır or obon. Within the general categories, several genres are tied up with the traditional livestock herding way of life of the Kyrgyz. One is the Bekbekey song of girls and women guarding the sheep at night against the wolves, or the herders’ şırıldañ song leading the horse studs to pasture.1 The tunes of these two genres are characterized by a narrow range, simple AcA form and an undulating melody line. I collected several original variants of the Bekbekey as well. (The indexes chapter orientates the reader in the tunes belonging to certain genres.)

The Op maida threshing song mainly typical of southern areas is not included in my collection. Its melody scheme is: 6/8: C-D-E E-D / C-D-C B-G, / G,-G, C-C, its typical C-B-G, and G,-C turns being frequent in several other Kyrgyz folk tunes including laments. There are weaving and spinning songs, tunes sung to churning butter, weaving rugs, grinding by hand, milking, etc.

In everyday life laments, bride’s farewell songs, lullabies, children’s and girls‘ songs, lyrical song, mocking and comic songs are sung. The repertory of lyrical songs is the richest, covering themes of love, family, nature and animals. The main forms are seketbay, küygön (on passionate love) and arman (plaintive, sad song).

Lament. In the folk music of several ethnic groups laments and bride’s farewell songs are characterized by a distinct musical form. Kyrgyz laments have two basic types. One is a hill-shaped line with a fourth leap downward or upward at the beginning or the end: G, - C-D-E-F / D-D-E-F-E-D / C - G, and less frequently on an Aeolian scale: (E, - A-B-C-D / C-D-C-C-B / A - E,).

The other type of laments is characterized by lines moving on a Major (or Minor) hexachord one line below the other, and by lines cadencing on neighboring (D and C) notes; this fact, the genre itself and its rhythmically free improvisatory performing style draw this Kyrgyz tune type close to the main Hungarian, Anatolian and Azeri lament types. All this will be explicated in more detail later.

The Kyrgyz laments are closely related to the Kyrgyz kız uzatuu bride’s farewellʼ songs. What is more, the musical analysis will show that this musical formula appears among other genres of Kyrgyz folksongs in varied forms, with longer and shorter lines, diverse tonal ranges and different scales, constituting one of the most important groups, musical styles of Kyrgyz folk music. Kızıl gül red roseʼ composed by A. Maldybayev probably also earned its popularity to its familiar rising-falling structure. Besides, this hill-shaped Major-character melody with the F note on the peak strongly resembles Kyrgyz laments.

Lullaby. The lullaby is an important genre, both for its ancient features and its influence upon the people’s musical realm, for the (musical) perceptions at an early age have their impact on one’s whole life. Just like other ethnicities’ lullabies, Kyrgyz rocking songs are also simple, but relatively widely varied, as their mention at different points of the analysis will prove.2 I separately mention a popular Phrygian lullaby type lots of similar tunes to which are found in Azeri and Turkmen folk music also as lullabies. The melody also occurs among the equally traditional Bekbekey tunes – possibly not by chance.

Lyrical tunes. This category is the richest in tunes, including love songs (e.g. seketbay, küygön about passionate loveʼ or arman plaintive songʼ), songs about the family, nature and animal-related themes. The melodies, with their wide spectrum of forms, belong to the more advanced layer of Kyrgyz folk music, as e.g. the place of love songs in the typology reveals (see indices).

Caramazan songs. The Kyrgyz are Muslims but the Islam only began to spread massively among them in the 17-18th centuries. In the 16-17th centuries they were still infidels, therefore they have preseved several shamanistic and animistic elements and pre-Islam customs, similarly to the Uzbeks and Tajiks. In the Ramadan month of fasting they sing the Caramazan (Ya, Ramadan) religious songs which deviate in structure and meter from the majority of traditional Kyrgyz songs, but are closely tied to them by several details. (Let me note here that genres are only considered in the musical typology when the tunes attached to them are also distinctly separated, e.g. in the case of the Caramazan melodies.)

Melody lines of Kyrgyz folksongs

A great part of Kyrgyz folksongs are characterized by rising-falling, hill-shaped lines. This melodic progression sometimes only occurs in the first two lines, e.g. in the Selkinçek swinging songʼ (C-D-E-F G-A G // G-E-F-F E-D C). In laments and several popular art songs this melody motion is found in the first line. The upward G,-C or E,-A and downward C-G, or A-E, fourth leaps at the beginning of laments occur in Kyrgyz folksongs, too, sometimes with some interim notes or some modification added (e.g. C-B-G, C-D-B-G or C-B-D-G). Such phenomenon occurs in diverse musics, mostly in the music of Turkic groups fond of pentatonic scales, but also e.g. in Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian folk music, although no genetic relationship is postulated among them.

In Kyrgyz folksongs a syllable often tallies with one note. Not infrequently, a performer recites the melody on equivalent notes at a fast pace, only giving some longer value to the last note of a line. The recitation is usually based on a rhythmic formula of seven (+|&@) or eight (+|+).

Similar but slow declamation can also be found, mainly in songs with longer than average lines. The decorated melody sections fall on the interjections inserted into the textual lines before or in the refrains. These melismatic vocal interludes are incorporated in the melodic progression organically, creating an integral whole.

Rhythmic basis of Kyrgyz folksongs

The 7-syllable trochaic rhythm (+|&@) is common and is frequently paired with, or can be exchanged for the octosyllabic +|+, producing a kind of compound rhythmic formula +|+||+|&@ of 8+7 syllables.

After the fourth syllable in a heptasyllabic line an extra syllable is often inserted, resulting in the popular octosyllable structure +#|&@ of 3+2+3 subdivision (€&|€). There are also eleven-syllable Kyrgyz folksongs of 4+4+3 (+|+|&@) subdivision, but they are fewer.

The most frequent rhythmic patterns are the following:

7-syllabic (4/3)




8-syllabic (3+2/3)

€ | &



11-syllabic (4/4/3)





The rest of the rhythmic formulae and the rhythms of the Caramazan are presented in the appendices.

Working songs, many ritual tunes, lullabies, children’s song and humorous-mocking songs are mostly seven-syllabic. Some laments or some lines of laments, the lyrical songs and other songs of more profound textual contents are 11-syllabic. Both 7- and 11-syllable lines can take on further syllables, exclamations or whole words, creating new prosodic forms.

Elision is frequent in both Kyrgyz and Kazakh folk poetry. It primarily occurs between the last vowel of a word and the starting vowel of the next, e.g. kold’orama < kolda oramal. It is all but compulsory in many Caramazan tunes.

Forms of Kyrgyz folksongs

Similarly to several other Turkic and non-Turkic peoples, the basic scheme of the folksong lyrics is the four-lined form, with a a b a rhymes, which is popular in Anatolia, the Caucasus, among the Turks of the Volga region as well as in Central Asia.

Just like so many Mongolian and Turkic folksong texts, the Kyrgyz lines are often held together by line-starting alliteration or assonance instead of rhymes. Also typical is the use of identical or similar themes in varied or identical form in subsequent stanzas.

Before taking a closer look at the forms, let me note that in the more traditional genres of Kyrgyz folk music a note for note repetition of a line is exceptional; exact repetition can only be found in songs that do not adjust to the more ancient folk music repertory. The extremely strong tendency of variation goes together with the somewhat poco rubato performance of many Kyrgyz folksongs. Truly isometric construction is rare, and even the highly rhythmic epic recitations are unexpectedly studded with one or more additional notes of quaver value jolting the rigid giusto performance and rousing the listeners’ attention.

In terms of form, the simplest are the twin-bar tunes of two short distinct sections of avb, ab scheme, e.g. in epic recitations, but they are also widely varied.

The single-lined or more precisely, single-core (A, AA, AAv...) form is also popular. The single short musical line that also divides into two bars reminiscently but less conspicuously than the twin-bar pattern is also varied during the performance. In single-core forms of long lines there is of course more room for the development of the melody.

Two-core forms of two different lines occur in every genre with several sub-forms: ABB, AAB, AA|BB, ABAvB etc. These and the seemingly four-lined AB|CB form tunes are analyzed in connection with the AB two-lined tunes corresponding to them. I juxtaposed the AB|CB form tunes next to the similar AB two-lined ones because the B lines close on the key note and line C usually contains no salient novelty. At the same time, within this basically double-core formal realm one encounters greatly varied tunes: the two musical lines may outline an ascending-descending curve, the first line can be descending, undulating or (less frequently) may move around a pivotal note.

The real four-section AB|AC form is also frequent although the two-lined base is still discernible. The fully-fledged strophe is also often found; apart from the ABCD scheme with different melody progression in each line, there are numerous sub-forms.

Kyrgyz folk music also contains several specific forms, e.g. tunes of 3, 5, 6 or more lines, sequences of motifs and Caramazan processes.

Despite the considerable number of descending tunes, the Chuvash, Tatar, Mongol fifth-shift practically does not occur here. This is not surprising if we realize that Kyrgyz folk music only contains sporadic disjunct melody structures in which the first part of the tune moves in a higher pitch zone than the second half. Slobin (1969a) scrutinized the fifth-shifting phenomena in Kyrgyz folk music in more detail. In my material ex.33b is a tune of disjunct structure with a detectable fifth-shift.

Scales of Kyrgyz folksongs

The basic scale of the apparently oldest musical strata, e.g. the ritual songs, laments, lullabies, epic songs, etc. is (F)-E-D-C + G, or (D)-C-bB-A + E,. This resembles the basic scale e.g. of northern Slavic peoples with its double tetrachord within the interval of a seventh: there is active melody movement above the upper tonic (C or A), and often an empty fifth distance between the lower and upper tonic (C-G, or A-E). This basic structure can be made out in several Kyrgyz (and eastern Slavic) tunes of Major-character (Ionian, Mixolydian) and Minor-character (Aeolian, Phrygian) scales.

“Major(-character)” and “Minor(-character)” are used here for want of more accurate phrases, to designate scales containing the Major third and Minor third intervals, respectively. But this is still inaccurate, for in Kyrgyz folk music the pitch of the third degree (and other degrees) is rather uncertain, and in the performance of a more traditional genre the Minor and Major third may be intoned within a single melody. A more adequate approach to melody analysis might be the definition of the main pitch zones and the melody motion inside these zones. This is supported by the elsewhere also found phenomenon that several Kyrgyz performers sing with different timbre and intone different pitches singing a modern song and performing e.g. a lament.

There are no purely pentatonic Kyrgyz tunes; within the lines and across the lines the melody moves basically on neighbouring notes, that is, in conjunct motion. Degree 6 plays a salient role in several tunes, even as the cadential note, sometimes as the supplement for the 5th degree.

At the same time, distinctly pentatonic sections can be discovered at many places, and these link Kyrgyz folk music to eastern Turkic and Mongolic music. The pentatonic elements often appear as a mixture of pentatonic motifs, similarly to the music of peoples who used pentatony more extensively. Itself the G,-C and E,-A leap of the above-described basic structure is of a strongly pentatonic character, this fifth leap occuring at the beginning or end of a line in many songs. Another rather frequent motif is E-C-A, D-C-A (№2) or E-C-D-G, (№43), usually in line-ending position. But at the line ends of several laments and tunes of other genres the D-B-A tritone motif of semitonal pentatonic character can be heard. In tunes of wider ranges the F note may be omitted from between G and E, lending the section a pentatonic character.

It may be an indication of the greater former role of pentatonic scales that in scales with a Minor third the second or sixth degrees missing from the A pentatonic scale are often intoned at two, F–#F and B–bB heights within a single tune. However, this might rather be the outcome of more hesitant intonation caused maybe by the later insertion of these tones in the pentatonic scales. Somewhat different is the duality or uncertain intonation of the 3rd degree (b3–3) in some tunes. An illumining piece of information about the latter: the Kyrgyz replaced the frets of the Minor third and the Major third with a single fret producing an interim, neutral third in the komuz.

Rarely, scales of a chromatic character can also be discerned in Kyrgyz tunes, but the intonation of these chromatic notes is usually highly uncertain.

1 Bekbekey: №s11-13, 15, 17-18, 20, 24, Ex. 4a-b and Ex. 21a; Şırıldañ: №s129, 161, 243, 244, 278 and Ex.24.

2 Lullabies: №s1, 19, 21-23, 27-31, 33, 35-37, 45, 81-82, 91, 106, 116, 133, 143, 171-172, 182, 186-187, 190, 198, 205, 228, 231, 240 and Ex.1a, 3, 5, 6a, 30a, 36a.