The Mongolian long song (urtyn duu) was created by steppe nomads in northern China during the long hours spent tending their animals. As a genre it is a type of lyric folksong and is sung at traditional festivals, in everyday life, and while tending the animals as they graze. It is also referred to as a “living fossil” of steppe music. In 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed it on the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
The long song is closely connected with the lives of the herdsmen on the steppe and is indispensable when it comes to daily routines, animal husbandry, and celebrations both small and large. Herdsmen express their emotions by singing long songs, and Mongolian women at home also amuse themselves with the songs.
There are singular artistic aspects to the long song—the lyrics, the melody, the singing method, and the performance are all unique. As a kind of lyrical music, the long song has such characteristics as a heavy use of ornamentation and falsetto. Its melody is marked by long, fluid, melodic lines rich with rhythmic variety; a wide vocal range, and improvisation. Its lyrics are often structured in couplets or quatrains. The rising melodies have slow and steady rhythms while lively repeated triplet patterns which imitate the pace of the life on the prairie are inserted into the falling melodies.
Mongolian musical culture is distributed along two axes. The music encountered traveling from north to south shows a great variation in form, while the music heard traveling from east to west is noted for its distinct styles. The Mongolian Plateau is cut into two distinctive regions by the Greater Khingan Range, the Yin Mountains, and the Helan (formerly Alashan) Mountains. The northern part, including Hulunbuir, Xilingol, northern Urad, Alxa, Khalkha, Oirat, and other areas, is a typical steppe region, and its folk music is mainly made up of traditional epics, and long songs. Special instruments and techniques are the horse-headed fiddles, throat singing, and cogur music. The southern part is the area of Kolchin, eastern Tümed, Kharachin, and southern Ordos, which are divided by farming and traditional nomadic life. Its music mainly comprises genres such as short-tune folksongs, üliger (tale), narrative ballads, and folk ensembles.
The long song is a type of folkhistorical song which takes Mongolian customs, living habits, and folklore as its subject. Paeans eulogizing Chinggis Khaan (1162–1227) or the singer’s hometown landscape, praise for the beauty of life, exhortations promoting dharma and encouraging people to pursue their dreams, longing for home and family, gratitude for the love and care the singer received from his parents from childhood on, and songs of love are all found in long tunes. Particular songs are performed during the ceremony. Narrative ballads are also an often used genre with a long history.
After the long song was inscribed on the list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO, the government released a list of heritage performers of long song. Among the performers included were Badema, Modegama, Boyindelger, Altanqiqige, and Zhageda Surong.
The biggest predicament facing the Mongolian long song is the question of how to adapt to modern life, meet the demands of marketing and commercialization in modern society, and retain its originality.