Kulning: The Haunting, Beautiful Swedish Herding Call That's Also a Song

This unique form of singing is ideal for communicating over long distances. . (Photo: Screenshot via Jinton's video, below.)

I was blown away the first time I heard kulning, the unique Scandinavian herding call that's also a song. And then I became obsessed, tracking down all the different examples I could find online. I got hooked, and it all started with Jonna Jinton's video.

It's not just a dramatic melody. Kulning developed as a way for (mostly female) herders to call sheep, cows and goats down from the hills where they were grazing. Its use can be traced back to mountainous Swedish and Norwegian areas (where it's called kauking) when animals were domesticated in medieval times. It has some similarities to yodeling, which was also a communication form that echoes against mountains and down into valleys — maintaining as much of the sound as possible over great distances and varied terrain.

According to research by Swedish academics with a kulning singer, the high tones and method of singing is ideally suited for carrying the message over long distances: "... it was shown that kulning fell off less with distance from an intensity point of view, and also that partials in kulning — but not in head voice — remained more or less unperturbed 11 meters from the singer, as compared to 1 meter from the singer. Both results help explain why kulning as a singing mode was developed for calling cattle that might be at considerable distance from the singer."

It's meant to be a loud, strong sound, because the most important purpose is for communication.


I find it both beautiful and also haunting — the latter may be because the vocalizations contain many halftones and quartertones, which are also known as "blue tones" among musicologists. Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was influenced by kulning for several of his compositions, and today there are Scandinavian folk singers who incorporate it into their music. (It was also featured in the 2013 animated film "Frozen" as part of the soundtrack.)


Each family of herders would have had its own call, or kulokker, to which that herd would respond. The shepherdesses would make their kulning call, then listen for the bells of their animals as they started back downhill toward them.

We often ask "What did people do before modern communications technology?" At least in this case, the answer is they developed incredibly beautiful musical calls that sing through the mountains.