With their snow-capped peaks and lush, rolling foothills, the Swiss Alps might be one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world. But the quiet landscape is also the ideal setting for a much louder pursuit—yodeling.
Because of their sheer height—some peaks top out at more than 14,500 feet—echoes easily bounce off their rocky faces and reverberate back across the valley floor. Thanks to this optimal acoustic landscape, sheepherders began to yodel to herd their livestock and communicate across pastures.
Yodeling, a vocal technique that involves a variety of drawn-out pitches formed in the head and chest registers, was the perfect way to bring cows together in what sheepherders called kuhreihen, or “line of cows.” (The earliest record of the distinctive call was written in 1545 in Appenzell, a region in northeastern Switzerland.)
These days, you’re more likely to hear yodeling in taverns and on the radio than in the countryside. But many Swiss people are doing their part to keep this essential piece of their country’s heritage alive.
Stephan Schuepbach, a conductor for two yodeling groups, Chörli Beinwil/Freiamt and Jodlerclub Echo vom Lindenberg Uezwil, is one such person. He's has been conducting Swiss yodeling groups since he was 17 years old and now, some 30 years later, continues to lead groups on the competitive circuit, perform backup vocals and train a new generation of yodelers as a voice coach.
“Anyone who can sing can learn how to yodel,” Schuepbach tells Smithsonian.com. Not that it's easy. Although yodeling may seem simple (who hasn’t sung along with Fraulein Maria during The Sound of Music?), it takes more effort than just a yodel-ay-ee-oooo. The art involves quickly toggling between the vocal and chest registers to make a sound that goes from high to low to high with distinct breaks between notes. (If you’re really good, you can add in a high-pitched falsetto a la Prince or Justin Timberlake.)
According to Schuepbach, practice makes perfect—and it’s not an impossible skill. “It all depends on the nature of your voice," he explains. "Some people can sing higher, while others can sing lower. [For example], if you take the word ‘lady,’ you can change the letter A to the letter O. So if you’re using your chest voice, you get a hard O, while in your head voice it’s higher and sounds more like a drawn out U.”
Many listeners don't realize that those prolonged oooooohs and uuuuuuuuhs usually tell a story, often about nature, love, or folk tales that link back to Switzerland. Lyrics to these “yodel songs” are typically in French or Swiss German.
“In central Switzerland, you’ll find more natural yodeling, such as farmers in the mountains taking care of their cows or shouting across the valley to another farmer,” Schuepbach says. “By the 19th century, yodel songs became more popular." They came to be, he says, when people combined folk music and yodeling—and persisted when immigrants brought yodeling with them around the world.
Historically speaking, yodeling has been noted in Ancient Rome, Africa and elsewhere around the world, resulting in unique variations in technique and sound. More recently, performers like Gene Autry (also known as the “Yodeling Cowboy”) and Jewel have immortalized yodeling and helped solidify its spot in the pop culture canon.
“Yodeling touches your heart,” Schuepbach says. “It’s good for your emotions and can be very relaxing. When you’re in a choir, you’re yodeling together as a team. Even after a practice session, we’ll go to a local restaurant and have a beer and wind up yodeling another song or two. We can do this because we always have our instruments with us.”