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Singing To Sheep: My Capstone Paper

I am SO SORRY for not posting a new episode! There's actually one in the can, but I haven't had time because of this paper!

I welcome all feedback (especially between now and Monday evening, when I have no choice but to submit!) Wish me luck; this is one of 3 papers that determine whether or not I can graduate and bring you exciting fiber chat all the time!

 Singing to Sheep: Animal Communication Through Vocal Music

Madeline Norman

Indiana University Southeast



            Effective communication between humans and animals is as critical today as it was prior to agricultural settlement.  For shepherds, vocal music provides the best communication in situations where topography or other factors render a herding dog or other tools ineffective.   Kulning, a style of herding calls, developed in certain regions of northern Scandinavia under the shieling communal grazing system.  The physiology required is vastly different from other forms of long-distance vocal communication.  Kulning has proven effective for multiple species and has practical applications for today’s small producers.



            Humans have always found it essential to communicate with animals.  As hunter-gatherers, humans needed to ward off predators and mimic prey in order to get close enough to kill.  As human culture developed concomitant with agriculture and the domestication of prey species, and human/non-human interactions became more intimate, music became the language of shepherds.  While modern technology has rendered some of the intricacies of these interactions obsolete, the voice remains the most holistic and beautiful means of communication between species.


            I studied music from early childhood, primarily voice, keyboard, and composition.  I have performed both as a soloist and with various ensembles across North America, and enjoyed professional positions as a private teacher, accompanist, lounge performer, music director, and choir director.    In addition to raising a flock of 40 primitive breed sheep I have a podcast, I am on the Board of Directors for the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Office and the Kentucky Sheep and Wool Producers’ Association, and I mentor for the Small Ruminant for Profit School.

Overview: Methods of Communication

Most species have a “language” of specialized vocalizations, which humans generalize as calls for the fulfillment of basic needs.  States Anna Ivarsdotter (2004), “Being able to communicate in various ways with animals…must originally have been one of the most critical requirements of human survival.” (p. 145)  All such methods developed ‘in accordance with the reactions of the animals’ (Campbell, 1951, p. 67) as hunting single animals led to capturing and raising them for a stable source of food.  How better to communicate with a group of animals than by soliciting the assistance of a willing “predator”?

Communication With Herding Dogs

Like many shepherds, I have a Border Collie.  Zeke is a wondrous creature: agile, intelligent, tenacious, and tireless.  Human obligations have not allowed me to devote as much time to Zeke’s training as he needs.  My farm is set up for rotational grazing, which means the sheep have to move from one pasture to another every one to three days.  In consequence of not working often enough, Zeke gets overexcited and the sheep do not respond in a calm manner.

Prey instinct causes the sheep to resist rather than cooperate with the “wolf” at their heels.  The dog, therefore, cannot take his eyes off the flock.  He must be able to hear and understand verbal commands at a distance.  Traditionally, Border Collies have one syllable names that do not rhyme with or sound like any verbal herding commands.  Many common names contain plosives, or letters pronounced with greater than usual airflow, the better to hear across gulleys and up hillsides.  The shepherd’s whistle is audible at greater distances than vocal commands and does not tire the voice.  By stringing sets of whistle cues together (the musical equivalent of words, phrases, and complete sentences), a shepherd all but eliminates the margin of error in communication and comprehension. (Holland, 1994, p. 22-25).

The tractability of canines, their acceptance of domestication as a condition of stable nourishment, made possible the development of specialized herding breeds.  Yet as animals with the proclivity for independent thought and action, stockdogs are capable of outwitting their masters as well as their flocks and herds (Ruechel, 2006, pg. 145).  Zeke failed to respond to my whistles and verbal commands, nor did he communicate effectively to the sheep.  My need for a better means of communicating with my flock was clear.  I found my solution in an unexpected and largely forgotten tradition.

Overview: Kulning

With long, harsh winters and extremely limited arable land, the Scandinavian people developed a communal livestock management strategy known as the shieling system.  Each spring, the young women of the village drove their animals into the mountain forests, where temporary villages called fabodbruk in Swedish or seter in Norwegian were erected near the vast summer pastures; simple wood huts and byres to protect the shepherdesses and livestock from inclement weather and predators (Johnson, 1984, p. 43).   Two women were assigned per flock; the woman with the best voice went before the animals, while the less experienced walked behind to keep them from straggling or straying.

Used as they were to singing while performing household tasks, an organic style of long-distance singing developed in the fabodbruk (Ivarsdotter, 2004, p. 147).  This vocal technique took on the name of the animals with which the women were communicating: farlock or sheep calls, kalvlock or cow calls, and getlock or goat calls, collectively known as kulning, or herding calls. They used vocalizations to keep the flock together, locate animals who strayed, and gather them into the byre at night.  Each village also had a predetermined set of human-to-human calls so that in case of danger or a lost animal, everyone would understand and respond effectively.  Then as now, shepherding was a huge responsibility; every animal driven into the mountains in spring needed to return fat and healthy in fall. It could also be a lonely job.  Naturally, the embellishment of necessary calls became both a pastime and source of individual pride.

Gender Observations

Kulning is significant as a female art form, especially in the patriarchy of Scandinavian society.  Gender roles were clearly delineated; everything inside the threshold, as well as the byre, was the province of women, while everything outside the home and in the stable was the province of men.  Since all grazing livestock lived in the byre, herding provided women the freedom of time and space to develop a unique and practical vocal art form.  As girls followed women to the seter, kulning passed from generation to generation via oral tradition.  Additionally, beautiful kula might serve to attract a husband, making it an art worth pursuing (Ivarsdotter, 2004, p. 147).

Kulning is easily heard at a distance of four kilometers.  Women harmonized or sang in call and response, although they might not ever see one another.  Pastoral instruments were practical tools: drums and horns for scaring predators away or signaling for help.  In fact, these served as a herdswoman’s only defense.  If a horn blast guarded her person, singing could be construed as protection from the boredom of prolonged isolation (Ivarsdotter, 2004, p. 147).

Modern Performance of Kulning

The shieling system peaked in the nineteenth century and faded steadily thereafter.  The art of kulning might have been lost but for folk music collector Richard Dybeck, who notated Scandinavian herding calls in 1864 (Geller, 2012, pg. 1).  Recent decades have seen a revival of herding calls in folk music concerts, film scores, and even as part of serious orchestral works.  The women who grew up with an unbroken oral tradition have been recorded since the 1980s, and degree programs are now available for girls wanting to master the technique.  Yet, as Ivarsdotter points out, kulning “has totally lost its basic function as a communication between human beings and animals.” (2004, p. 148-149)  Indeed, my first exposure to kulning was a YouTube video of Jonna Jinton calling some stray cows.  When they responded, she said she had never tried it on an animal and did not know it would actually work (Jinton, 2016).

Review of Literature

Precedence for Animal Response

Many kula, especially those for sheep and goats, imitate animal noises and, like the verbal cues for herding dogs, employ mostly plosive consonants (Johnson, 1984, p. 52).  It is highly likely that kulning is successful because of its imitative nature, that is, animals are more likely to respond to vocalizations with which they identify.  A high register and loud volume is required to gather animals from a great distance, and here kulning excels – values up to 105dB have been recorded (Ecklund, McAllister, Pehrson, 2013, p. 21).

Studies on Vocal Technique and Physiology

Anna Johnson performed a comparative study of the characteristics of kulning in 1984.  In the past decade, other researchers have done further studies in laboratory settings as well as in the authentic outdoor locale of a Swedish forest.  Johnson, Eklund, McAllister, and Pehrson proved that kulning is ideally suited for the purpose of long-distance, outdoor, interspecies vocal communication; that kulning differs both technically and acoustically from yodeling and other specialized vocalizations; and that vocal structures are not damaged by the extreme pressure and high register required for kulning (Eklund, McAllister, 2015, p. 37-39).

Johnson’s interest in the acoustic properties of kula performance was sparked by Dr. Richard Luchsinger’s examination of Swiss yodeling in 1942.  Like yodeling, kulning covers both affine (reduced distance) and diffuge (long distance) vocalizations.  Both techniques feature melismatic phrases of improvised length, formants, animal imitations, and free rhythm, with little regard to lyric comprehension or exact pitch (Johnson, 1984, p. 44, 52, 58).  While Luchsinger found that yodelers exercised a lowered laryngeal position and widened pharynx, Johnson discovered quite the opposite in kulning (1984, p. 58).

Johnson conducted her research with Swedish kulning specialist Karen Edvardsson-Johansson in a laboratory setting (1984, p. 45).  Likewise, Eklund and McAllister conducted their initial study of singer Fanny Pehrson in both a normal room setting and an anechoic chamber (Ecklund, McAllister, Peherson, 2013, p. 21-24).  Both research teams recorded data from kulning and folk songs, and Eklund and McAllister went so far as to study the difference between modal (“chest” voice), head, and falsetto registers.  Whereas Karen Edvardsson-Johansson grew up in the shieling system and learned kulning through oral tradition, Fanny Pehrson studied academically.  Both data collections allow for a difference in regional techniques, tunes, and styles.

Acoustic Properties

Eklund and McAllister’s work from 2013 agrees with Johnson’s findings from 1984.  Both studies recorded folk singing at decibel levels in the 80s or 90s, with pitch levels of roughly 6kHz. Johnson recorded pitch levels as high as 18kHz, but Eklund and McAllister note 15kHz; it is probably that the variation in results stems from differences in the timbre and range of each singer’s voice.  Two years later, Eklund and McAllister repeated their study in a forest setting.  They felt strongly that kulning should be studied in an “ecologically sound” manner, meaning in the setting in which it was typically performed.  While decibel levels were lower outdoors than in the indoor studies (84dB at one meter and 75dB at 11 meters as opposed to 105dB indoors), kulning carried two and a half times farther than head voice. Long-Term Average Spectrum analysis again showed longevity, stability, and more partials[1] in kulning than in head voice (Ecklund, McAllister, 2015, p. 38-39).


 Johnson divided her research into two categories: phonation, or the production of sound via air pressure in the vocal tract, and articulation, or deliberate changes in the shape of the vocal tract and formants.  Vocalization results from air pressure passing through and causing vibrations in the vocal mechanism.  While Edvardsson-Johansson sang folk songs, her sub-glottal air pressure averaged 18cm; this is three times higher than the measurement of average speech, and three times less than the air pressure measured during kulning (Johnson, 1984, p. 44-48).  Physiologically, the vocal techniques used in kulning radically oppose those encouraged in classical Western vocal performance.  In yodeling, as in operatic singing, singers are encouraged to lower the position of their larynx and widen their pharynx; in kulning the reverse is necessary to create maximum sub-glottal air pressure.  The articulators, or those parts of the mouth that move to shape vocalizations, function in much the same way for both kulning and classical soprano singing.  The jaw lowers to create more space within the resonating chamber, the soft palate rises, and the lips create modified formants that are easier to produce at higher registers.  Yet as the pitch in use rises during kulning, so does the tongue.  This contrasts completely with classical singing, wherein space is always the ideal (Johnson, 1984, p. 52-60).

Vocal Economy

Of all the data Johnson collected, the most striking find is that kulning does not appear to damage the vocal organ in any way.  Most women learn as young girls and continue calling into their old age, despite “doing everything wrong” by classical Western standards.  Johnson posits that they owe the preservation of the vocal mechanism to vocal economy.  First, beginning a kula with a plosive formant boosts initial air pressure, literally turning up the volume without vocal strain.  Second, the singer is free to improvise the length of the kula, as well as the pitches used.  Even in the fabodbruk, where women called often and daily, periods of vocal rest far exceeded the multiple episodes of vocal effort in duration and frequency (Johnson, 1984, p. 56-60).  Thus, kulning might be safer for the vocal mechanism than classical Western singing.

Connection to Experience and Career

Kulning to my Flock

Like Jonna Jinton, I had no idea whether or not my modern flock would respond to ancient herding calls.  As far as performance practice, I understood that kulning should feel backward to Western classical technique.  Embracing the spirit of the seter I took a deep breath, cupped my hands around my mouth, and sang to my sheep.  My first surprise was hearing my voice echo from houses down the next road.  In usual circumstances I cannot produce enough volume to be heard from my pasture to my own house.  Kulning effectively carried across my property.  The second great surprise was that the sheep came running.  Not a single animal lagged behind, strayed from the flock, or shied away.

As my confidence increased with successive trials, I improvised my own kula and my fundamental pitch and volume rose.  My flock never wavered from their initial enthusiasm.  In fact, my fiancé has difficulty moving the sheep without me and Zeke has been rendered obsolete but for shedding individuals from the flock or gathering the most stubborn sheep into the catch pen.  With no physical pressure to resist, my rams have become more tractable.

The new system proved itself when I realized one night that I had forgotten to rotate the ewes.  I stumbled across the pasture in my pajamas, worried about rousing the neighbors if I called the sheep to me and wondering how I would gather them otherwise.  “Here sheep,” I hissed.  Somebody “baaaa-d” in response, but nobody moved.  “Here, sheep!” I repeated, opening the gate.  A few of the ewes rose to their feet, but still nobody approached me.  “Here sheep,” I murmured sweetly.  This time they all stood up, only to bunch together in the middle of the pasture.  I sighed and, in a low register, sang their farlock.  Before I’d finished the phrase, every ewe and lamb ran across the field and through the gate.  It was as if they had been waiting for me to speak the password.

Application to Multiple Species

Jinton’s video and my own experience provide evidence that kulning is an effective tool for working with livestock.  My horses get distracted during their pasture rotations and it is easier to use kulning than to go back to the barn for a halter and lead rope.  We plan to add cattle to our farm next year, and I am eager to see how they react.  Other producers have expressed interest in using this method of communication with their flocks and herds.  As more people return to homesteading and family farming, holistic methods of husbandry must be offered to them.  These should be inexpensive, easily and successfully implemented, and in keeping with the low-impact management systems advocated by agricultural officials.

Modern Uses for Small Producers

Most modern ranches do not encompass the vast and varied expanse of the Nordic forest, yet some form mid-to long-range communication is a necessary part of any pasture-based plan.  The crucial elements are that the animals can hear the vocalization, that the vocalization consistently elicits the desired response, and that the vocal organ is not taxed or damaged.

When he first heard kulning, Richard Dybeck wrote, “There is very little separating the earth, the animals and the human voice.  The song in the forest, the forest in the song.” (Geller, 2015, p.1)  Herding provides a practical arena for the performance of vocal music outside traditional venues.  At once elegant and functional, kulning enables women to practice and expand upon a traditional art form while contributing to their families’ livelihood.  Though the shieling system has all but died out, harbingers of the art are finding ways to meld kulning with classical, folk, and film compositions.  Yet as herding calls are caged in academic programming, formal study, and written scores, they lose their integrity.  As Eklund and McAllister found, indoor performances of kula are ecologically invalid.

Connection to Other Disciplines and Future Studies

Connections to Biology and Ethology

It may not be ethical to separate the calls from the animals, the animals from the calls, solely in an effort to keep kulning alive.  Yet biologists might argue that all things must adapt to survive.  In addition to the relationship between target species and linguistic selection, a correlation may be found between topography and vocal technique.  Eklund and McAllister noted variance in vocal exertion between indoor and outdoor performances; similar patterns could be evident between forest and grassland, for instance.  Kulning might also be of interest to ethologists.  Why do livestock respond favorably?  Does technique or language elicit different responses?  Do animals respond better to women than to men?

Music is an integral element of my life work, yet no longer in a traditional or formal setting.  As I continue this experiment, I will track data such as rates of growth and gain, hardiness, tractability, and behavior to determine whether kulning as a primary means of communication has an effect on individuals in my flock.


Kulning connects an ancient and historically significant form of vocal music with a means of communication that is as vital today as it was two thousand years ago.  Indeed, kulning should not be relegated to history, when the principle and practice are as relevant today as playing an ancient hymn on a digital instrument.  I am in a triumvirate partnership with Zeke and my sheep.  At times, the sheep require his aggressive style of communication.  At others, my kulning suffices.  The value of shepherding in a successful and holistic way through music transcends time.



Works Cited

Campbell, A. (1951). Herdsman's Song and Yoik in Northern Sweden. Journal of the International Folk Music Council, 3, 64. doi:10.2307/835777

Eklund, R. McAllister, A. Pehrson, F. (2013) An Acoustic Comparison of Voice Characteristics in ‘Kulning’, Head and Modal Registers. Proceedings of Fonetik 2013, the XXVIth Annual Phonetics Meeting. 12-13 June 2013, Linkoping University. Linkoping Sweden. Studies in Language and Culture No. 21. Pp 21-24.

Eklund, R. McAllister, A. (2015, August). An Acoustic Analysis of ‘Kulning’ (Cattle Calls) Recorded in an Outdoor Setting on Location in Dalarna (Sweden), In Proceedings of ICPhS 2015, 18th Congress of Phonetic Sciences, 10-14 August 2015. Glasgow UK. Pp 37-39.

Geller, A. (2012, November). Beauty in Function: The Art of Scandinavian Herding Music. Pp 1-5. Retrieved September 02, 2016, from Google Scholar.

Holland, V. (1994). Herding Dogs: Progressive Training. Howell Book House. Pp 20-25.

Ivarsdotter, A. (2004). “And the cattle follow her, for they know her voice... On communication between women and cattle in Scandinavian pastures”. PECUS. Man and Animal in Antiquity. Proceedings of the Conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002, 146-149. Retrieved September 01, 2016, from JSTOR.

Jinton, J. (2016, July 04). Using Swedish Herding Call “Kulning” to Call Home Escaping Cows [Video file]. Using Swedish Herding Call “Kulning” to Call Home Escaping Cows. Retrieved July 07, 2016, from

Johnson, A. (1984). Voice Physiology and Ethnomusicology: Physiological and Acoustical Studies of the Swedish Herding Song. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 16, 42-66. Retrieved September 01, 2016, from JSTOR.

Ruechel, J. (2006). Grass-fed cattle: How to produce and market natural beef. Storey Publishing. p. 145

[1] An audible pitch is called a fundamental. Every fundamental has overtones, multiple frequencies of complimentary definite pitches that part from the fundamental in equal divisions at a higher register. The greater the attack of the fundamental, the longer, higher, and greater the number of overtones. Secondary overtones, or those frequencies audible between overtone divisions, are known as partials.