In Scandinavia, like other parts around the world, it is imperative to get the cows home at night after they have spent the day in their grazing lands. Instead of using motor vehicles, horses, or dogs to herd them by force they sing. In Norway and neighboring parts of Sweden cows are led home by a haunting, ethereal, and somewhat nasal form of song that draws then to the person singing.
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These herding calls are called "kulning." It is not just used for cows, but for all herd animals. Each type of animal for each farm may have its own call to bring them down from mountain meadows. The call may also have been devised to scare away predators, such as wolves, from attacking as darkness fell. The origin of the calls can be traced back to medieval times.
The call, said to be the oldest music tradition in Norway, was most often used by women since it was usually their job to take care of the herds and flocks. Young women were also sometimes employed as dairy maids, or budeie, in some ways the song is similar to yodeling in the Alps.
The songs use a high-pitched vocal technique, or head tone, that is ideal for being heard over long distances. The minor key tones of the songs convey a sense of melancholy to the human ear. This is due, in part, to the "blue tones" common to the music of this region.
Calls made in a valley are perfect to echo and reverberate against the mountain walls. The animals will start to answer the call as they begin to move. That and the sound of bells worn by some of the animals identify their location and movement.
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The songs sometime include the names of individual animals, especially the lead animals in the herd. The songs may also contain words and phrases about summer farming.
Kulning was used up until the 1950s when more modern and industrial farming techniques took over. It was revived beginning in the 1970s as organic farming started gaining popularity.
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Kulning has made its way into popular culture. It has been used in the television series "Vikings" during battle scenes. It was also used in the soundtrack of Disney's animated film "Frozen." Kulning has even made its way into video games in "Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons."
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I am of both Norwegian and Swedish farm descent and these calls seem to speak directly to my DNA. The closest I come to kulning is when I yell for the cat to come in and it bears no musical resemblance to kulning. When she doesn't come I say uffda. My heritage is why the word "uffda" is a part of my vocabulary. The word is commonly used among Americans of Norwegian and sometimes Swedish descent. To find out more about the word, click here.
Image via Robert Harding
To sum it all up, kulning is something like opera for cows, goats, and sheep. Honestly I couldn't find out if reindeer answer to the calls. If you would like to have a kulning song in your music feed, click here.