Yodelling: The origin, meaning and purpose of this ultra-Swiss tradition

Yodelling: The origin, meaning and purpose of this ultra-Swiss tradition

Is there anything more Swiss than yodelling? We don’t think so! This ancient art of folk song was started by Swiss cow herders working in the Central Alps and still delights people across the alpine nation and beyond today. Here’s everything you need to know about yodelling!

Yodelling: The low-down

Unsure what we mean by yodelling? Here's what you need to know.

What is yodelling?

Yodelling is a singing technique that essentially involves rapidly changing pitch and register between the low-pitch chest register and the high-pitch head register. Yodelling was popularised in the 1830s and took over theatres and music halls across Europe at the time. The rapid changes between normal voice and falsetto that characterise yodelling make for a truly unique singing style.

What does yodelling mean?

The word “yodel” comes from the German word “jodeln”, meaning to utter the syllable “jo”. The sound made by yodellers is often compared to a strong cry and is a key component of certain types of country music.

Yodelling origin

Yodelling originated in the Central Alps region, as a way for cow herders to call to their herd and move them between grazing areas. The technique was also used to communicate between alpine villages as the unique singing style carries sound across long distances.

The earliest recorded instance of yodelling was in 1545, when it was described as "the call of a cowherd from Appenzell". Yodelling is still a popular form of folk music in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the United States.

While most experts agree that the vocal technique originated in the Swiss Alps, the vocal technique is used in many different folk songs from across the world, including in Norway, North Macedonia, Turkey, Zimbabwe and Hawaii.

What is yodelling used for?

These days, most cows are not herded using traditional yodelling calls, but some traditional Alpine farmers still use this method. Nowadays, yodelling is more commonly celebrated as a musical performance and art.

Yodle or yodel?

While both spellings are correct, the word “yodel” is the modern form of the word. Yodle is still a correct spelling, but it is an archaic way of spelling it.

Yodelling in Switzerland

As a tradition native to Switzerland, it’s not surprising that the country has many events and festivals dedicated to yodelling or featuring performances by world-class yodellers. Yodelling enthusiasts from across Europe and beyond often travel to events and competitions for yodelling in Switzerland.

Swiss Alps yodelling

Yodelling is tied closely to several Swiss cantons, especially those in the mountains. There are lots of traditional Swiss yodelling songs that relate to things in the mountains, or being in the alpine countryside. Alpine yodelling is often accompanied by "Schwyzerörgeli" (accordion) in popular performances and festivals.

Swiss yodelling festival

Yodelling festivals are also a common occurrence in Switzerland. The music festivals are held in different Swiss cities and attract large crowds. Each year, the Federal Yodelling Festival attracts around 10.000 participants from over 500 different yodelling associations and more than 150.000 attendees. 

Other yodelling festivals held in Switzerland include the International Yodelling Festival, which is held every three years, as well as other smaller festivals held in the Swiss countryside. Many Swiss yodelling festivals also feature other great Swiss musical instruments such as the alphorn.

How to yodel

At first, learning to yodel can be pretty tricky, but with time it becomes easier to switch quickly between the chest and head registers. Thankfully, there are YouTube gurus online who can help. Check out this tutorial for some pointers on how to get started! 

Video: YouTube / CBC Music

Yodelling songs

There are lots of famous yodelling songs that are sung in many different languages. The most famous yodelling tune is probably “The Lonely Goatherd” from the musical The Sound of Music, but there are lots of other great yodelling songs too. 

Other fantastic songs include "Edelweiss", an anthem devoted to Switzerland’s most well-known plant, the Edelweiss, as well as “Der Mai Ist Gekommen”, and “Die Gedanken Sind Frei”. You can hear some great Swiss yodelling songs in this playlist.


Video: YouTube / Lobo Horst's Erben für Künstler die es wünschen

Famous yodelers

In a classically Swiss tale, the country’s most famous yodeller was also a cheese maker by the name of Ruedi Rymann. The yodelling icon passed away in 2008 but his legacy lives on through his unique style of singing. His signature song was the melancholy "Dr Schacher Seppli" and is known by many Swiss yodelling fans.

Other famous yodellers from around the world include:

  • Franz "Franzl" Lang
  • Bobbejaan Schoepen
  • Harry Hopkinson
  • Frank Ifield
  • Dolores O'Riordan 

Yodelling kid

One of the most famous yodelling videos out there on the internet is the yodelling Walmart kid - a young man who rose to fame after being filmed yodelling in a supermarket in America. You can check out this youngster’s talent in the video below!

Video: YouTube / Emojis

Professional yodellers

If you’re looking to host an event in Switzerland, you could make it ultra-Swiss by contacting a professional yodeller or even a group of yodellers. There are lots of yodelling clubs and associations across Switzerland that play private and public events and gigs. There are even amateur yodelling groups for beginners who just want to get started, before maybe eventually progressing to becoming a professional.

Unleash your yodels! 

Newly equipped with your yodelling knowledge, it’s time to have a crack at yodelling yourself! At first, it might sound a little silly while you get used to the sounds, but keep going and you could even become the next Swiss yodelling superstar!

Thumb image credit: / Stefano Ember



Emily Proctor

Former Editor at IamExpat Media.

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