top of page

Sharav Byambasuren

Sharav Byambasuren

Sharav Byambasuren (Бямбасүрэнгийн Шарав) is widely known within Mongolia to be the father of contemporary classical music. He changed the face of Mongolian music as Mongolia transitioned from a socialist satellite of the USSR to one of the most democratic nations in Asia, as the nomadic lifestyle was replaced with sedentary, cosmopolitan one, and as nations across the globe attempted to preserve their identity in the midst of rapid globalization and urbanization. As Mongolian society changed at this breakneck pace, so too did Sharav's musical response to these changes, which in turn influenced generations of Mongolian composers and artists. His story is a journey rooted in the nomadic traditions of Mongolia and focused on forging new paths forward for the Mongolian sound. 

Unlike composers of similar statures across the globe, Sharav came late to music. In fact, he saw a piano for the very first time at age 16, and composed his first piece at age 20. Born to a nomadic family herding animals and moving with the seasons in Mongolia's eastern Hentii province, Sharav experienced the traditional Mongolian way of life firsthand, racing horses in the village festivals during the summer, and listening to his grandfather playing the Mongolian two-stringed Horse-Head Fiddle. When he was in fourth grade, one of his uncles came back from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, with an accordion. Sharav was fascinated. From then on he would sneak out of the school dormitory in winter to watch his uncle play accordion in the village bar as the adults danced. He discovered that there was a school where he could learn music in the capital city, and never looked back.

At the age of 16, Sharav arrived in Ulaanbaatar to pursue his college education. He did not get into the music teaching program at the teacher's college at first, and was forced to audit the course for six months before he could retake the entrance exam. It was there that he encountered a piano for the first time, though practicing proved difficult. There were much fewer pianos than students in the school, and in order to get a chance to practice, Sharav often had to wake up before dawn and convince the guard to let him in early. On days when he was unable to secure a real piano, he would sit in his dorm room with a large piece of cardboard with keys drawn on it, "practicing" and trying his best to hear the melodies in his head. Soon, he began delving into other Mongolian instruments, but as the students around him began writing original music for piano, voice, traditional instruments, and more, Sharav trailed behind, never even considering composition for the entirety of his schooling in Mongolia.

Upon graduating, Sharav took up a music teaching post at Ulaanbaatar's Public School No. 1. It was there, when he needed a good song for his students to sing at the convocation ceremony at the end of his first year, that he found a hesitating, yet eager, compositional voice. The simple children's song he wrote, "Surguuli mini Bayartai," (Goodbye, school!) caught the attention of one of Mongolia's most well-established composers of the era, Gonchigsumlaa, who took Sharav under his wing and trained him for three years.

After three years of studying composition and teaching at School No. 1, Sharav was able to secure entry into the State Conservatory of the Urals in Ekaterinburg, USSR. There he studied for eight years total, taking a gap year in the middle to come back to Mongolia with the specific purpose of reengaging with traditional Mongolian music after his first symphony received mixed reviews from Mongolian audiences.

Constantly responding to the aesthetic and musical world surrounding him, Sharav managed to create a body of work that is both vastly diverse and undeniably deep. His sounds were cosmopolitan, yet rooted in both codified Mongolian musical forms such as folk songs and earlier "sounding" practices of nomadic society: practices that used instruments or the voice to mimic and thus pay homage to both animals and the natural landscape. He embraced modern musical genres and experimented with blending traditional Mongolian sounds with contemporary Western influences.

Despite his immense talent and contributions to Mongolian music, Sharav's works remain largely unperformed beyond the borders of Mongolia. He is not alone. Though Mongolia is replete with composers, many factors have lead to limited exposure and recognition of these composers on the international stage. Nevertheless, within Mongolia, Sharav's compositions are celebrated for their originality and artistic brilliance.


Sharav's promising musical career was cut short when he passed away suddenly in 2019 from pancreatic cancer. His untimely death was a great loss to Mongolian music, but the legacy he left behind continues to inspire musicians and composers in Mongolia, and to remind us of the potential for Mongolian music to reach across cultural and artistic boundaries.

bottom of page