How People Sing

Published: 01st February 2012
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All human beings can do, even if some can sing better than others. All of us have the necessary equipment for singing - if you can talk, you can sing! The simplicity of singing is one of its attractive features, unlike learning to play other musical instruments, such as the keyboard, the guitar and the drums, for which you need to buy or hire an instrument. Singing is something that you can do anywhere - wherever you go, you've always got your voice.

All forms of producing music are about producing sound. Sound is created by making air vibrate. Changing the frequency of the sound (the number of waves or pulses produced per second, measured in Hertz or Hz) changes the pitch. Changing the amplitude of the sound (the "height" of the wave if the wave is measured on an oscilloscope) changes the volume. Changing the shape of the wave gives a sound its unique tone. When you use an oscilloscope to view the shape of a pure sound tone, it looks like a smooth sine curve, but a noisy, more distorted sound (e.g. a discord on a distorted heavy metal guitar) is jagged and rough. Every instrument - and every different human voice - its individual shape or wave form, which is changed to give expression and meaning. In humans, changes in pitch, volume and shape are produced by the respiratory system as air travels out.

Most of us take our vocal chords and respiratory system for granted. However, if you want to get the most out of singing lessons, it pays to know how your "instrument" works, the same as you would for any other musical instrument. A lot of the upper body is involved in singing - all the body from the diaphragm just above the stomach to the ears and the nose, as well as everything (almost) in between.

Let's start at the bottom with the diaphragm. This is the powerhouse for singing. The diaphragm is the body organ that controls the volume and allows you to take deep, long breaths. A common mistake made by many beginning to sing is to rely on the throat and lungs to provide the volume. This often leads to vocal strain and sore throats, and produces a poorer quality of sound. Singing lessons will teach you how to breathe properly using the diaphragm so you can hold long notes and turn up the volume.

The lungs - the next step up - are certainly involved in singing. Air comes from the lungs to the higher bits of the respiratory system. We cannot sing on an ingoing breath, so when we sing, we need to control how the air goes out. Normally, exhalation (breathing out) and inhalation (breathing in) have roughly even lengths. When we sing, we need long exhalations and short, deep inhalations. The lungs control this.

Next comes the larynx, which is the technical name for the voice box or the Adam's Apple. This is located in the trachea (the "windpipe") in the throat. The larynx holds the vocal cords, which are what set the air trembling, creating sound. You can test this yourself very easily. Put your fingers on your voice box and breathe normally. You won't feel anything. Then try singing a single note. Now, you will feel your voice box vibrate. Because the voice box controls the vibrations in the air, it also controls the pitch of the note. This is done by changing the length of the cords using tiny muscles. In men, the vocal cords are longer (which is why the male voice box is more prominent, giving the characteristic "Adam's Apple") and therefore the voice is deeper. The larynx is also involved in controlling volume, although to a lesser extent.

The mouth and the nose give shape to the sounds that come out of the mouth. This is where we form the consonant and vowel sounds. The most important part of the mouth for shaping speech sounds is the tongue. Normally, we can only see the front part of the tongue, which is called the "blade". But there's more to the tongue than that. The root of the tongue - the bulgy part at the back of the mouth - is also very important. If the root of the tongue changes so that it is more bulgy towards the back, we produce what are known as "back vowels" - the vowels in "boot", "bought", "bot" and "boat". If the bulge is more towards the front, we produce "front vowels": the sounds in "beet", "bet", "bit", "bat" and "Bart". If the root of the tongue touches the velum (the soft part of the roof of the mouth (which we normally only notice if we've got a head cold or sore throat), we produce the consonants G, K, NG and a couple of others (such as the hissing J sound in Spanish or the CH in the Scottish "loch"). If the air escapes around the sides of the tongue, we get the L sounds. Good singing and clear speaking, where the listeners can understand you properly, is a case of really working your tongue muscles.

But we don't just use our tongues to produce consonant sounds. Our lips and teeth get involved. The lips produce the consonants P, M, W and B, while placing the tip of the tongue on the back of the front teeth gives T, D and S. When the lower lip touches the bottom lip, you get the V and F sounds, while a TH sound is made by putting the tip of the tongue between the front teeth. The lips can also be spread wide or rounded to alter vowel sounds - look in the mirror and sing "Me"; change to "You" and watch your lips take on a more rounded shape.

The tongue is very flexible and can alter shape very subtly to produce a huge range of vowel and consonant sounds. Linguists (those who study language) have counted 65 basic consonant sounds and 28 vowel sounds. This doesn't count the diphthongs - blends of two vowel sounds, such as in "ear", "air" and "out". And it doesn't count the French nasal vowels or some of the other subtleties in the consonants. No single language has the complete set of sounds, but each language has its own repertoire, and if you are taking singing lessons with the goal of singing opera in Italian or German, it may also pay to learn some of the unique sounds of these languages as well.

Last of all comes the nose and the nasal cavity. The nose, obviously, is involved in inhalation and exhalation, and some air comes out our noses when we produce nasal consonant sounds (N, NG and the Spanish ). When we sing higher notes, the nose acts as a resonance chamber or natural amplifier.


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