World leading voice science researcher Dr Ingo Titze shares his findings from more than 50 years of study and investigation.
Dr Ingo Titze has dedicated his career to researching the workings of the human voice and is the author of several books and more than 400 papers on the subject. He spoke to iSingmag’s editor (and resident vocal nerd) Line Hilton about the science of singing, how voice use is changing and why, after 150 years of research, we still have much to learn.
You’re a qualified engineer and a physicist. What’s the connection between engineering, physics and voice science?
The link is acoustics. If you’re singing unamplified, the question is: how do you get most of the sound that you’re producing in the mouth to that small little cross section of the eardrum of a listener? Most of the sound never makes it to any specific individual, it just dissipates. As singers we’re very inefficient – very little of the power we create in the lungs is converted to acoustic power. One study showed that on average less than one per cent of the sound or the power that we can get from the lungs goes acoustically to the listener. Efficiency of converting aerodynamic power to acoustic power is what good singing is all about.
That’s interesting as many great singers, such as Idina Menzel, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, get a lot of sound out of their voices.
A lot comes out, but it’s still a tiny fraction of what is produced inside. It’s often said that the best singers are hefty, but there are small singers who have done extremely well and make very profound sounds. They tend to be a little bit more efficient. They’ve figured out how to make all the right adjustments so that they can get the sounds to the listener. It is a bit of an advantage to have bigger lungs and stronger muscles, but it’s far more important to figure out how to use the vocal tract and how to position the vocal folds to make that conversion highly efficient.
We’ve been studying the voice for more than 150 years but still haven’t resolved the mystery of register shifts and transitions. Why is this?
Registration is not a simple phenomenon and can’t be explained in a sentence or two. A singer needs to understand that there are several factors involved in register shifts. If you define a register change as a sudden change in voice quality, then that change can come from many parts of the vocal system: subglottal interaction with the vocal folds, super glottal airway interaction with the vocal folds, or within the anatomy of the vocal folds itself. The goal is to learn how to control all of these and balance them.
Why do some people not seem to experience register shift?
Some people begin their vocalisation in the way they would learn speech. The model that’s given to them is already a mixed kind of registration – they’re not pushed towards the modal or chest side or the falsetto side – so they learn a balanced approach to begin with. If that’s the case, it’s much easier to have seamless voice production over several octaves.
What’s your definition of mixed registration?
It’s halfway, or some distance, between the modal register or chest register and the falsetto. Those are the two anchors for me, whether it’s male or female. Mixed registration is anything between those. It’s achieved by getting the best balance in the positioning of the vocal folds.
Do you think some people are born with the right physiological set-up for singing? As a teacher I’ve met untrained singers who have no issues going through the transitions. My theory is some people are born with just enough hypermobility in the larynx for this shift to occur smoothly, hence they don’t experience the transition. They may also have the right acoustical set-up – the vocal tract is the right length and width to work efficiently.
I agree but it also brings in the question of how speech is modeled for them early on. If they have all the pieces genetically, and the right behavioural model for vocalisation, that’s even better.
Have you made any discoveries through your voice science research work that confounded your expectations?
It surprised me that speech is the primary way humans use their vocal system. Speech is not very favourable to maintaining a good larynx. When we speak, we make our fundamental frequency low so that we get a lot of variations with our articulations. As a result, we don’t explore our capability with high pitches and high intensities. It’s sad that culturally we’re going in the direction where we only speak – if we speak at all (some of us just type on computers). We really don’t sing much around the house any more, and the notion of folk singing and communal singing is disappearing.
What are the consequences of this?
Ever-smaller voice and ever-less pitch range. I hear it in choirs now. I still go to church on Sundays and when I compare how congregations that were non-trained could sing 40 years ago with what they do now, the difference is unbelievable. People are creating ever-smaller variations in their voice quality, intensity and pitch range. It won’t be long before church music is just played from a recording because people can’t sing the songs anymore.
What areas would you like to see voice science researchers explore?
We need to understand the new sounds that singers want to make. In hard rock music, for example, singers want to growl and squeal. It takes us back into primal sound-making. How do we do that effectively without damaging the voice? That’s so critical.
If you could have one wish in terms of how we use our voices, what would it be?
Use your voice often. Use it with kindness and don’t be afraid to express your emotions with it. Don’t shout each other down or talk over each other. Make the most beautiful sounds with the most variety that you possibly can. Use the voice often but do good with it.
For more from Dr Titze, read his advice on why high notes are hard to sing HERE.
Dr Ingo Titze is executive director of the National Center for Voice and Speech, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a Distinguished Professor at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Iowa