"I think that I have shown that there is neither measure nor melody in French music, because the language is not capable of them; that French singing is a continual squalling, insupportable to an unprejudiced ear; that its harmony is crude and devoid of expression and suggests only the padding of a pupil; that French 'airs' are not airs; that French recitative is not recitative. From this I conclude that the French have no music and cannot have any; or that if they ever have, it will be so much the worse for them."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) French musician and philosopher - Letter on French Music (1753)
The voice makes sounds in (at least) two different ways. You can make a wide range of hissing or wind noises by passing air through a small
aperture between the lips, teeth, etc. When you make such a sound using a small aperture between your 'vocal cords', it's called whispering. These sounds are all caused by the turbulent flow of the air, and they contain a wide range of different frequencies.
A second way of making sound uses your 'vocal cords', which are technically called vocal folds, because they are more like folds of flesh than cords. These can vibrate at a frequency determined largely by the tension in the muscles that control them (high tension makes the frequency and therefore the pitch high) and by the mass of the tissue (post-pubescent males usually have larger folds and therefore deeper voices). The vibration releases pulses of air into the vocal tract.
Informally, the vocal tract may be thought of as a megaphone that transmits sound from the 'voice box' into the air outside the speaker's or singer's mouth. The tract has several resonances -- i.e., the air in the tract vibrates more readily at some frequencies than others. You can vary these resonances by moving tongue and lips, and this variation has a lot to do with the different speech sounds produced.
One important categorization that can be applied to the sounds singers make relates to the register or the "voice" that is used. Singers refer to these registers according to the part of the body in which the sound most generally resonates, and which have correspondingly different tonal qualities. There are widely differing opinions and theories about what a register is, how they are produced and how many there are.
The following definitions of vocal or voice registers, registros vocal (Spanish), registres de voix (French), Gesangsregister (German), registri della voce (Italian) may be helpful
a very low register employed in Untertongesang and the throat singing of Mongolia, Tuva, Tibetan lamas, etc.
chest voice, long voice, registro de pecho (Spanish), registre de poitrine (French), voix de poitrine (French), registre lourd (French), Bruststimmregister (German), Vollstimme (German), Modalstimme (German), registro di petto (Italian), voce di petto (Italian)
the register typically used in everyday speech. It is so called because it can produce the sensation of the sound coming from the upper chest. This is because lower frequency sounds have longer wavelengths, and resonate mostly in the larger cavity of the chest. A person uses the chest voice when singing in the majority of his or her range. In the musical theatre, the voice may be pushed to the top of the chest voice, and even beyond the upper passaggio, leading to a frontal or nasal tone. This style of singing is known as 'belting', 'open voice' singing, voce aperta (Italian) or voix ouverte (French)
middle voice, registro medio (Spanish), voix mixte appuyée (French), voix mixte (French), registre mixte (French), Mittelstimme (German), mezza voce (Italian)
also known as the "blend", the term used to describe the range of notes which marks the crossover between the chest and head, or falsetto voice. It may be a distinct change (a passage, passaggio or ponticello) or a more gradual blending. With training, many singers can choose whether to sing notes in this range in the head or chest voice. In the male baritone this range falls between G3-E4, typically
head voice, short register, registro de cabeza (Spanish), registre de tête (French), registre léger (French), voix de tête (French), Kopfstimme (German), registro di testa (Italian)
different from falsetto in that it is connected to the chest voice, that is, the singer's head voice & chest voice are linked and sound bridged; in transition the voice doesn't cut out or make any audible changes in harmonics. The tonal qualities of the head voice are usually described as being sweet, balladic, lilting, lyrical, or pure. On the negative side, especially in men, on very high notes this register may sound light, squeaky, or breathy
whistle register, flageolet register, registro de silbido (Spanish), Pfeifregister (German) Flageolettregister (German), registre de sifflet (French), registre de flageolet (French), voix de sifflet (French), voix de flageolet (French)
the very highest notes in the range of a female voice, those employed in coloratura roles such as that of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute
a higher range than the head voice, although the only difference between the two is the force with which air is pushed through the folds, as anatomically they are produced in the same way. It relies on completely relaxed vocal folds and may sound breathy. In yodelling, the voice switches rapidly between the chest and falsetto registers. The terms feigned voice, voce finta and voix feinte are applied to a weak unsteady falsetto voice
Spoken language has features that, through the quality or character of the voice, can convey emotional or intentional cues distinct from the lexical and grammatical aspects of language. Prosodic elements are usually considered to include variations in the pitch, amplitude, and tempo of the speech. Prosodic features include raising the pitch of the voice to express surprise, signal uncertainty, or designate a question; lowering the pitch of the voice to stress significant words or convey seriousness of purpose; increasing the amplitude to signal anger; decreasing the amplitude to suggest intimacy; increasing the tempo to convey excitement; or decreasing the tempo to imply lethargy or depression, etc. Indeed prosody is often called the 'music' of speech.
Between 1915 and 1920 the American poet Conrad Aitken (1889-1973) composed a unified sequence of poems that is regarded as the major work of his early career. These long pieces, which he called "symphonies," strive to achieve the contrapuntal effects of music by juxtaposing patterns of narrative repetition and variation. In the 1930s Aiken published another major sequence of music-based poems which he called "preludes".
That the text of a poem might convey more than the words on the page was an important element in a disagreement between T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold. Eliot wrote: 'What I call the "auditory imagination" is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense ...' ('Matthew Arnold', in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England [London, 1933], pp. 118-9). And about Milton, Eliot commented: 'I am not suggesting that Milton had no idea to convey which he regards as important: only that the syntax is determined by the musical significance, by the auditory imagination, rather than by the attempt to follow actual speech or thought' ('Milton I' , in On Poetry and Poets [London, 1957], p. 142). Ezra Pound, who like W. B. Yeats worked with and admired the work of Arnold Dolmetsch and made reference in their own works to his search for the lost art of performing 'early music', believed that the auditory powers of poetic language are elements in intelligence and understanding, rather than lying deeper down below them. Pound believed in 'absolute rhythm' and composition 'in the sequence of the musical phrase' (Literary Essays, e.g. pp. 9, 3), but this was associated more with his ideas on performance. Overall, he preferred to remember Thomas Campion's opinion, expressed in his Observations in the Art of English Poesie  that: 'The eare is a rationall sence and a chiefe judge of proportion' (Campion, Works, ed. W.R. Davis [London, 1969], p. 294).
Music too has ways of representing mood and the successful matching of text to musical line relies to some degree on a matching of cues. One important detail is matching the rhythm of the music to the meter of the text. We have already seen how some terms have found their way from poetry into music theory - anacrusis and syncopation, for example.
The stresses in the musical line, identified by the placement of barlines, might be expected to match the stresses in the text, called verbal accents. So the phrase "We must speak" might be spoken in three different ways, with the stress on 'We', on 'must' or on 'speak'. By placing the stressed word on the first beat of the bar, that is after a barline '|', the different stress patterns can be made clear. So
Ex. 1: |We must speak Ex. 2: We |must speak Ex. 3: We must |speak
Poetry, when set to song, is particularly sensitive to how the music incorporates the metre of the words although it would be wrong to assume that the metre of the poem has to impose itself on the rhythm of the melodic line. Indeed, as the article A mangled chime: the accidental death of the opera libretto in Civil War England by Andrew Pinnock and Bruce Wood illustrates, it was likely to have been the introduction of a French taste for triple-time dance music into the English musical consciousness that saw a move away from settings wedded to an English poetic preference for duple metre. Consider, for example, the duple metre of "When I | am laid | in earth" and the wonderful three-in-a-bar setting by Henry Purcell in Dido and Aeneas - known as Dido's Lament. Those seeking to set poetry to music are well advised to look at some of the finest composers of English song including Henry Lawes, Henry Purcell or more recently, Benjamin Britten or, in the field of popular music, the American song-writers Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin. The musical line should point to, even accentuate, the meaning behind the words and should not obscure it.
The problem with the meaning of words and the structure of the music associated with them, comes to the fore when translating opera, oratorio or song libretti from one language to another. Invariably, the musical line cannot be changed, particularly in a work as complicated as a large opera. The translator has to find new language that 'both' fits the meaning and, to a large extent, the rhythmic structure of the original text and therefore of the unchangeable musical line. For this reason, translations of opera libretti are rarely 'literal'.
A mangled chime: the accidental death of the opera libretto in Civil War England by Andrew Pinnock and Bruce Wood (Early Music Vol XXXVI, No. 2 2008)
Tonal Languages and Music
Key word: tonal languages
Tonal Languages and Music
The article entitled Tone (linguistics) has some interesting things to say about the relationship between pitch in language and pitch in music.
Speakers of non-tonal languages (such as English) often perceive tonality in musical terms, based on notes, when in fact it is based on tone contour. Tonal languages are relatively pitched, and not absolutely pitched. A listener interprets the tone of a syllable not based on the "note" in which it is "sung", but rather based on how the tonal contour of the syllable varies with respect to the base intonation of the utterance as a whole.
Because many speakers of non-tonal languages confuse musical tone with tone contour, it may be assumed (incorrectly) that a tonal language is incompatible with singing. If the word 'love', for example, must be pronounced as a B flat, how could one write a song that uses both the word 'love' and a corresponding note different from B flat?
While English is not a tonal language, it does incorporate tone. The canonical example is generally one that demonstrates the use of tone to confer the speaker's emotion or attitudes ("The blackboard's painted ORANGE?!" -- shock and surprise), but there is another, more subtle example that is worth considering, especially in the context of music: stress. English, like most Indo-European languages, is stress-based. The nature of stress varies between languages, but in the case of English, it could be thought of as variations in speech volume, vowel length, and most importantly, tonal contour, that serve to distinguish a particular syllable in a word as being the one that is "stressed". English is particularly interesting because it has phonemic stress: a change in a stress point can change the meaning of a word (record (noun) and record (verb) being a simple example). Careful attention to the pronunciation of such words and how they differ from each other will illustrate that a difference in intonational contour over the word is not a small part of what makes the words different. In this sense, English speakers have been incorporating tone as an aid in distinguishing certain pairs of words all their lives without knowing it.
This is important because no English speaker would ever suggest that "stress is dropped or ignored by English speaking singers to make their language compatible with music". It is, however, very common to hear this same assertion with regard to say, Mandarin pop music. As any speaker of Mandarin will tell you, the idea of Mandarin "with tones dropped" is as non-sensical as English "with stress dropped."
Just as English poets make use of meter to ensure that their poetry fits a particular rhythm, Chinese musicians choose lyrics that "fit" with the tune of the music. Sometimes (as is the case in Beijing opera), the intonation of individual syllables is exaggerated a great deal and music is composed to follow the intonation rather than the other way around, but this is rarely the case in popular music.
Words & Syncopation
Key word: words and syncopation
Words & Syncopation
Verbal accent can also be 'mirrored' in a musical line by placing important words over extended notes which may or may not lie on the strong beats in a bar. If these notes start on beats that, because of the barline structure, are 'weak', the rhythmic effect is called a 'syncopation'. Syncopation can be found in non-vocal music too, where the accents in one line do not correspond to the pattern that in another line matches that identified by the placement of the bar lines. For more detail go to lesson 20
Words & Phrasing
Key word: words and syncopation
Words & Phrasing
We met earlier, in lesson 21, the concept of 'phrase' and 'phrasing' in music, where the music line is broken up into shorter sections that encompass a single idea. Text too, can be structured in the same way - maybe through the individual lines of a poem, or by using commas or other punctuation signs. The way the tension in a musical line relaxes at cadences, or the way the musical flow is stopped or paused at the end of a section - these are both examples of how music can complement the text it accompanies. The effect can be be explicit, in the vocal line itself, or may be implicit in the way the composer alternates accompanied vocal line with purely instrumental passages. Sometimes, one has to draw back from the detail of individual notes on a single vocal line to see how the architecture of the whole score projects the 'meaning' within the text.
Scoring for Voices
Key word: scoring for voice
Scoring for Voices
The aim of any composer of vocal music should be to make the music as easy for the singers to read as possible. For example, each vocal line in a vocal score should be written on a separate line and if voices divide they should also be printed on separate lines for greater clarity. It is difficult enough to have to read both music and words at the same time without having extraneous notes from another musical line on the same stave.
During the twentieth century, a 'convention' was adopted to make vocal music much clearer than it had been only a hundred years or so earlier. For example, the breaking up of the musical line so that single unbeamed notes lie above each syllable in the text made the music much more difficult to read. Today, the musical line follows the standard 'conventions' we discussed earlier. Polysyllabic words will be hyphenated and spread out below the musical line to show how each syllable matches the note or notes above. Where two or more notes are sung during a single syllable, known a melisma, the notes may be marked with a 'slur' and a matching horizontal line shown extending from the right of the text lying below the group. A melismatic text setting has several (sometimes many) notes per syllable of text.
Although the words set to music might be referred to simply as 'the words' there are more particular terms available which should be used where relevant:
particularly, words employed in liturgical works
words set in popular songs, stage shows and other popular music genres
words of an opera
the parts sung by voices in pop music (not usually a reference to the words themselves)
male alto (falsettist)/low soprano
bas-dessus/fausset (male-voice singing in the female contralto range)
falsettista, male-voice singing in the female contralto range
the German Fach (pl. Fächer) system is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, by the range, weight, and colour of their voices. It is primarily used in Europe, especially in German-speaking countries and in repertory opera houses
Fach from which this short extract has been taken, and where a complete listing of voice types is given
Stimmen gemischte, gemischter Chor
choeur de femmes
choro de hombres
coro de niños
Key word: wordless singing
Wordless singing is a term that covers various song forms from a wide range of cultures. The simplest form of 'wordless singing' is that associated with those who sing a song but don't know the words. Where the singer's mouth is closed and the tone is small, it is called 'humming'. The effect is used in the Humming Chorus from Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly. Forms where the mouth is open, and that use various syllables, vowels or consonants, include 'vocalise' (or 'vocalize'), vocable, niggun (or nigun) (Hasidic or Chassidic chant), vuelie (Sami story-telling songs that can include passages of wordless singing), and similar wordless-chanting of the North American Indian and certain African cultures, often associated with 'shamanism'. Finally there is a long tradition of singing that uses 'nonsense' words, among which 'scat singing' and 'mouth music' are the best known.
A Canadian filmmaker, John Bertram, has enquired whether there is a generic term for singing that does not use words, as such.
Of course, the general term 'singing' means 'to use the voice for musical purposes'. Since singing without words is still singing, words like 'avocal', 'nonvocal' or 'unvocal', seem to be inappropriate. 'Speechless', which generally implies silence, seems no better. One could create a word that describes onomatopoeically the sound being used, for example, la-la-ing or ooo-ing, but these would not meet the need for a general term covering all possibilities. John Bertram had enquired of other musical collegues whether they could make any suggestions and we summarise and comment upon those below. We have also added other 'used terms' for the many forms of wordless singing.
various terms related to wordless singing
'Song without words' chant sans paroles chanson sans paroles romance sans paroles romanza
senza paroles Lied ohne Worte
a song-like instrumental piece with a singing (but not sung) melody line
unaccompanied, usually polyphonic, singing
specifically singing with the mouth closed
(Latin, literally 'human voice') used for an organ stop that has some of the qualities of the human voice
melisma or melismatic chant
melisma means several notes for a single syllable
singing to vowel sounds, a term generally applied to vocal exercises, but also used for concert works, for example Vocalise for voice and piano (1975) by the Danish composer Gunnar Johansen (1906-1991) which calls for wordless singing or any suitable solo instrument-oboe preferred
vocal instrumental scat singing mouth music
using the voice to mimic the sounds of musical instruments (for example, Bobby McFerrin is an exemplar of this type of singing). Adelaide Hall (1901-1993), whose wordless singing is to be heard on Duke Ellington's recording of Creole Love Call, prefigured the scat singing later made famous by Ella Fitzgerald.
creating sounds with one's mouth that approximate, imitate, or otherwise serve the same purpose as a percussion instrument, whether in a group of singers, an instrumental ensemble, or solo. The term 'beatboxing' is often used as a synonym for vocal percussion, but in fact it is just one type of percussion, often used to accompany hip-hop music
vocalized percussion songs (i.e. mouth music) from Martinique and Guadeloupe which, while associated with traditional wakes, are not considered sacred music
bols solkattu konnakol
forms of vocal or verbal percussion from two of the world music traditions, in particular, the traditions of North India (bols) and South India (solkattu or konnakol). Syllables are used to learn percussion compositions, and each syllable signifies what stroke or combination of strokes the percussionist must use. Verbal percussion is a common feature, too, in the performance of the Alarippu, the first full dance piece that most Bharatanatyam dancers learn
puirt-a-beul mouth music
Gaelic song-form in which the lyrics are only of secondary importance - the dance rhythm is the most important aspect and the rhythm takes precedence over the rhythm and stresses of the Gaelic. The lyrics in puirt (plural of the word port, literally 'dance tune') are generally meaningless or nonsensical. Many Gaelic singers therefore do not believe in publishing translations of puirt-a-beul
caoine mouth music
(Gaelic, literally 'lament') until recently, it was traditional in many parts of Ireland and Scotland for mourners to caoine at a graveside, or in the home of the deceased person to mourn their passing. Often an older woman in the community was hired to lead the dirge, joined by other family members and friends who were grieving. The sound of this mourning wail is a particularly solemn type of mouth music
sean nos mouth music
(Irish, literally 'old style') a musical tradition of stylized ornamentation, very specific to Irish songs and mouth music. The three classifications are goltrai (sad songs, laments) geantrai (songs with a happy or silly theme, work songs, and mouth music for dance tunes) and suantrai (lullabies). If a dance tune is sung by mouth music in the sean nos style, it will be both strongly rhythmic and highly ornamented. This is often referred to as 'lilting' or 'diddling' a tune. The most careful lilters use extraordinary breath control to keep exact rhythm in the tune, although many field recordings have been made of folks taking a more casual approach that allows them to breathe where it's convenient, then resume the melody of the mouth music. Vocables associated with 'diddling' or 'lilting' are those which help to provide the essential rhythm or lift to the tune
canntaireachd mouth music
a Scottish system of bagpipe notation in which syllables stand for recognized groups of notes and ornaments on the bagpipe. Using this complex type of 'mouth music', pipers could preserve tunes by passing them on even when the instruments were banned or unavailable
reel à bouche mouth music
(French, literally 'mouth reel') from the Cajun tradition of singing dance tunes. Since vocables reflect the language of the singer, a great deal of French influence is found among the vocable tradition in reel à bouche. The Acadian migration includes influences from Celtic Brittany, Nova Scotia, and the Appalachian mountains of N. America, all the way down to the Louisiana coast, where African, Indian and Caribbean influences can be heard in this rhythmic, often syncopated form of mouth music
turlute mouth music
(Quebecois, probably from the Breton tuilage, see kan ha diskan below) closely related to reel à bouche, in which percussive foot-stamping is a regular accompaniment to dance tunes sung by mouth. In both cultures, the lack of instruments during times of poverty or migration led to a strong culture of singing for dancers which continues today. When instruments are added to the performance now, singing the dance tune is still very common
kan ha diskan mouth music
(Breton, literally 'sing and respond') this form of mouth music comes from the tradition of Celtic Brittany in Western France. It is music to accompany dance, but with a special twist-- it uses two singers overlapping their voices in a way that allows for a continuous stream of music for the dancer, and small intervals for resting or breathing by the singers. The singer (kaner) sings the first line, and near the end of that line the responder (diskaner) joins in, then repeats the whole line again while the kaner drops out. The kaner doubles on the last notes, then begins the second line, and so on. The song is sung in turns, only the end of each line being doubled. This technique is called the tuilage, and can be practiced by two singers, or two groups of singers. These songs are often sung high so that the sound carries best, so they can be heard over the sound of dancing
as for example the Coro a bocca chiusa (Humming Chorus) from Puccini's Madame Butterfly
an alternative to the somewhat more easily understood 'wordless chant' (chant has religous connotations
and might seem inappropriate in secular situations), including niggun
a vocable is a meaningless syllable that fits really well in representing a sound in mouth music. It can be a sound that imitates an instrument (like a bagpipe or drum) or a traditional syllable used in rhythmic combination to carry a tune. In all cultures where vocables are used in singing, the sounds used are bits of syllables found in the language of the song. Certain 'vocables' are closely associated with the type of song being sung
type of wordless singing usually associated with the Swiss