sound and speech

Both speech and singing are elaborations of our innate emotional and contact calls. An essay Cry, Speak, Sing, Whistle discusses the similarities and differences between these elaborations and considers their role in society. Click on the title to read or download.

The skill of whistling is very similar to tuning the resonance of the voice to make vowels. When we speak we control voice pitch and resonance independently. Some singers refine this independence by whistling and singing two different melodic lines simultaneously. Click here to hear this extraordinary skill demonstrated in this extract from The Whistling Woman BBC Radio 4 broadcast on the 23 February  2013

To hear the harmonics series brought into focus by virtuosa overtone singer Anne-Marie Hefele click here

There are now many free apps that you can sing into and it will track the harmonics of your vowels and show the noise band of consonants. My favorite is FFT. As an example I sang the first line of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star , do do so so la la so, into my phone. You can see how many of the harmonics of the so line up with the harmonic of the do.

Have you noticed the sound of bouncing glass? You may have heard this sound while washing up and not thought much about it. If you gently tap drinking glasses together sometimes you can hear the individual bounces. but if you hold them together a little tighter so they bounce more than 16 times a second then we can hear them sing as in this recording.

The rolled R is made by blowing air through the flapping tip of the tongue. It flaps about 13 times a second, just a little too slow to make a pitch. However if we press the tongue harder against the roof of the mouth and apply more air pressure we can cross the boundary into pitch, as demonstrated in this clip The Singing Tongue. Normally the tongue is controls pitch by its position as in whistling and overtone singing but here it is using pressure like the trumpeters lips and the vocal chords. Perhaps you will recognise the tune.

Somewhere in the region between pulse and pitch is the sound of the woodpecker happily tapping at the bark of a tree around 20 times a second, about the rate of a human shiver from cold or fear. The hummingbird beats its wings 70 times a second to make a note around the lowest of the bass voice.

The change of sensation as a repetition is accelerated to become a pitch can be explored on the Android app pulse2pitch which has a special page on this site..

To read about the the topsy-turvey maths of the vibrating string click here

The perception of pitch varies from person to person. Some folk, around 1 in 10,000, have absolute pitch which meant that they can quickly name random notes. The other 9,999 have imperfect pitch in that they can still differentiate between low middle and high with varying degrees of accuracy and can more precise with practice. There are some, usually music makers, who have relative pitch who are good at identifying the interval between two notes, e.g. up a ferfect 5th, down 3 frets with out knowing the names of the notes.

Faces are so important to us that we sometimes see faces in random shapes. And so are words. Sometimes the rhythm and contour of an everyday noise can spontaneously make words jump into our minds. One morning while brushing my teeth the words Addis Ababa jumped into my mind, suggested by the rhythm of the brushing sound.

Music is speech on a grid. Because the child of two or three is so subconsciously aware of the harmonics of their voice they can learn to shape exactly the vowels sounds of their mother tongue and its precise timings such that they already learning the accents of their elders, their town and social class. They can already manipulate sounds in three dimensions simultaneously, the voice pitch note (fundamental) and two independent areas of focus in the harmonics of the fundamental (formants). That awareness also enables them to learn to sing the scales of their mother culture perhaps by aligning the harmonics of notes as they follow each other. Some learn to sing in tune at the age of two while others never get very good at it. The accuracy of their timing however allows most people to chant in time when they are in a political rally. or sports match. The pitch/rhythm grid allows people to chant or sing together to share timeless thoughts and express common ideals.

Whether speaking or singing the child can get a 100% match with the harmonics of its mothers speech but only 50% of its fathers as his will have dropped an octave at puberty. This change, along with beard growth, exaggerates the superior size and strength of the male and makes him more threatening to animals, other tribes and within the tribe. My guess is that these features predate speech and allowed that to evolve as a specialisation of the mother and child.

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