sound, speech and song

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.

The tongue is capable of finely tuned movement. The tongue moves about a centimetre to whistle an octave, so the pitch difference corresponding to a guitar fret is less than a millimetre. This is illustrated in this chromatic scale from 5G to 6G.

Another link between vowel and melody is to be found in whispering. Whereas in normal speech we highlight certain regions of the sound thrown up by our vocal chords and their harmonics, when we whisper the tubing above the chords is very nearly closed creating white noise , that is, every frequency from low to high. We can still make vowels in the normal way by highlighting regions of the white noise and we can also make melody with these highlights as in this beautiful song by Lionel Ritchie:

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.

When Maelzel invented the metronome around 1814 he chose the unit beats per minute and this adopted by music publishers and orchestral conductors to fix the tempo and doctors to measure heart rate. About a century later another unit was devised by German scientists vibrations per second which they named Herz after their great predecessor. Most repeated human movements are much closer to a second than to a minute, eg a baby’s sucking 1.5Hz, chewing 1.7 Hz, crying and laughter 1.6 to 10Hz, each step walking and running 1 to 10Hz, in or out breath 0.5 to 10 Hz, Edith Piaf’s vibrato 13 Hz… Herz is a unit close the human heart which beats at 1.2Hz.

The use of these two units, B.P.M. and Herz, applied to both tempo and 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 likewise 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 parents, 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 beautifully in tune at the age of two while others never get very good at it. In some languages, called quantity languages (e.g Finnish) the duration of a vowel or consonant can change the meaning of a word. Most people are accurate enough 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 or sentiments, whereas speech can convey novel and individual thoughts.

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.

When our first child, Don, was about seven months old I started a record as he gradually acquired the many skills needed to understand and produce speech. It can be read or dowloaded here.

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