Many English-speaking people attending concerts sung in English readily state that they cannot understand the words being sung.
In a study, 21 subjects (15 women, 6 men), all Western classically trained performers as well as teachers of classical singing, sang 11 words—“beat, bait, Bob, boat, boot,” representing the most frequently occurring vowels in practice, and “bit, bet, bat, bought, but, book,” representing the other six vowels that occur less frequently—arranged in six random orders, singing on two pitches a musical fifth apart.
The sung words were cropped to isolate the vowels, and listening tapes were created. Two listening groups, four singing teachers and five speech-language pathologists, were asked to identify the vowels intended by the singers. In general, vowel intelligibility was lower with the higher pitch, and vowels sung by the women were less intelligible than those sung by the men.
This according to “Vowel intelligibility in classical singing” by Jean Westerman Gregg and Ronald C. Scherer (Journal of voice XX/2 [June 2006] 198–210; RILM Abstracts 2006-8289).
Many thanks to Improbable research for bringing this article to our attention! Above, an illustration from the study; below, Jason Eckardt’s Dithyramb).
In Sweden the herding of livestock is women’s work. Herding music functions chiefly as a means of communication between the women and the animals; it is also used for communication between herders.
The song style known as kulning has an instrumental timbre, a sharp attack, and a piercing, almost vibrato-free sound, often very loud and at an unusually high pitch. A study of the physiological and acoustical characteristics of kulning, including phonation and articulation, shows an unconventional use of the voice that contradicts what is recommended in traditional Western voice training.
This according to “Voice physiology and ethnomusicology: Physiological and acoustical studies of the Swedish herding song” by Anna Johnson (Yearbook for traditional music XVI  pp. 42–66). Below, Maria Misgeld demonstrates.
In an address delivered on 10 January 1932 William Cardinal O’Connell described crooners as “whiners and bleaters defiling the air.”
“No true American would practice this base art,” he continued. “I like to use my radio, when weary. But I cannot turn the dials without getting these whiners, crying vapid words to impossible tunes.”
“If you will listen closely when you are unfortunate enough to get one of these you will discern the basest appeal to sex emotions in the young. They are not true love songs—they profane the name. They are ribald and revolting to true men.”
This according to “Cardinal denounces crooners as whiners defiling the air” (New York times 11 January 1932, p. 21), which is reprinted in Music, sound, and technology in America: A documentary history of early phonograph, cinema, and radio (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) pp. 319–20.
Below, Rudy Valée defiles the air in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Glorifying the American girl).
Styles of singing in which pitch is fixed, categorical, and independent of loudness originated in prehistoric times as a by-product of the development of musical instruments capable of this loudness-pitch independence.
The physical and consequent acoustic properties of the voice suit it to producing a range of timbres and vocalizations in which pitch and loudness are correlated and not controlled independently. To sing a fixed pitch while varying loudness, singers must make compensations in the vocal mechanism.
This unnatural, albeit ubiquitous, singing was influenced by instruments. One of the advantages of pitch-loudness independence is in teaching infants to analyze vocalizations in a reductionist manner.
This according to “Did non-vocal instrument characteristics influence modern singing?” by Joe Wolfe and Emery Schubert (Musica humana II/2 [fall 2010] pp. 121–138).
Above, The singing maidens of Pottery Mound, a reproduction by Thomas Baker of an 800-year-old Anasazi image.Below, Ella Fitzgerald demonstrates how instrumental music can influence singing.
In a study investigating how singing while driving affects driver performance, 21 participants completed three trials of a simulated drive concurrently while performing a peripheral detection task (PDT); each trial was conducted either without music, with participants listening to music, or with participants singing along to music.
Results suggest that singing while driving alters driving performance and impairs hazard perception while at the same time increasing subjective mental workload. However, singing while driving does not appear to affect driving performance more than simply listening to music. Drivers’ efforts to compensate for the increased mental workload associated with singing and listening to music by slowing down appear to be insufficient, as evidenced by relative increases in PDT response times in these two conditions compared to baseline.
This according to “A simulator study of the effects of singing on driving performance” by Christina M. Rudin-Brown (inset), Genevieve M. Hughes, and Kristie L. Young (Accident analysis & prevention, 30 July 2012). Many thanks to the Improbable Research blog for bringing this study to our attention!
Related article: Expression Synthesis Project
The HandySinger system is a personified tool developed to express naturally a singing voice controlled by the gestures of a hand puppet.
The system’s hand puppet consists of a glove with seven bend sensors and two pressure sensors. It sensitively captures the user’s motion as a personified puppet’s gesture. To synthesize the different expressional strengths of a singing voice, the normal (without expression) voice of a particular singer is used as the base of morphing, and three different expressions—“dark”, “whisper”, and “wet”—are used as the target.
This configuration provides musically expressed controls that are intuitive to users. The experiment evaluates whether (1) the morphing algorithm interpolates expressional strength in a perceptual sense, (2) the hand-puppet interface provides gesture data at sufficient resolution, and (3) the gestural mapping of the current system works as planned.
This according to “HandySinger: Expressive singing voice morphing using personified hand-puppet interface” by Tomoko Yonezawa, Noriko Suzuki, Kenji Mase, and Kiyoshi Kogure, an essay included in NIME-05: New interfaces for musical expression (Vancouver : University of British Columbia Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre, 2005).
Below, a perhaps unrelated HandySinger.
Jimmie Rodgers’s recordings present nearly all of the yodel types used by hillbilly singers, including nonsense-syllable strands, breaking voice registers while singing words, and brief falsetto grace-note descents into his natural voice. His yodels contain influences from both African American (falsetto upward leap at the end of words) and European (word-breaking) traditions.
Home tropes evoke themes of home, family, regret, return, or nostalgia; subdominant tropes represent carefree cheerfulness; blues tropes conjure masculine braggadocio themes.
Rodgers applies grace notes according to the pathos of the lyrics, and his hummed or moaned yodels are toned down for mainstream appeal. He was a carrier of tradition—his yodels connect to ragtime and blues, as well as to nineteenth-century European yodels, song types, and decorative devices.
This according to “Jimmie Rodgers and the semiosis of the hillbilly yodel” by Timothy Wise (The musical quarterly XCIII/1 [spring 2010] pp. 6–44).
Below, the Yodeling Brakeman offers a semiotic exegesis on the letter T.
Related article: Romy Lowdermilk redux
Launched by Frog Records in 2010, The Frog blues & jazz annual is a book series that presents original research and articles on early jazz and blues. The inaugural issue, The musicians, the records & the music of the 78 era, includes articles about the Mississippi Jook Band’s Graves brothers, the pianist Arnold Wiley, and the vocalist Ida Cox.