Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Chiaroscuro and the Quest for Optimal Resonance

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Chiaroscuro and the Quest for Optimal Resonance

Article excerpt

DIFFERENT OPINIONS ABOUND CONCERNING what constitutes a beautiful, well resonated tone in the singing voice. While many factors influence one's perception of tone color, let us entertain the notion that there are primarily two opposing extremes in timbre which are easily discerned by the untrained ear: bright and dark. Consider that every sound system has controls for treble and bass. At one end of the spectrum, there are some who prefer booming bass sounds that drown out high frequencies; others may prefer the piercing twang of treble tones. Nevertheless, the most desirable tone quality is found somewhere between the two extremes. Renowned Italian voice teachers like Mancini and Lamperti referred to this balanced timbre in the singing voice as chiaroscuro, which is simply a combination of the Italian words bright and dark, or clear and obscure. The aesthetic is simple: singers should strive for a beautiful mix of the two extremes of bright and dark timbre, where the sound has qualities of both tone colors simultaneously-treble and bass, if you will.

When chiaroscuro is achieved, the voice has both brilliance and warmth; resonance is optimal for singing purposes, yielding a strong and full tone that can be heard over an orchestra in a large theater. Discovering optimal resonance in singing is difficult because it is a moving target that is affected by changing pitches, vowels, consonants, and dynamics. To further complicate matters for the voice pedagogue who wishes to teach his students to sing with better resonance, the vowel concepts and colors that are optimal for one singer frequently are very different for another singer because of physiological differences and vocal ranges, especially between men and women singers where octave displacement is involved. While many voice pedagogues have written on the subject of resonance in far greater detail than will be attempted in this article, one is hard pressed to find any consensus among them on a practical method for teaching voice students to sing with optimal resonance. The purpose here is to propose a few exercises and approaches to discovering and fostering optimal resonance in the singing voice, building on the concept of chiaroscuro and resonance tract tuning.


What is resonance? At the most basic level resonance is sympathetic vibration, where the effect of the source vibration is magnified by synchronous vibrations. Resonance can occur when a vibrating object touches something solid, as is often the case in mechanical settings, or when the air within a room, tube, cavity, musical instrument, or other enclosure vibrates in sympathy with the vibrator. The latter type of resonance is of primary importance for the singer. The process by which vocal sounds are resonated is complex and affected by such factors as softness/hardness of the walls of the vocal tract and the size of the various resonance chambers of the voice (larynx, pharynx, sinuses, mouth, etc.) in isolation and in relation to one another.1

During balanced phonation, the sound produced at the glottal source is rich in overtones (especially in lower male voices)2 which are whole-number multiples of the fundamental frequency of the vibrating vocal folds.3 As this spectrum of sound passes through the resonators of the human vocal tract, some frequencies are intensified and enhanced, while others are dampened or filtered out completely.4 Research has shown that the decibel levels of the voice within the throat and mouth during singing are unbearably loud, but the majority of that sound never escapes the body because of the filtering properties of the resonance tract.5 "Loudest resonance occurs when the vocal tract has a pitch which resonates a harmonic or fundamental of the sung tone."6

When Coffin says the "vocal tract has a pitch," he means that the air inside the vocal tract, when vibrating, will sound at a distinctive pitch level independent of the sung tone. …

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