Academic journal article Journal of Singing

In the Beginning: The Genesis of the Art of Singing

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

In the Beginning: The Genesis of the Art of Singing

Article excerpt

[Editor's Note: This article represented Richard Miller's final contribution to the column that had borne his imprimatur for many years. It is an excerpt from a projected book, Singing in Western Civilization: Origins and Fruition. He wrote, "I realize the item is a bit different from the usual pedagogy article, but it represents a lot of research and effort, and I think it might be a good final fling. It deals with a topic very dear to my heart." Having initially appeared in the January/February 2007 Richard Miller Festschrift issue of Journal of Singing, it seems altogether fitting to republish it here as a tribute to a great man.]

HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS PROVIDE HINTS on the hunting and mastication habits of Homo sapiens, but the nature of voiced sound emitted by our progenitors as they energetically chased, speared, and masticated their dinner victims remains speculative. The vocal bands (cords) are part of the complex thyroarytenoid sphincter that comprises the larynx. The epiglottis, one of three single cartilages of the larynx, deflects food and foreign objects from the trachea and the lungs, and directs them to the esophagus. Only the social and cultural grounds explain why the larynx should produce communicative speech or song. There is no biological need for either.

Sir Richard Negus, in his significant The Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Larynx, explained why the human larynx performs linguistic feats not available to other creatures on this planet. We are ideally constructed for phonation. Nonetheless, today's prima donna and primo uomo may be humbled to learn that a member of the primordial Bichir (Polyterus) fish family that inhabits the Nile has a primitive larynx in the form of a muscular sphincter valve. Primitive larynges also are met in the African lungfish (Protopterus), the Australian lungfish (the Barramundi, Neoceratodus), and in the Amazon mud fish (Lepidosiren).1 Yet, the singer should not experience envy or concern, because those primitive larynges are incapable of producing sound, so their owners have never taken up singing. The alligator uses his or her rudimentary larynx only for valvular purposes for ingesting a quarry.

Aficionados of the singing voice often falsely assume that it is the larynx itself that is responsible for the exquisite sounds emitted from the vocal tracts of a Pamina, Violetta Valery, Rodolfo, or Boris Godunov. But it is not the valvular laryngeal sphincter that is responsible for tone quality. Timbres of a Malibran, a Muzio, a Bjoerling, of Warren, Siepi, Price, Steber, or a Fleming are determined by laryngeal responses to airflow that incite the filtering vocal tract above it-but most tellingly, by the individual's concept of sound, and his/her technical prowess in producing it.

Higher apes (quite impressive looking individuals) have large larynges capable of producing imposing decibel levels. Had our prehuman ancestors chosen to swing from tree limb to tree limb instead of taking on laborious bipedal locomotion, our pectoral muscles would resemble those of the lemur, the gibbon, the mandrill, or the orangutan, with subclavicular musculatures ideally fitted to bough lurching. Constant subglottic pressure would have thickened the vocalis portion of the vocal folds, inhibiting the production of speech sounds.2 Further, the inner edges (vocal ligaments) of the vocal folds, which occlude for voiced sound, are thinner in our fellow primates than with most humans, even in the ubiquitous genus coloratura soprano. Despite sharing valvular structures, among primates only our Homo sapiens ancestors developed a larynx suited to verbal communication and singing.

Other primates remain noncompetitive as vocalists, inappropriate to opera houses and concert venues, because their larynges are not ideally positioned in their necks so as to permit the production of a wide variety of aesthetically pleasing timbres. Our larynges lodge low in the neck, guaranteeing a relatively long resonator tube, whereas the utilitarian-but-limited chimpanzee larynx is situated much higher in the supraglottic vocal tract. …

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