Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Female Pharyngeal Voice and Theories of Low Vocal Fold Damping

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Female Pharyngeal Voice and Theories of Low Vocal Fold Damping

Article excerpt


WHEN LISTENING TO SUCH FEMALE SINGERS as Aretha Franklin, American Idol winner Fantasia, Chaka Khan, Eva Cassidy, or Ann Wilson, one hears a very identifiable vocal sound. What is that quality? Those familiar with working with this type of voice production will call it the witch's voice, puppet voice, or as referred to historically, the pharyngeal voice. Although the pharyngeal voice is also used by males (think of Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame), the present article addresses this unique production in the female voice.

In Buescher's discussions with noted Los Angeles-based teacher Seth Riggs, Riggs often spoke of the peculiar voice quality of African American singers that has well served the various genres of this community. Riggs stated, "While listening to these singers, it became apparent that they had stumbled upon a coordination which heavily relied on the pharyngeal voice. The question then was: How do I train singers to make these sounds, and how does it create a mixed production?"1

Riggs uses the pharyngeal voice extensively in training singers in his method. Examples found in his book Singing for the Stars will give the reader a better idea of the desired quality of this particular production.2 However, little has been written on the causes for the pharyngeal voice to sound as it does beyond unsupported supposition. To those unfamiliar with the approach, it can prove confusing and astonishing. One attendee of the Midwest Voice Conference where Buescher and Sims presented a study on pharyngeal voice, expressed her amazement and cognitive dissonance in a blog:

By some accounts, we've opened a can of worms and I can understand if it seems a bit strange to you.

If I hadn't heard it for myself, I'd have questions about it too, however, for our part, there was a demonstration later in the afternoon with a young soprano who has been coached using the pharyngeal voice and it was astounding to hear the steadiness, power and focus in her voice, with her head and chest voice connected seamlessly. The male voice works this way already and the female voice, using this method, could also be trained to have a fully connected head and chest voice.

I wasn't trained using this technique but with Bel Canto, the standard technique in conservatories and universities that has been used for hundreds of years to train singers of opera, art song, musical theater and those who want to engage in beautiful singing in general.

To go from what I knew to hearing what I heard took me aback and was puzzling as I tried to wrap my head around the concept and the sheer power of the sound at all times on any pitch. It's like turning the fire hose on full blast.3


Several noteworthy teachers have discussed pharyngeal voice. E. Herbert Caesari, for example, writes at length about the phenomenon in The Voice of the Mind. He claims it derives from the 300 year old Italian school practice of voce faringea and bemoans its lack of use in current teaching.4 He states that the pharyngeal voice lies somewhere between the basic or real and the falsetto mechanisms. When produced exclusively by itself, without any admixture of the basic voice or falsetto, it has a certain quality of steely intensity, exactly the quality the singers mentioned above possess.5

Riggs holds a different view. He believes the origins are different from those suggested by Caesari, proposing that this specific vocal production derives from the castrati school of training.

Although those young men were altered, they did . . . get a longer vocal cord as they matured. Because it was a male voice, albeit a very high one, they needed to join the chest voice to the high voice. To do this they used a device called the puppet or witch's voice, also known as the pharyngeal voice. It's a direct hookup between where the vocal cord is vibrating along its whole length (chest) to where it damps (head). …

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