Academic journal article Journal of Singing


Academic journal article Journal of Singing


Article excerpt

LAST FEBRUARY, IT WAS MY HONOR to serve as the special guest for a NATS Chat entitled "Everything you always wanted to know about formants ... but were afraid to ask." The questions came in such rapid succession that my brain-and fingers-had to move nearly at warp speed. It proved to be an exhilarating, if exhausting hour. While there was insufficient time to address everything there is to know about formants, I'm hopeful that most participants finished the evening ahead of where they started. Based on the questions posed during this session, and confirmed by similar live and online events I've done, significant gaps exist in many people's understanding of voice resonance, especially relating to formants. These informational lapses are understandable, especially considering two factors: the intangibility of resonance and the limited exposure most of us had to the concepts during our own training. Nonetheless, I remain steadfast in my belief that singing teachers must understand resonance at least as well as physiology.

As many of you know, I have long been a champion for fact based voice pedagogy. Singing teachers should have an accurate concept of the body, including the physical processes of phonation. But how helpful actually is it to know that the cricothyroid muscles contract to raise pitch if we have no volitional control over them? On the other hand, knowing the acoustic laws that govern relationships between pitch and vowels has immediate benefit: we produce a more beautiful sound through enhanced resonance. This feat is achieved by subtly-or as the situation demands, overtly-modifying vowel timbres, a pedagogic practice that absolutely is under our volitional control.

The remainder of this article serves as a brief tutorial on voice acoustics, including the function and exploitation of formants. We might refer to this as the science of formantology. Many of you already are expert formantologists who can stop reading now and move on to another wonderful article in this issue of the Journal of Singing. The rest of us might benefit from some background information about formants and help with how to use them. We'll organize our exploration into three units, focusing on the sound produced by the larynx, the sound that goes out to the audience, and the resonance characteristics of our vocal tract that transform the former into the latter.


We all know that our vocal folds are the vibrational source of our voices. But what is the nature of the sound they produce? Some will be surprised to learn that one larynx sounds pretty much like another; our individuality is more strongly related to our resonance characteristics than our vocal folds. In fact, if Pavarotti's larynx had been transplanted in to my body upon his death, I would still sound like McCoy. Oh, well...

Nonetheless, the quality of laryngeal sound remains vitally important for good singing. By itself, the larynx produces a sound that is best described as buzz. You can hear an approximation of this sound at Without the vocal tract, the larynx only can produce pitch and loudness; vowels and the articulation of language happen later in the process of phonation. Laryngeal sound is especially noteworthy because it includes lots of overtones. In healthy voices, all the overtones are harmonics, which means they fit into a fixed intervallic series above the pitch you are singing. This primary pitch is called your fundamental frequency, which often is abbreviated F^sub 0^ (Frequency of Oscillation). Harmonics are extremely important. In that regard, I often tell my pedagogy students that they are like sex. (Do I finally have your attention?) Anyone who has taken a sex-ed course in the last 30 years knows that when you sleep with someone, you also are sleeping with everyone that person has ever slept with. And sometimes you get in trouble not because of the person you are with, but because of someone thrice removed. …

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