Language and Feeling

The relationship between language and feelings is not just a problem for voice teachers. It is an issue we all face as human beings.

According to philosopher Alain de Botton (a personal favorite), a breakdown between language and feeling has long created debate in philosophy as well. What is the intersection between a word and its experience? If we didn’t have the word would we have the experience? This is something philosophers tangle over.

What we encounter in pedagogical discussions (where WORDS are argued over) is fundamentally a PHILOSOPHICAL issue, not a pedagogical one. In trying to come up with common vocabulary and words for sound brought about by FEELINGS, perhaps we become resistant to words due to our own very personal and particular FEELINGS attached to such words? We could say “Well, a vocal sound SOUNDS a certain way, and so therefore – that’s its name.” Well, yes. But we mustn’t divorce the FEELING from the person MAKING the sound (the one FEELING the feeling) – they should be included in the process too. The student might be thinking of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!

I want to be crystal clear here: the diversity of feeling in singing is enormous. We use words to gain relationship to those experiences. What does knowing the word gain us? Control? Understanding? Children don’t have many complicated words and they sing quite well. It has only been through long and broad reading of many pedagogical texts that one can really begin to see shared EXPERIENCES under the words authors are trying to communicate, and therefore, their similarities. You begin to make connections between many far-flung texts. If you can get past the words to the experiences underneath, you begin to see shocking commonalities.

Take for example arguing over the word MELANCHOLY. Melancholy has many shades of experience and might feel DIFFERENT in two separate people. Would we need the WORD melancholy to know THAT was the specific emotion we are feeling? Does the word melancholy add to our experience of the feeling? Does it make us feel the emotion more fully?

For those of us that sing, we know that the EXPERIENCE of singing often overrides our ability to intellectualize or verbalize what it is we are doing and experiencing. I really can’t tell you specifically what I am doing when I am singing well – it just happens. Perhaps that is what makes it so mysterious and magical to another person – and they wish they could do what we do?

As de Botton states:

Some thinkers have proposed that feelings are independent of words: babies, for example, can feel things long before they know how to pin words to their sensations. But other philosophers have insisted that certain feelings would remain essentially unknown to us if we didn’t have the words to help us recognise them.

The truth – as so often – lies somewhere in an intriguing middle zone. Language may not wholly create feelings, but it most definitely and beautifully deepens and clarifies them. The right words help us to know ourselves; through their agency, we can more accurately and securely identify the contents of our inner lives.

Would we know what chest voice was if we didn’t have a NAME for it? How about head voice? Falsetto? How about chiaroscuro?

What is REMARKABLE from history: the earliest terms used for singing were terms given in response to a direct FEELING of sound. The most glaring example, still with us, are the terms head voice and chest voice. Of COURSE, these terms have become better understood over time and in some pedagogies are changed, enlarged, or deleted. Today we may know them as Mode 1 and Mode 2 (terms that, I might add, do NOT tie to sensations directly).

A terminology based on direct feeling was not always the case. In VERY early writings chest voice and falsetto were known in Latin as vox integra and vox ficta (“True/integral voice” and “false voice”). These words describe a LISTENER’S perception, not a singer’s. When voce di petto, voce di testa, and falsetto came to exist as terms, only the falsetto stood alone as not tied to a physical feeling or location. Perhaps that explains our long trouble with it? Interestingly, in some very early pedagogies, the falsetto was called voce di gola “voice of the throat.” Voce di gola would place the concept back into the area of physical sensation quite nicely.

In the teaching philosophy to which I ascribe, I prefer the student have the FEELING or the EXPERIENCE of a vocal concept first. I try very hard not to postulate fancy theories for them. I try not to go into long-winded diatribes (even though it is so much fun to share what we know!!). I often have to be very careful with this because, I too, get VERY excited sharing information.

In three words, we can call this: GET THE BEHAVIOR. 

Trying to work BACKWARD from the word causes no end of problems, especially if the student has NEVER experienced that ‘word’ before. Tosi remarked, and I believe him, that very little speaking needs to occur in a lesson – words tend to clog up the mind when we’re trying to work with the body. In the most rudimentary fashion, we can train dogs to do amazing things with not a SINGLE word – just hand signals. Through training of the animal we got the behavior, and rewarded it.

Cornelius Reid felt the same regarding words:

Verbalization is extremely unimportant unless one wishes to teach others. Even here, on the basis of our theory of the vocal organs being a reacting mechanism, surprisingly little needs to be SAID at all. With almost no verbal instruction, the teacher who undertakes stimulus control can quite easily induce reacting patterns which will literally transform the technique. As long as the singer is gaining freedom of function, functional laws will be recognized and understood experientially.  Correct technique, however, while rising above mere intellectual comprehension, does not necessarily exclude it. The ideal is not only to have knowledge within the knower, but to have knowledge of that which is known.

Reid’s philosophy echos Tosi, that experience of the word is what counts. Not the word itself. Recall those individuals said to “Hide behind their words.” That’s a powerful statement with pedagogical ramifications. One’s vocal truth comes from a release of what is inside oneself, not through external verbal forces alone.

Taking this to language, there are words in foreign languages that describe emotions and feelings we feel deeply and comparatively in English, but we don’t have NAMES for (Schadenfreude comes to mind). Here are a two terms from Czech and Portuguese that verbalize a feeling – an experience. As you read them, see if you recognize the FEELING without sense of the WORD. This is our pedagogical word conundrum in a nutshell. Again, from de Botton. What he calls “Untranslatable words”:

Litost (Czech): The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. They casually allude to a luxurious house they are renting for the holidays. They mention the glamorous friends they have had for dinner. We feel searing self-pity at the scale of our inadequacies.

Saudade (Portuguese): A bitter-sweet melancholic yearning for something beautiful that is now gone: perhaps a love affair, a childhood home, a flourishing business. There is pain yet also a pleasure that such loveliness once graced our lives.

We KNOW these feelings. We have EXPERIENCED them as English speakers. But what we don’t recognize is the WORD. Do you now see our very tricky pedagogical position as it pertains to words for singing? Working from the word before understanding the feeling is a little backwards.


Philosophically speaking, if we didn’t have a word for falsetto, chest voice, or head voice would they exist? Would we find them? Worth considering.

Perhaps this is the reason pedagogical treatises on singing are so confusing and mysterious to us today? They are frustratingly simple and not very wordy. Perhaps it points to a pedagogy that was intent on the EXPERIENCE of singing, and then modifying corrections from there. Only after Manuel Garcia’s Traité (1841) do we get WORDS, WORDS, WORDS when it comes to vocal training and pedagogy. The Traité marked a NEW kind of pedagogy – one based on words, intellectualization, and theories of all kinds. This is in stark contrast to the manuals and writings pre-1841.

Maybe that’s why even Garcia had to admit the word problem of the aforementioned falsetto/head conundrum? “Here are words/names, but they’re wrong”:

Every voice is formed of three distinct portions, or registers, namely, chest, medium, and head. The chest holds the lowest place, the medium the middle, the head the highest. These names are incorrect, but accepted.

Perhaps another potential confusion in early texts is the battle between the DOER and the HEARER, and the confusion that occurs between these two vantage points? Something to consider.

Maybe, just MAYBE, the Old Masters knew something of philosophy that we have forgotten in our quest to name and label every little thing – they apparently were not very name obsessed, as we can tell from the historical literature. We also know the education of any early singer was an intensive reading of the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Maybe they had a philosophical bent regarding words and their experiences?

How do we modern teachers balance our worry over words with the EXPERIENCES the student should have? This is a pedagogical question worth exploring further.

As Shakespeare’s knew, so tantalizingly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.



“How the Right Words Help Us to Feel the Right Things.” The Book of Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 June 2017.

Garcia, Manuel. Hints on singing. E. Ascherberg, 1894.

Reid, Cornelius L. The free voice: a guide to natural singing. Joseph Patelson Music House, 1978.

Tosi, Pier Francesco. “Observations on the florid song.” New York (1967).

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