“Knowing” and “Understanding” Singing

A recent book acquisition has done much to help me sweep away some of the clouds that have nagged me for some time in the pursuit of knowledge about the singing voice, as well as how skills for singing are acquired – or at least – how to think about them more practically.

Particular to the arguments were clarifications on usages of language around singing which continue to be a constant problem for the voice training profession today and cause much strife in online forums and discussions. Mostly the fuzzy lines between what has come to be known as “procedural” versus “propositional” knowledge.

Author V. A. Howard in his 1982 book Artistry: The Work of Artists has helped me to clarify some of the miscommunications that are rife within the voice training vs. voice science communities. It’s a dense, erudite, but highly recommended read for those in search of an academic (and at times philosophical) glance at the acquisition of artistry. He uses the singing voice as his model throughout the text, which I found delightful and intriguing.

On the question of “knowing” about singing (the purview of the scientist) and “understanding” singing (the work of the singer), Howard had some rather brilliant statements to make on the subject.

I’m including the notes from Howard’s book.


Husler and Rodd-Marling conclude their book (Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ, 1965) on this leading note:

Knowing is not understanding, nor is understanding knowing. The exact Scientist (who knows all), and the perfect Singer (who does and understands all) – neither will find it easy to unlock a singing voice unless they learn to complement one another. (1 – see footnotes below)

As the previous section may have helped to clarify, the singer’s “technical” jargon to a large extent reflects his “understanding” of singing (without constituting it, since anyone can learn to TALK like a singer), whereas the jargon-laden statements (where true) of the voice physiologist constitute his “knowledge” of the voice. The difference between “knowledge” and “understanding” in this context is illustrated by the fact that hardly anyone would expect the scientist to be able to sing merely on the basis of what he “knows” about the voice – whereas, somebody who talks like a singer is more likely to be expected to be able to sing, on the assumption that he “understands” what he is talking about.

This distinction between “knowledge” and “understanding” overlaps with one philosophers are accustomed to draw between two kinds of “knowing”: PROPOSITIONAL “knowing-that” and PROCEDURAL “knowing-how.” (2) Though contingently related in innumerable ways and contexts, their logical independence is demonstrated by showing that neither one implies the other. For example, knowing how to ride a bicycle may be explained as a constant adjustment of the curvature of the bicycle’s path in proportion to the ratio of the unbalance over the square of the speed; (3) but clearly, knowing that bit of physics is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing how to ride. Similarly, a singer may know how to produce an “open,” well-projected tone by “placing” the voice on the upper edge of the chest bone without knowing that this is “the most effective way of influencing the Closers (lateralis and transversus muscles in the larynx) but also the safest because the chest bone-shield cartilage muscle draws and anchors the larynx downwards. (4)

Propositional knowledge is expressed in statements conforming to logical standards of belief, truth, and evidence, (5) whereas procedural knowledge consists of skilled performances, activities rather than statements, confirming to quite different standards of achievement as variable as skills themselves and their purposes. Though measured by different standards, judgment and intelligence nevertheless are still required to “know how.” In other words, “know how” in the sense of intelligent action refers to a trained ability, keeping in mind that not every ability is trained, for instance, one’s ability to see colors, feel a pinprick, or digest cabbage.

Now however many reflex responses and other untrained abilities may be involved in singing (e.g., the ability to discriminate pitches, to experience certain physical sensations, and the like), the singer’s “understanding” would seem to encompass at least this much: intelligent, trained ability or “know how” as directed and described and, to an extent, explained by the “technical language of the ear” – which is to say that the singer “understands” both through his actions and their effects AND “propositionally” in the terms of his own special language; that is, whenever the singer or trainer uses that language to utter a declarative sentence about the voice. Otherwise, the singer’s “understanding” embraces far more in the realms of sound, sensation, emotion, and musical performance that can ever be circumscribed by trained procedures, and still less by the strict logical conditions of propositional knowledge whether “technically” or “theoretically” expressed. I wish simply to observe here, and further on to argue, that “understanding” so construed may be involved at all stages of a complex skill, even the most elementary. It is a considerable feat of imaginative concentration and motor control, for example, merely to import a particular vocal achievement, say, that of the “supported falsetto” or “head tone,” (6) painstakingly built up over many months, into a simple musical phrase with its “complications” of variable consonants and vowels; not to mention textural sense or expressive dynamics.



1. Citing Pierre Buteaux: “Knowing is not understanding. Science does not lead of itself to comprehension. To arrive there requires a great leap with the strict scientist’s methodological principles prevent him from making.” Mutation der Menscheit (Frankfurt, 1963).

2. See Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), ch. 2; and Israel Scheffler, The Conditions of Knowledge (Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1965), ch. 5

3. The example is Michael Polanyi’s in Personal Knowledge Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegen Paul, 1958), p. 50. Polanyi’s comments on skills (ch. 4) are particularly apropos of Husler and Rodd-Marling’s researches.

4. Husler and Rodd-Marling, Singing, The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ, A Guide to the Unlocking of the Singing Voice, illustrated by Frederick Husler, revised edition (London: Hutchinson, 1976).

5. See Sheffler, op. cit., p. 21.

6. See Husler and Rodd-Marling, op. cit., pp. 59-62, for the physiological description.

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