Practical Vocal Acoustics 1925 Style

Thanks to Kenneth Bozeman, Ian Howell, and Chadley Ballentyne for a stimulating two days on acoustics. I connected dots back to Witherspoon’s ideas on the subject from 1925 and found many striking parallels.

I’ve just returned from a two day bootcamp at the New England Conservatory on Vocal Acoustics led by Ian Howell, Kenneth Bozeman, and Chadley Ballantyne. It was a stimulating and wonderful chance to take a deep dive into the properties of sound and understanding the relationship of the vocal source and the tract filter.

Information came fast and furious, and I learned quite a bit – but at times it could be compared to drinking from a firehose. Some of the information will have to marinate for a while and I’m sure I’m going to have to pass back over the material several times to fully grasp it – ah well – such is the state of any learning. Like a Zen koan, you can always go deeper over time.

One of the big takeaways that I had was simple:

The voice needs to be allowed to change throughout its range. What we gain in a good pedagogy of voice training is stability through movement – constancy through change. When things in the voice are not allowed to move or adjust, we get all kinds of problems throughout the system.

A wonderful conversation with Ken Bozeman at the end of the bootcamp brought to mind this excerpt from Herbert Witherspoon’s Singing of 1925. Witherspoon was a major inspiration for Berton Coffin. Coffin studied voice with Graham Reed, who was one of Witherspoon’s students and inherited much of Witherspoon’s legacy. Witherspoon counted amongst his teachers the much-vaunted Giovanni Battista Lamperti.

Witherspoon details (in his own language) much of what Bozeman, Howell, and Ballantyne covered in their presentations. Some of the parallels:

  • We don’t shout on an OO vowel (Bozeman so amusingly demonstrated this)
  • The AH vowel migrates throughout the range.
  • The work of Ian Howell has discovered an enlargement of what Witherspoon refers to in the movement of an OO in the bottom of the range to EE on the top. See Howell’s dissertation on tone color.
  • Mouth shapes must change slightly or drastically depending on the location in the scale.
  • Vowels have ‘pitch.’ That is, their formant structures have a correlation to the pitches of the keyboard, and understanding these locations can help the singer in the pursuit of a unified scale.
  • Mechanistic inducements of the vocal tract rarely assist in the attainment of a free vocal technique.
  • We can use pre-existing phonetics to get a better response: retroflex r as one example of a third formant/resonance strategy.
  • Witherspoon understood in a basic sense the ideas of over-vowel and under-vowel (See Bozeman’s Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy).
  • Vowels have color.

Here’s the excerpt from Witherspoon. It is quite lengthy but it is of inestimable value (in my opinion) to understanding our early attempts to codify acoustic pedagogy into concrete language. I have added some notes in parentheses to expand a bit on Witherspoon’s thinking from a modern view of these ideas. I hope the reader will appreciate the similarities, albeit expressed in a different way.

There is no action without reaction. So, just as it requires certain definite actions of the vocal organs to cause or create certain definite sounds, there must be a reaction upon the organs producing or causing these sounds. This reaction results in more or less direct and lasting effect upon each vocal organ, directly in proportion to the action indulged in. The most acute pitches demand the most acute action of the vocal cords, the highest number of vibrations, also the most exaggerated positions of the pronouncing organs and those connected with the alteration of resonation. Then the sounding of the most acute pitches will be accompanied by the most acute reactions upon the vocal cords and in the pronouncing organs. The same is true of the production of color in the pronouncing organs. This explains many cases of fatigue of voice due to the use of exaggerated and false color.

As the vowel sounds differ in pitch, they cause different reactions upon the vocal cords; as they differ in resonance and quality, they cause varied reactions in the resonation and pronouncing organs. This is also true of the consonants, and is more exaggerated according to their form.

Limiting our discussion for the moment to the vowels and the two “families” already mentioned (Witherspoon is alluding to the close and open vowel families here), the reactions upon the cords and larynx are as follows: [a] will have normally acute and extensive reaction, [e] more acute, [i] still more acute. [ɔ] will have less acute reaction than [a], [o] still less, and [u] least of all. (Witherspoon was already on to the relationship of the first and second formants although he may not have had the language for this phenomenon in 1925). As this concerns the cords, it must also concern the larynx and the muscles which it contains and with which it works upon the cords. Thus the progression from AH through A and EE will demand closer and closer approximation of the cords, a more and more closed glottis.

Consequently the volume of the voice dependent upon the swing of the cords, the extent of their vibration, will be less for [ɑ] than for [a], and less for [i] than for [ɑ]. Is not this clearly heard? We might say [ɑ] and [i] gain in intensity while they lose in volume.

Again, the approximation of the cords for [ɔ] is less than for [a], still less for [o], and still less for [u] . But [a] and [ɔ], being the primes of their respective families of sound, are very similar in volume and cord action.

The [o] will have not only less volume than [ɔ] , but the cords will have a looser approximation, which, added to its effect upon the resonators, diminishes its actual sound in intensity. In other words, it loses so much intensity that it actually loses volume and carrying power. [u] also having the least cord action and therefore the least larynx action, it has the least reaction, and the least volume, as we know by experience.

No one would try to shout upon the vowel [u] . We see that actual volume of vocal sound, what we recognize as “big tone,” is dependent not only upon the swing of the cords, but upon the resonators as well.

We can now divide our vowels in regard to resonation and action as follows:

[a] is the normal, complete resonance and action.
[e] is middle acute or middle high.
[i] is the most acute or highest.
[ɔ] is slightly subacute or lower.
[o] is middle subacute or middle low.
[u] is low subacute or lowest.
We call [u] the non-resonant vowel.

I hope the reader will bear all these simple deductions in mind, because they give the reasons for the system of teaching advocated farther on in this book.

It will already be seen that there is a definite cause and effect for each sound made by the voice organs, always working through laws of coordination. Therefore, if each and every sound has a definite cause and in its turn causes a definite reaction, if we can find the cause we can develop an equally definite system of teaching and singing, and we can also form definite systems for the cure of faulty singing and faulty action, and of many diseased conditions; because, by this means, we can compel more or less action in each of the vocal organs, we can alter coordination or perfect it, we can obtain relaxation or tension, if we only know the sounds which demand the actions which cause the relaxation, tension, etc.

This means that we must teach singing through sound, not through any fads or fancies or tricks, either physiological or psychological. In other words, we can at will modify local action of any organ or organs by making certain selected sounds which directly affect these organs both in action and reaction. This is exactly what we will show how to do. First, however, we must understand a few other facts and principles.

Returning to our two-part trumpet, we find that we are dealing with two chief kinds of resonance (first and second formants of the vowels), and that these two resonances possess very definite and distinctive qualities. The first, mouth resonance, is the real fundamental resonance of the voice. It depends upon the whole cavity of the mouth in which we “form” the vowels which in their turn form the actual fundamental of the singing tone. The mouth resonance, we might say, is the yell of the voice, the big strident clear metallic ringing sound of the voice. We can diminish it or augment it at will, of course within certain limits. (If, as Garcia said, ‘The true mouth of the singer is the pharynx,” then Witherspoon would be correct here. We know that the portion of the vocal tract BEHIND the tongue hump is where the first formant (now called resonance) of the voice tends to respond most acutely.) The second part of the trumpet is the head, face and other resonance cavities above the roof of the mouth. Its real mission, besides aiding in pronunciation, is to beautify the big fundamental tone of the mouth. It takes the edge off the yell. It reduces the harshness of bigness and it makes of vocal noise, vocal tone, by supplying the overtones necessary to a fundamental to make it a musical sound. (Witherspoon was on to something: the first and second formant locations of the vowel in the vocal tract.)

Thus these two resonators have definite qualities of their own, and they supply to tone certain quality characteristics as well as pitch and volume—or carrying power (the ‘under vowel’ and the ‘over vowel’ – see Bozeman and Howell). We find that they are in reality a collection of qualities, or colors, made in the various parts of each large resonator. That is, we can say we have two chief qualities of resonance into which we can divide each and every vowel or tone, but that each of these two resonances has its component parts, as pharynx resonance or quality, nasal resonance or quality, etc. As we have already seen, we treat the chest as an indirect resonator, and leave it alone.

I think it will be plainly seen that these two resonators or parts of our trumpet give us two “ prime” qualities of sound. The lower or mouth gives us bigness, ring, brilliancy, power, the yell if we want it, exclamations of joy, etc. The upper or head gives us mellowness, warmth, beauty in the sense of tenderness, appeal, sonority, etc.

Within the limits which pitch imposes upon us, these two resonators can work in varied degrees of coordination practically unlimited. We can exaggerate either at the expense of the other, which may promote actual and artistic expression, or may result in mannerism, affectations, etc. We hear the hard, unyielding tone or quality of the man accustomed to command, the strident, coarse voice of the uncultivated person, the “affected,” pompous, or over-tender and persuasive tone of the preacher or the charlatan, the beautiful voice of the perfect singer or speaker — each has its own definite ‘physical cause.

We can at will divide these resonators in their use, if we know the sounds necessary to accomplish this division (through usage of the over-vowel and the under-vowel), although scientifically we cannot prevent or inhibit either of them completely. But we can do it so nearly completely that it answers our purpose. We can also lessen or augment the various kinds of mouth resonances. Finally, we must recognize the fact that head resonance is sympathetic to that of the mouth, not only directly, as has been shown, but “indirectly” through the roof of the mouth.

So that we have not interfered with or disproved our former conclusion that all tones of the human voice are resounded in all of its resonators, but in varied ratio of degree or amount. (This was something that Ian Howell stressed in his presentation – while we have a rudimentary idea of the first formant/resonance response behind the tongue hump, and a second formant/resonance in front of the tongue hump – the system is ALWAYS resonating THROUGHOUT.)

(Finally, Witherspoon brings forth a PRACTICAL APPLICATION of these ideas in a pedagogy of singing – one in which I think we 21st century teachers may do well to contemplate. I am making it my mission to help get Witherspoon back into public consciousness – so solid are his ideas on building a great singing voice!):

Our final conclusion to which we have been leading by means of all that has gone before is simply this: — To cause correct singing, that is, correct coordination of all the vocal organs, we teach correct breathing to cause correct position and free activity, and then we use those sounds which will cause the vocal organs to behave according to the laws of coordination. Then, radical sounds selected for the purpose will cause local relaxation or tension, will affect position of the voice organs, they will alter, modify or correct resonation, they will cause the desired reaction upon that part of the vocal apparatus which we aim to affect. That this is the only sure method of procedure, that it is marvelous in its exactness, definiteness and naturalness, I have proved to my own satisfaction during the many years of the development of this investigation.

We are now provided with a system of physical vocal exercise
which we will call a phonetic system. It enables us to exaggerate or lessen activity in any part of the vocal mechanism; we can practically “ massage” any part; we can cure many stubborn cases of vocal fault, degeneracy, and even disease; we can remove many if not all nodes or nodules; we can even improve (if not cure) many conditions without the use of drugs either systemically or locally; and by observation of the results or lack of results of the exercises we can often aid the physician or surgeon in arriving at the much desired diagnosis of the trouble, either local or systemic. We may even avoid operation. I would here make the strongest plea for the cooperation of the physician and the voice teacher. Neither “knows it all.” Together they may bring relief to the suffering singer, or they may together arrive at a diagnosis which will show the folly, perhaps even danger, of the further pursuit of a career, at least in singing.

As the consonants are more radical so far as resonation is concerned than the vowel sounds, we find that we “divide” the resonances from each other more definitely with the former, generally aided, however, by the latter. Vowel sounds can be resonated or sounded only with the mouth open. If the mouth is opened too much, this action varying with the individual, the resonance is dissipated and the vowel sound is impure. No part of any sound of the voice, either vowel or consonant, issues through the nose, except the consonants N and M , and the combined sounds NG. Statements to the contrary are numerous and very dangerous and untrue and cannot be proved. So true is this that one of the “tricks” of the old school was to close the nostrils with the thumb and forefinger while sounding a tone. If this closing caused the tone to develop a nasal or nosey quality, the “placement,” or production of the sound was wrong.

If we pursue a little farther our division of resonances, we are enabled to make some interesting observations, which must not be confounded with law. As the vocal organs pursue a certain line of action already described for pitch as well as quality, the lowest tones are heard to possess much chest resonance, which may be felt with the hand both in men and women, as well as lower posterior nasal resonance. That is, the tone seems to be very near, almost in, the lower back of the nose. As the pitch ascends we hear less chest resonance, more face resonance in the bones of the face, wider and higher up than the lowest tones. Still higher in pitch the chest resonance seems to disappear completely, the resonance of the face becoming higher and more intense, and yet more pointed. We also feel sensations, varied according to the resonances, and often quite complex. The focus of the voice seems always to be in the vowel pronounced, in the mouth, fairly well forward, but (as Porpora said) not too far front, not too far back. (Not too much front room, not too much back room!) This is individual; often the voice is not felt forward at all, so far as the mouth is concerned. Again, as the pitch ascends, the sound-waves become shorter, the fauces narrow to take care of them, and the singer feels that the higher tones are narrower, clearer, not so voluminous or so dark, and that they take an upward-outward direction (more auditory roughness). I know that many teachers will oppose this, but any other procedure results in “pharynx voice,” dark, gloomy tones lacking in “the ring” essential to all tones, but especially to high tones. (Witherspoon was warning against the overly dark, ‘woofy’ approach to the upper range of the voice.)

I would also proclaim here, in the strongest possible terms, that the raising of the soft palate backwards against the back wall of the pharynx, as has been and still is taught so extensively, is one of the most pernicious inventions of teachers and singers. This action is part of the swallowing act of the voice organs, it prevents the proper shaping of the aperture between the fauces, it causes hollow, forced, “ pharynx” voice, ruinous to high tones, and is possibly the chief reason for the rareness of good free ringing high notes among modem singers. Even as far back as Mancini we are told exactly how the fauces should be used, and this authority explains very carefully that “ modern” singers, that is those of the time about 1784, were beginning to try for more power by means of tightening the fauces and spreading them. The false idea of this action is that the nasal passage is thereby closed, preventing nasal tone, but the slight depression or dimple formed in the soft palate just back of the hard palate serves the same purpose much better, leaving the back part of the soft palate and the uvula free to aid the coordination for pitch, quality and color. (Per Chadley Ballentyne, the parts inside must be able to MOVE and coordinate. MRI scans of the human head reveal a concert of movement in the vocal system amongst soft palate, lips, and tongue!)

How much we should teach by “sensation” is a much argued point, and one given far too much importance, in my opinion. At most, sensation is an effect due to a certain action and kind of sound. It is not and cannot be an original cause. Therefore, at most it can be of value only as a proof of action, and after being once experienced, the recalling of the sensation might aid concept in the “ urge” towards action.

In all the foregoing discussion of the voice organs and their actions, laws, sensations, etc., we have avoided so far as possible all language which is “scientific” in terminology or construction. The form of statement, explanation, conclusion, has been intentionally made as simple as possible, so that any one, no matter how little versed in physiology and science, may understand. I hope those scientifically inclined will agree that this is an extremely difficult thing to do.

Berton Coffin’s pitch values of Clear and Sombre Timbre are early indicators, like Witherspoon before him, of an understanding of vowel behavior that is beginning to come into view in the 21st century.


One thought on “Practical Vocal Acoustics 1925 Style

  1. Thank you Justin. You have provided a platform for clear understanding. Vocal science a
    (including vocal acoustics) are still discovering themselves and the scientific discourse is developing haphazardly.
    I am more interested in your approach of applied (as opposed to descriptive) science to substantiate vocal health and vocal Art (italian masters). I hope you continue to develop your vocal assesment of new studio-clients along these lines. (One of my dreams for the future is going on the Dark Web to purchase a PetersenVocalDiagnostics° cheat-sheet 😊)

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