The Vocal Instrument

A distinction is generally made in physics between sound and noise. Noise affects our tympanic membrane as an irregular succession of shocks and we are conscious of a jarring of the auditory apparatus; whereas a musical sound is smooth and pleasant because the tympanic membrane is thrown into successive periodic vibrations to which the auditory receptor (sense organ of hearing) has been attuned. To produce musical sounds, a body must vibrate with the regularity of a pendulum, but it must be capable of imparting sharper or quicker shocks to the air than the pendulum. All musical sounds, however they are produced and by whatever means they are propagated, may be distinguished by three different qualities:

(1) Loudness, (2) Pitch, (3) Quality, timbre or klang, as the Germans call it.

Loudness depends upon the amount of energy expended in producing the sound. If I rub a tuning-fork with a well-rosined bow, I set it in vibration by the resistance offered to the rosined hair; and if while it is vibrating I again apply the bow, thus expending more energy, the note produced is louder. Repeating the action several times, the width of excursion of the prongs of the tuning-fork is increased. This I can demonstrate, not merely by the loudness of the sound which can be heard, but by sight; for if a small mirror be fixed on one of the prongs and a beam of light be cast upon the mirror, the light being again reflected on to the screen, you will see the spot of light dance up and down, and the more energetically the tuning-fork is bowed the greater is the amplitude of the oscillation of the spot of light. The duration of the time occupied is the same in traversing a longer as in traversing a shorter space, as is the case of the swinging pendulum. The vibrating prongs of the tuning-fork throw the air into vibrations which are conveyed to the ear and produce the sensation of sound. The duration of time occupied in the vibrations of the tuning-fork is therefore independent of the space passed over. The greater or less energy expended does not influence the duration of time occupied by the vibration; it only influences the amplitude of the vibration.

The second quality of musical sounds is the pitch, and the pitch depends upon the number of vibrations that a sounding body makes in each second of time. The most unmusical ear can distinguish a high note from a low one, even when the interval is not great. Low notes are characterised by a relatively small number of vibrations, and as the pitch rises so the number of vibrations increase. This can be proved in many ways. Take, for example, two tuning-forks of different size: the shorter produces a considerably higher pitched note than the longer one. If a mirror be attached to one of the prongs of each fork, and a beam of light be cast upon each mirror successively and then reflected in a revolving mirror, the oscillating spot of light is converted into a series of waves; and if the waves obtained by reflecting the light from the mirror of the smaller one be counted and compared with those reflected from the mirror attached to the larger fork, it will be found that the number of waves reflected from the smaller fork is proportionally to the difference in the pitch more numerous than the waves reflected from the larger. The air is thrown into corresponding periodic vibrations according to the rate of vibration of the sound-producing body.

Thirdly, the quality, timbre, or klang depends upon the overtones, in respect to which I could cite many experiments to prove that whenever a body vibrates, other bodies near it may be set in vibration, but only on condition that such bodies shall be capable themselves of producing the same note. A number of different forms of resonators can be used to illustrate this law; a law indeed which is of the greatest importance in connection with the mechanism of the human voice. Although notes are of the same loudness and pitch when played on different instruments or spoken or sung by different individuals, yet even a person with no ear for music can easily detect a difference in the quality of the sound and is able to recognise the nature of the instrument or the timbre of the voice. This difference in the timbre is due to harmonics or overtones. Could we but see the sonorous waves in the air during the transmission of the sound of a voice, we should see stamped on it the conditions of motion upon which its characteristic qualities depended; which is due to the fact that every vocal sound whose vibrations have a complex form can be decomposed into a series of simple notes all belonging to the harmonic series. These harmonics or overtones will be considered later when dealing with the timbre or quality of the human voice.

The vocal instrument is unlike any other musical instrument; it most nearly approaches a reed instrument. The clarionet and the oboe are examples of reed instruments, in which the reed does not alter but by means of stops the length of the column of air in the resonating pipe varies and determines the pitch of the fundamental note. The organ-pipe with the vibrating tongue of metal serving as the reed is perhaps the nearest approach to the vocal organ; but here again it is the length of the pipe which determines the pitch of the note.

The vocal instrument may be said to consist of three parts: (1) the bellows; (2) the membranous reed contained in the larynx, which by the actions of groups of muscles can be altered in tension and thus variation in pitch determined; (3) the resonator, which consists of the mouth, the throat, the larynx, the nose, and air sinuses contained in the bones of the skull, also the windpipe, the bronchial tubes, and the lungs. The main and important part of the resonator, however, is situated above the glottis (the opening between the vocal cords, vide fig. 6), and it is capable of only slight variations in length and of many and important variations in form. In the production of musical sounds its chief influence is upon the quality of the overtones and therefore upon the timbre of the voice; moreover, the movable structures of the resonator, the lower jaw, the lips, the tongue, the soft palate, can, by changing the form of the resonator, not only impress upon the sound waves particular overtones as they issue from the mouth, but simultaneously can effect the combination of vowels and consonants with the formation of syllables, the combination of syllables with the formation of words, and the combination of words with the formation of articulate language. The reed portion of the instrument acting alone can only express emotional feeling; the resonator, the effector of articulate speech, is the instrument of intelligence, will, and feeling. It must not, however, be thought that the vocal instrument consists of two separately usable parts, for phonation (except in the whispered voice) always accompanies articulation.

In speech, and more especially in singing, there is an art of breathing. Ordinary inspiration and expiration necessary for the oxygenation of the blood is performed automatically and unconsciously. But in singing the respiratory apparatus is used like the bellows of a musical instrument, and it is controlled and directed by the will; the art of breathing properly is fundamental for the proper production of the singing voice and the speaking voice of the orator. It is necessary always to maintain in the lungs, which act as the bellows, a sufficient reserve of air to finish a phrase; therefore when the opportunity arises it is desirable to take in as much air as possible through the nostrils, and without any apparent effort; the expenditure of the air in the lungs must be controlled and regulated by the power of the will in such a manner as to produce efficiency in loudness with economy of expenditure. It must be remembered, moreover, that mere loudness of sound does not necessarily imply carrying power of the voice, either when speaking or singing. Carrying power, as we shall see later, depends as much upon the proper use of the resonator as upon the force of expulsion of the air by the bellows. Again, a soft note, especially an aspirate, owing to the vocal chink being widely opened, may be the cause of an expenditure of a larger amount of air than a loud-sounding note. Observations upon anencephalous monsters (infants born without the great brain) show that breathing and crying can occur without the cerebral hemispheres; moreover, Goltz’s dog, in which all the brain had been removed except the stem and base, was able to bark, growl, and snarl, indicating that the primitive function of the vocal instrument can be performed by the lower centres of the brain situated in the medulla oblongata. But the animal growled and barked when the attendant, who fed it daily, approached to give it food, which was a clear indication that the bark and growl had lost both its affective and cognitive significance; it was, indeed, a purely automatic reflex action. It was dependent upon a stimulus arousing an excitation in an instinctive automatic nervous mechanism in the medulla oblongata and spinal cord presiding over synergic groups of muscles habitually brought into action for this simplest form of vocalisation, connected with the primitive emotion of anger.

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