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date: 26 November 2020

Phonetics of Singing in Western Classical Stylelocked

  • Johan SundbergJohan SundbergDepartment of Speech, Music, and Hearing, School of Computer Science and Communication, Kungliga Tekniska Hogskolan (Royal Institute of Technology)


The function of the voice organ is basically the same in classical singing as in speech. However, loud orchestral accompaniment has necessitated the use of the voice in an economical way. As a consequence, the vowel sounds tend to deviate considerably from those in speech. Male voices cluster formant three, four, and five, so that a marked peak is produced in spectrum envelope near 3,000 Hz. This helps them to get heard through a loud orchestral accompaniment. They seem to achieve this effect by widening the lower pharynx, which makes the vowels more centralized than in speech. Singers often sing at fundamental frequencies higher than the normal first formant frequency of the vowel in the lyrics. In such cases they raise the first formant frequency so that it gets somewhat higher than the fundamental frequency. This is achieved by reducing the degree of vocal tract constriction or by widening the lip and jaw openings, constricting the vocal tract in the pharyngeal end and widening it in the mouth. These deviations from speech cause difficulties in vowel identification, particularly at high fundamental frequencies. Actually, vowel identification is almost impossible above 700 Hz (pitch F5).

Another great difference between vocal sound produced in speech and the classical singing tradition concerns female voices, which need to reduce the timbral differences between voice registers. Females normally speak in modal or chest register, and the transition to falsetto tends to happen somewhere above 350 Hz. The great timbral differences between these registers are avoided by establishing control over the register function, that is, over the vocal fold vibration characteristics, so that seamless transitions are achieved.

In many other respects, there are more or less close similarities between speech and singing. Thus, marking phrase structure, emphasizing important events, and emotional coloring are common principles, which may make vocal artists deviate considerably from the score’s nominal description of fundamental frequency and syllable duration.

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