The Magic of the Human Voice
Life begins with a voice: the first cry of a newborn baby marks its arrival into the world.
When babies are born, they can hardly see at first. They have to discover the world by touch and by their sense of hearing. Only a few months exist between the very first cry and the first spoken words. And in that short time, the child’s surroundings will decide whether it will use guttural Arabic sounds or the four tones of each vowel as in Chinese – or whether it will still be able to pronounce an ‘R’ in the future. Although its vocal organs are capable of producing all human sounds, the child will only imitate what it hears, and will stop using those sounds that it doesn’t hear.
Even our ancestors made use of the many possibilities offered by the human voice when they began to settle around the world. They imitated animal sounds in order to attract their prey, and their language released them from the isolation of the individual and created a sense of community. Speech led to the development of culture: calls and songs existed long before the first images and letters were carved in stone or scratched onto animal hide.
The voice has never lost its importance as an essential part of mankind’s communal living. Our voice is our indispensable PR agent, and its sound can decide whether we are admired or rejected. But it is also subject to fashion and social peculiarities. Some cultures speak slightly lower than their normal voice, others slightly higher. In the 1950s and 1960s, high, squeaky women’s voices were considered especially feminine and appealing – too provocative to be broadcast. Today, there are just as many female voices on radio and TV as male ones, although it is still the case that deep, warm voices tend to be more ‘broadcastable’. Squeaky voices are associated more with comedy and slapstick.
How a person’s voice sounds depends on many factors, and the vocal cords are only one of them. The sound of the voice is also determined by the shape and condition of the larynx and the lungs, as well as by a person’s breathing habits, the position and tension of the diaphragm and even the position of the teeth. This explains why no two voices sound the same – each one is as unique as a fingerprint.
The sound of a voice, composed of fundamental tones and harmonics, is more than a frequency curve. The voice of a familiar person, even on the telephone, can alleviate loneliness and convey a feeling of belonging. But it can also ‘betray’ a person, unintentionally of course. Joy and anger, boredom and fear can be read from the sound of a voice. Anger, for example, closes the vocal cords abruptly, producing a strong pulse and making the sounds in the medium and high frequency range sound sharper. The voice of a sad person, however, sounds more muted, as the vocal cords close more softly and less precisely.
For actors, voice is their most important asset. If used correctly, it can enthrall an audience even in the back rows of a theater. Voices are vitally important in cinemas, too. The success of animated movies depends to a great extent on which actors have been chosen to bring the animated figures to life with their instantly recognizable voices.
And for singers, their voice is their tool and their trademark at the same time. For example, Frank Sinatra, whose clever PR agent gave him the nickname “The Voice”, achieved success with his unmistakable voice – a voice that seemed to turn every song into magic.
The fundamentals of the human voice are between 100 and 400 Hertz, while the harmonics have frequencies of up to 5,000 Hertz. Our ears, however, can hear much more than that, from 16 to 20,000 Hertz. Microphones, headphones and monitor loudspeakers even go far beyond these frequencies, as every voice and most instruments have harmonics that we do not consciously hear but which we subconsciously perceive as sound space. Whether we find a singer’s voice attractive depends to a large extent on these subliminal sounds, as well as on the way in which great vocalists like Anna Netrebko, Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox or Frank Sinatra make use of them.
Fundamentals and Harmonics
In music, the fundamental (also called the root note or the tonic) is the first note in a scale by which the scale is named, for example C sharp with the root note C. The fundamental can also be the lowest note of a chord or, in acoustics, the lowest note of a mixture of notes that forms a sound. Natural sound sources only rarely generate pure notes. In addition to the fundamental tone, a large number of partial tones that lie above the fundamental tone are produced. These so-called overtones or harmonics determine the character of a sound source, and give a voice or an instrument its characteristic sound.