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The 'Queen of the Night' does not whistle

New findings about the sound production mechanism of ultra-high-pitched operatic singing

Date:
June 18, 2024
Source:
University of Vienna
Summary:
Opera singers have to use the extreme limits of their voice range. Many pedagogical and scientific sources suggest that the highest pitches reached in classical singing can only be produced with a so-called 'whistle' voice register, in analogy to ultrasonic vocalizations of mice and rats. An international research team has now rejected this assumption. In their study, the scientists showed that the high-frequency sounds of operatic sopranos are produced with the same principle than speech and most other forms of singing.
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Opera singers have to use the extreme limits of their voice range. Many pedagogical and scientific sources suggest that the highest pitches reached in classical singing can only be produced with a so-called "whistle" voice register, in analogy to ultrasonic vocalizations of mice and rats. An international research team, led by Christian T. Herbst of the University of Vienna and Matthias Echternach from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich has now rejected this assumption. In their study, the scientists showed that the high-frequency sounds of operatic sopranos are produced with the same principle than speech and most other forms of singing. The study was recently published in the Scientific Reports journal.

For this study, nine highly professional operatic sopranos were asked to perform in a special laboratory situation: They phonated at highest pitches while the scientists made ultra-highspeed video recordings of the singers' throats and vocal folds with trans-nasal endoscopy. Analysis of the video footage clearly showed that -- depending on the sung pitch -- the vocal folds in the throat vibrate and collide 1000 to 1600 times per second, commensurable with the produced sound's frequency. This is in stark contrast to the alleged, but now refuted "whistle" mechanism, which would have required for the vocal folds to be immobile during voice production.

The study thus demonstrates that the "default" mechanism of voice production in humans and most mammals also applies to the upper pitch ranges of operatic singing. Simulations with a computer model suggest that the singers can, among others, only produce their highest frequencies with a greatly increased tension in the vocal folds, supported by high expiratory air pressures.

The study's senior author Christian T. Herbst maintains: "This finally debunks a long-standing myth of voice pedagogy. It is remarkable that such extreme sounds can be produced with a rather common voice production mechanism -- this is only possible with outstanding muscular fine-control of the singers' vocal instrument." Lead author Matthias Echternach adds: "It is truly amazing how some female singers can generate the extremely high tensions in their vocal folds that are required to produce these high-pitched sounds without incurring any vocal health issues. Why some singers succeed while others don't must remain open for now."


Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Vienna. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Matthias Echternach, Fabian Burk, Marie Köberlein, Michael Döllinger, Michael Burdumy, Bernhard Richter, Ingo R. Titze, Coen P. H. Elemans, Christian T. Herbst. Biomechanics of sound production in high-pitched classical singing. Scientific Reports, 2024; 14 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-62598-8

Cite This Page:

University of Vienna. "The 'Queen of the Night' does not whistle." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 June 2024. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2024/06/240618115622.htm>.
University of Vienna. (2024, June 18). The 'Queen of the Night' does not whistle. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2024/06/240618115622.htm
University of Vienna. "The 'Queen of the Night' does not whistle." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2024/06/240618115622.htm (accessed July 17, 2024).

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