Kashu-do (歌手道): The Singer’s Formant and the Singer’s Formant Region 2: How to achieve the ring

The following comment by our frequent contributor, Klaus Georg is worth its own post:

So, how does one go about tuning the 3rd, 4th, and 5th formants? It is my understanding from reading Sundberg, Titze, and a lot of other stuff, that the fourth and fifth formant are essentially fixed by nature and can only really be affected substantially by lowering or raising the larynx, which lowers or raises all formants. The third if I remember correctly depends on the tip of the tongue…

From what I have observed in my students lighter voices tend to have higher F4 and F5 and lower voices lower ones. I, for instance, seem to have F5, even with a completely depressed larynx, no lower than about 3300.

Perhaps the especially ringy voices are simply gifts of nature, and not “tuned” in the same way F1 and F2 can be “tuned.” This would also explain why different singers have certain notes that just ring better than everything else–like Lauri-Volpi’s Bb.

Our friend Klaus asks the very question that occupies all our minds.  I am in Umeå, Sweden at present and just finished having a very significant chat with my friend and sometimes student, Martin Berggren, an acoustic scientist, with a beautiful voice (Swedes are blessed in so many ways vocally).

First let us count out the idea that some people have “ring”and some do not!  I have spent the last 72 hours with Swedish singers and I am more convinced than ever they have advantages due to their language, their default speech frequency, their country-wide choral tradition and overall love for music as an indispensable part of life.  It is no wonder they hold a significant number of operatic jobs around the world.  The Swedes and the “ringing” Italians have a lot in common in terms of speech.  The common Swede (particularly male) speaks with a very high resonance that resembles nasality but is not completely.  It is the same brilliance that many United States Country singers have as a result of the Southern/South-Western accent.  In all these cases, the sound may indeed be accompanied by some nasality because there is a tendency toward a high larynx when Italians, Swedes and U.S. Americans with a South-Western accent speak (high larynx and a lowered soft-palate usually occur together).  Yet the brilliance of the sound is not due to the nasality but rather to narrowing/lengthening of the epi-laryngeal tube.

Now to the point!  First the third formant:  At a conference in Stockholm last fall, one of the presenters was an overtone singer, who demonstrated with spectrographic display how he can control the third formant at will.  I asked him personally how he was able to so effectively effect the 3rd formant and he responded that it was based on the movements of the “tip of the tongue” (as Klaus suggests).  He completely charmed the audience that day and I found his control quite spectacular.

As for the fourth and fifth formants, I believe we can manipulate them as well.  The overtone singer did specify that he believed (as do scientists) that the fourth and fifth formant could be effected by adjustments in the aeryepiglottic fold (collar of the larynx or epi-larynx) and the depth of the larynx.

The way my acoustician-host, Martin explained it (he can correct me if I am wrong) is that the epi-larynx has a frequency of approximately c. 2800 Hz.  The strength of that frequency is stronger when the epi-larynx is long and narrow and the surrounding pharyngeal space is expanded (low larynx).  At its peak strength, the resonance of the epilarynx would draw the energy of the upper part of the spectrum to itself.  In this way, it would raise the fourth formant and lower the fifth and have a powerful effect on the nearest harmonic.

It is significant that the Oblique Inter-Arytenoid that can bring the vocal folds together are the same muscles that could narrow the epilarynx.  Lowering the larynx would also lengthen the epilarynx.  Unlike the Lateral Inter-Aritenoids that also bring the vocal folds closer to each other but can cause pressing, it would seem the Obliques can do the same without inducing a pressed tone.  The Western twang developed by Country Music singers could be attributed to this action, what I sometimes refer to as a focused head-tone (for lack of a scientific term).  Incidentally, Swedes speak with the same twang. (I would mention that country singers generally do not show strength in the SF region because their production also depends on a high laryngeal position. Not the case with Swedes when they speak. They have the twang but with some depth in the sound as well.  I have only occasionally come across a Swede who speaks only with the twang without a low larynx).

A twang that does not cause pressed voice allows the possibility of relaxing the pharynx (open throat) to effect the 1:6 ratio between the volume of the epi-larynx to that of the pharynx.

Achieving the narrowing of the epi-larynx is not as complex as it might seem.  I believe it is a matter of experiencing this resonance and then deciding to utilize it.  Producing an [i] vowel while the larynx is low (I have recommended the [hwi] exercise in a recent post) is a good mechanical way to achieve the lengthening of the epilarynx and the widening of the pharynx needed for the critical 1:6, 1:7…ratio that produces a strong singer’s formant.  This is a start.  The adjustment of the [i] vowel can indeed be kept when singing other vowels, which is why teachers recommend exercises that lead into [a] from [i].

The [i] vowel has the wonderful property of having its 3rd formant coincide with the Singer’s Formant frequency (c. 2800).  As said, the mechanics of the [i] vowel correspond with the lengthening/narrowing of the epi-larynx, by virtue of the paradoxical stretch upward from the displacement of the back of the tongue (hyo-glossus muscle) and downward if the larynx maintains its depth. This is achieved very well by the [hwi] exercises.  We have gotten awesome results with this exercise in the studio.

Indeed some vocal tracts are naturally suited to achieving the 1:6 ratio that produces the singer’s formant.  A singer with a very wide or deep pharynx will naturally have an easier time with respect to producing “ring”,  it does not mean it cannot be learned.  Perhaps there are people with very small pharyngeal volume that would have a real hard time producing the ring in the voice. So far I have not had a student who could not eventually accomplish the coordination.  Given that nature created the laryngeal structure precisely for long distance communication without artificial amplification (Please let Opera remain this way–This was one of Salvatore Licitra’s plea by video that was shown at the award ceremony in Ragusa, Sicily shortly after his fatal accident), it is a rare human being who cannot produce this sound.  Babies need it to alert their parents of discomfort or danger.  The propagation of the species necessitated this before technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution.  Agrarian and otherwise non-urban cultures make use of the Singer’s Formant for communication, such as calling the animals home at the end of the day.  An example of this is the Swedish tradition of Kulning.

It is interesting that Birgit Nilsson, who prided herself on being a farm girl, practiced this traditional animal call.  There are many traditional songs that came out of Kulning. (I had a coloratura student use her experiencing with Kulning to access more intensity in the middle range.  I had wished to include that recording here, but we found out after the lesson that the recording machine was not on.  It was quite extraordinary and I am very sad we were not able to record it. But I do have a recording of her from the day before singing some extremely high notes.  Look for it in the next post!)

The other part of this is the source tone.  We cannot talk about the effects of the singer’s formant on the upper part of the spectrum without a good source tone.  The folds must be deep enough to create a tone rich in harmonics and must come together completely and gently for efficient propagation of air. Closure alone is not enough. A low larynx is part and parcel.  A “natural” low larynx is achieved in part when there is a pressure/flow balance.  Too much medial pressure will create excessive sub-glottal pressure and force the larynx up. One difference between a pressed tone and a good closure without excessive medial pressure is the contact area.  As said here so often, if the contact time is increased by medial pressure, the vertical contact area must reduce to maintain pitch, since both add time to the length of the glottal cycle.  Conversely, increased contact area requires a relaxation of medial pressure if pitch is constant.  This is theory, but in my experience it makes complete sense.    

Very  good results can be achieved with a relatively pressed tone.  Even some of the greatest singers in the history of recorded opera sang with a pressed tone.  Their charisma more than made up for the relatively venial sin of over-compression. Some singers have very strong extrinsic laryngeal musculature and can handle more sub-glottal pressure than the average.  The fact that they can function successfully with this excessive pressure does not mean that it is the best way, nor that everyone can sing successfully with such pressure. 

Indeed there are variations in what voice teachers will accept as a good source tone and much of that has to do with personal taste.  For my part I will take, on the male side, the one singer who is practically without reproach both on the traditional and science side of the vocal discourse.  And that is Jussi Björling. 
Björling had a relatively lyric voice (as opposed to a dramatic voice).  By this I mean a naturally lighter voice.  The vocal folds were not as substantial as that of Corelli’s or Del Monaco or even Pavarotti.  One can extrapolate this by ear.  The latter three produced sounds that were simply more substantial as far as source tone. To my ears however, within the limits of his own natural voice, Björling sang as substantial a tone as was possible and still maintain balance.  On that score, he produced a more substantial tone relative to his own instrument than Pavarotti.  This substance helped produce the kind of source tone that was also amenable to a larynx that floats low.  He did not have to use external forces like depressing the larynx with the back of his tongue.  The tongue was free to configure as necessary for proper acoustic adjustments.  Furthermore, he had such a sensitivity to the Singer’s Formant’s effect that he used it constantly.  The balance between the low part of the spectrum and the upper part of the spectrum is faultless in Björling. Here is pretty much a map to what a tenor wants to achieve in terms of chiaroscuro balance.

Björling si m_ama.mp3

Also significant is the influence of the Singer’s Formant on the source tone itself.  Martin Berggren suggests that because the epi-larynx is directly above the vocal folds, it would make sense that the propagation of acoustic energy between the epi-larynx and the pharynx would produce an impedance to the glottal flow, in essence keeping the glottis closed for a brief moment during each cycle even as the folds begin to open. This has the virtue of reducing the length of the close quotient without losing efficiency or compression.  It sounds like the glottis is not closed tightly and yet the voice produces amazing brilliance and ring.  Sounds like Björling at his best to me!

(Incidentally, when I feel I am singing really well, I have a feeling that there is a sensation of vibrant air directly on top of where I sense the folds vibrate. I cannot be sure this is impedance caused by supra-glottal inertia. It is possible that my knowledge of this makes me interpret the sensation in such a way.  We must be careful with sensory feedback.  Since that area of the larynx is not enervated it is important to keep a level of skepticism relative to interpreting proprioception).

I have tried to recreate the balance that Björling had by concentrating on the narrowing experience of the [i] while maintaining the depth of the [u].  This is the purpose of the [hwi] exercises.  The results were spotty. Sometimes good, sometimes not.  I was able to observe fault in my own singing in two ways:  1) As a former baritone, I am very conscious of removing unnecessary darkness in my tone.  The lower voice was manufactured to created my old bass-baritone sounds (I sang a lot of Oratorio).  However, I believe I took this idea too far and may have allowed my larynx to climb up slightly in pursuit of my new tenor sound. 2) A lot of the brilliance that gives the voice is “tenor” quality has more to do with efficiency of the source tone, meaning how well the folds stay in contact with each other to prevent breathiness and loss of necessary sub-glottal pressure.  I may have been pressing a little bit to achieve this, which would have caused the slightly raised larynx to feel comfortable.

After having achieved a relatively good balance relative to fold posture (vertical depth of the folds), I felt comfortable working with the “occlusive” [z] to bring the folds together without pressing.  Singing on a clear [z] (imitating a bee’s buzzing) requires excellent fold contact without pressing.  Maintaining this posture on the following vowel is the trick.  If there is a little explosion of air going from [z] to the vowel, then it is a sign that the folds have popped apart.  This exercise is also completely doable with the deeper laryngeal position. A good sequence would be [zi ze za] on simple up-and-down 5-note-scale: zi-zi-ze-ze-za–za-za-za-za.  After working on this for a couple of days, I found that a difficult Purcell song, We Sing To Him, that I have programmed for an upcoming concert became considerably easier.  My low range had been the more difficult part to deal with. Achieving good closure without pressing in that range made the approach to the treacherous Ab so much more organic.  When I analyzed various parts of that clip, I was very happy to see that I was able to approach the balance that Björling exhibited on his Abs.  The spectrum is dominated by the 3rd harmonic (H3) on the lower side and 7th (H7) on the upper side–That to say the clustering of F4 and F5 around the 7th harmonic.  Otherwise, the energy would be split between two of the three higher formants F3, F4, F5.  This balanced chiaroscuro effectively increase energy throughout the spectrum, so even the harmonics that do not carry most of the energy maintain a relatively high intensity.  I compare this to an earlier Ab that I sang and the results are obvious.

Earlier clip:

20110829JRL m_ama si m_ama.mp3

Later clip:

20110924JRL We sing to him_rehearse.mp3

I also learned from this experience not to dictate a vocal color for myself.  I give this advice all the time, but sometimes I am not aware I am doing it.  As one student said to me: “I have never heard a color like yours in a tenor!”  That is both scary and reassuring.  Heldentenors are fewer today not because there aren’t any but rather because most of them are trained as baritones.  Indeed traditionally, the heldentenors had very baritonal aspects to their sounds. Some more than others.   From Vinay and Melchior to the tenors who sing the heavier Verdi and Wagner today, there is a very large distance.  Indeed it was two types of tenors who sang Lohengrin and Erik on the one hand and Sigmund and Tristan on the other.  A difference was made in Kloiber between the Jugendliche Heldentenor and the unqualified Heldentenor.  Lohengrin and Parsifal is listed for both (I think the latter is a mistake in Kloiber.  Character-wise, the young sound makes sense, but the tessitura of Parsifal is too low to be sung comfortably by a lirico-spinto/Jugendliche Heldentenor.  I saw Götterdämmerung the other day and the Siegfried, Stephen Gould had a naturally darker timbre than the baritone singing Gunther. The fact is that the naturally darker timbre of the voice must not be sacrificed when seeking brilliance and vice-versa.  If one can display a spectrum that shows such strength in both sides of the spectrum as displayed by Björling (and sporadically by me–I am getting closer), then one must accept the nature of the sound for what it is.  The biggest trap is to limit our own voices to sound like someone else, even our most revered heroes.  It is one thing to follow Björling’s acoustic strategy and it is another to copy his sound.  What should be heard in the best moments of my clip is balance relative to my own voice, which makes it unique unto itself, sounding nothing like Björling.

One thought on “Kashu-do (歌手道): The Singer’s Formant and the Singer’s Formant Region 2: How to achieve the ring

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: