Harry Potter & The Invisible Instrument

How do we create sound with an instrument we can’t see? Okay, so you haven’t been sleeping under a rock and missed the 8th instalment of the Harry Potter series, but voice production is magic (well, and a bit of science)…

In school, science classes saw me: 

  1. Desperately avoiding eye contact with the teacher to escape the humiliation of being asked a question I didn’t understand. 
  2. Hiding ‘Harry Potter’ inside the text book because the ‘Triwizard Tournament’ was far more exciting. 
  3. Mentally singing the soundtrack of my favourite musicals to help get through the boredom of a photosynthesis experiment. 

It goes without saying that I was more of a ‘Seamus Finnigan’ than a ‘Hermione Granger’ when it came to science. Until, that is, I discovered voice science. 

Do I have to be a scientist to be a singer?  

Absolutely not! It isn’t necessary for a singer to name each anatomical cartilage, or to have dissected a larynx in order to sing well and communicate meaning. However, unlike a guitar or piano, the voice is, mostly, an invisible, sensation-based instrument. If we could chant ‘Alohomora’ at our throats to unlock them and take a peek, boy, would that be helpful! But, seeing as we can’t, exploring some scientific elements can give us more vocal awareness, and help us to understand our instrument more deeply; in turn, this may then lead to better control over it – consequently making us better singers.

So how, in the name of Nicolas Flammel, do we create sound with an instrument we cannot see?

Potion books at the ready! The 3 main ingredients you need are…  

1. A Pair of Lungs…

The lungs sit inside the ribcage and look like two slabs of ribeye (yum!) They are important for voice production because they are our PROVIDER or GENERATOR. When we inhale, a curved-shape muscle called the diaphragm contracts, pulling the lungs downwards. As a result, the chest cavity expands and experiences a decrease in pressure, meaning we are able to gobble up some oxygen. 

When we exhale, the diaphragm and lungs return to their resting positions. The pressure in the chest cavity builds again because the lungs are deflating; this makes us blow air (or carbon dioxide) out of the lungs, sending it on a journey through our vocal cords and out of our mouths. 

It is this meeting between the air and the vocal cords where a sound wave can be created.

2. A Larynx…

In order for sound to be produced, we need VIBRATION. The larynx (or voice box) is where our vocal cords live, and is responsible for vibrating the air which is sent from the lungs. The amount of time a vibration occurs determines the pitch we hear; for example, if we were to sing a middle C, we can expect our vocal cords to be vibrating approximately 261.63 times per second. As pitch ascends, the rate of vibration increases. For instance, if we were to sing a C6 (two octaves above middle C) our vocal cords would be vibrating at approximately 1046.50 times per second. Whoa! 

FUN FACT!

The larynx’s primary function is not to help us sing, but to act as a bodyguard, protecting our airways from any unwanted visitors (like masticated chocolate frogs or Butterbeer). 

3. A Throat & Mouth…

Known as the RESONATORS, the throat and mouth are two acoustic chambers, separated by the tongue, which are responsible for giving the sound wave energy  – a bit like a bag of smarties does to a kid. Both the throat and the mouth can boost certain parts of the sound wave (but that gets into the juicy nugget of formants and harmonics, and that subject can initially feel like two weeks spent in the company of a mandrake!) 

The ways in which we choose to shape the throat and the mouth, and how we arrange the tongue and the lips (for we have control over them) add personality and colour to the sound wave. For example, you can create a warmer, more dark tone by narrowing the lips, or create a more bright and brassy sound by widening them; really – it’s a bit like choosing an Instagram filter for the voice!  These orchestrations are how we form vowels and, ultimately, how we communicate with each other through language. 

Professor Terry’s Vocal Formula

Airflow + Vibration x Resonance & Human Emotion = Magic

“(Einstein) wanted to understand the laws that govern all of time and space, not because it was useful but because it was beautiful, to satisfy our innate desire to make sense of creation and our place within it.” (BBC Icons; 2019) 

It is from this factory line of lungs-to-larynx-to-resonators that, out of the mouth, comes tuneful stories riding on a stream of air, otherwise known as: Magic (and a bit of science). Now, there is no need to don the lab coat and goggles – you can sing without them. However, through our own intrigue to explore the world of anatomical cogs that whirr beneath our skins, we might just bond with our voices better. Perhaps, we might even find ourselves a reliable, healthy invisible friend with whom we can cast our spells. 

Do you want to discover how to breathe more efficiently for singing? How about learning more about the vocal cords, and getting a less breathy sound? Perhaps you find your tongue is a busy-body and gets in the way. Leave a comment or get in touch! 

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