Reading about embodiment (Heidemann on timbre)

Since I first saw it, I’ve been fascinated by this video of an impressionist singing in the style of many different singers. I love karaoke, and I love doing impressions of quirkier singers myself (Celine Dion, Idina Menzel, and Britney being a few of my favorites)—I’m nowhere near as good as Christina Bianco, but it’s good to have goals.

Actually, watching Christina Bianco convinced me that it must be possible for anyone to sing beautifully. It must all just be muscles and vowel placement and so on, if this one woman can make all these different kinds of voices!

Never having studied the voice seriously, it’s hard for me to describe how I would make these different voices. But it’s probably the first thing you’d try to do in describing this video to someone else. I’m reading Kate Heidemann’s article, “A System for Describing Vocal Timbre in Popular Song,” recently published in Music Theory Online 22/1, which I find a completely wonderful way to discuss vocal timbre. This article pinpoints the kinds of distinctions I’m tuning into when I watch that Youtube video above.

Her methodology for timbre analysis is centered on embodiment of vocal timbres, and naturally her writing about it frequently describes what the body does to create these sounds. For example, paragraph 3.19:

By pulling one’s larynx lower, tilting the thyroid cartilage forward, expanding the pharynx, and drawing the velum upwards (but not completely closing off the nasal passages), it is possible to create a vocal sound that listeners often perceive as much darker, and sometimes quieter, than those previously described. Estill refers to this vocal timbre as “sob” since she relates the vocal setting that produces it to “silent, suppressed sobbing” (McDonald Klimek, Obert, and Steinhauer 2005b, 31). In teaching this sound, vocal instructors might encourage a student to breathe deeply through the nose to lower the larynx and expand the sidewalls of the pharynx, or yawn to aid in tilting the thyroid cartilage, opening the pharynx, and raising the velum. This sound can often be heard in operatic singing, and is an important component of the “crooning” vocal style. It is a regular feature of Bing Crosby’s singing (e.g. in “Christmas in Killarney,” Example 12), and characterizes Cher’s singing voice as well. It can require extra energy to maintain an expanded pharynx while singing, but this vocal tract position is typically very easy on the vocal folds—this can make listening to and mimicking this vocal timbre feel rather soothing.

To turn to a more meta perspective and discuss the act of writing: I’m struck by how engrossing this writing is, even while it’s very technical. The explicit verbal descriptions of how one embodies these techniques really draws me in as a reader. It’s very powerful to imagine your own body interacting with these different vocal sounds. I almost think there should be a directive at the beginning of the article to read it in a space where you can confidently sing with these actions!

I saw this paper presented at the SMT national meeting in 2014 (I think). The paper was delivered in the traditional way, as a lecture, but I would love to see this presented again as some kind of workshop, where Heidemann gets audience members on the right track with embodying the sounds and producing them themselves. Or alternatively, this would be an amazing article to teach in a class to students, immediately engaging all of them. It was published too late for me to include it in my pop music seminar this past semester, but I’ll definitely make a point to fit it in at my next opportunity.