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Musical Elements

Performing Media | Voice

Peter Kun Frary


Man's first musical instrument was the human voice and, after untold millennia, vocal music is as popular as ever. Singing is the act of producing musical sounds with the human voice. A person who sings is called a singer or vocalist.

Vegas Cowboy and Country Trinity | Peter Kun Frary

Vocalists produce sound with their vocal chords, twin infoldings of mucous membranes stretched horizontally across the larynx. As the vocal chords vibrate, they modulate airflow from the lungs for speech or song production.

Vocal Chords (2:51) | Laryngeal functions of a vocalist.

By its very nature, the voice is more intimately tied to the rhythms and abilities of our bodies than musical instruments. Indeed, the genesis of musical phrasing—the length and grouping of musical ideas—rose from the idiosyncrasies of breath control. The voice is also connected to our verbal centers and singing has the distinction of fusing both music and words.

Singers use their diaphragm, throat, mouth and nose to control the timbre and articulation of vocalizations. Vocal timbres vary considerably depending on the abilities, taste, gender, register and style of the singer. The vocal timbres and styles of Beijing opera, flamenco and R&B are extremely different but utilize the same instrument, the human voice!

Vocalist Starr Kalahiki | Liliu Project | Leeward Theatre

Vocal Ranges

A trained singer typically has a two octave or greater range of pitches. The low and high points of range vary according to gender, training and physical endowments. However, a few singers are able to expand their range considerably beyond two octaves (pay attention at 3:20):

Jane Zhang (4:46) | Soprano aria with coloratura vocalization.

Human voices are classified into four basic pitch ranges: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Collectively these ranges are often referred to as SATB. Soprano and alto ranges are normally sung by women. Tenor and bass are the domain of male singers. At some point, additional vocal ranges were added between the alto and soprano—mezzo soprano—and bass and tenor—baritone.


Prior to the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, women were forbidden to sing in most churches, so boys sang soprano and alto instead. Men even sang female roles in operas, maintaining a natural soprano or alto range via castration before puberty, hence the name castrato (plural, castrati). The practice of castration for vocal enhancement was banned in 1903. However, men can still sing in the soprano and alto range by using falsetto (head voice). This performance of Mille Regrets is a SATB setting with all male singers, the upper voices sung falsetto:

Mille Regretz (2:26) | Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521)

Overtone Singing

Although most vocal traditions revolve around singing one note at a time, some vocalists are able to sing two pitches simultaneously, achieving an effect similar to singing melody with harmony. This technique is called overtone singing or throat singing and involves singing a fundamental and selected overtone. Overtone singing probably originated in south western Mongolia and is widely practiced in Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Tuva and Siberia.

Mongolian and Tuvan throat singers like to perform in dramatic natural environments, e.g., steppes of mountains, believing their song is spiritual and directly connected to nature.

Mongolian throat singing (3:53) | Batzorig Vaanchig accompanying himself with a rebab (discussed on the next page).

Overtone or throat singing has spread to the West and adapted to popular styles:

German Overtone Singing Demo (4:58) | Anna-Maria Hefele

The Lady & The Cat - Somewhere Over The Rainbow (3:11) | Anna-Maria Hefele

Kanikapila Singers | Leeward Community College


soprano, alto, tenor, bass, SATB, mezzo soprano, baritone, castrato, falsetto, overtone singing, throat singing

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved