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October 17, 2010 4:30 PM   Subscribe

Sorry for the worst headline pun ever. Are female Bollywood singers trained to develop that unique high-pitched nasal singing voice, or is it because of the natural timbre of their voice that they are selected to become Bollywood singers?

I've also noticed that Korean Pansori singers, while possessing a totally different timbre (deep and "strained" sounding) also all have a very unique singing style. But I've heard a female pansori singer speak, and her voice was just like her singing voice except at conversation-level volume-- I find it hard to imagine that she trained and trained until her voice just changed permanently. Do Bollywood singers' speaking voice sound similar to their singing voice?
posted by holterbarbour to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Years ago on 60 Minutes they explained that all the (women's) songs were dubbed by the same 60-ish woman.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:44 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, I'm sure they're all dubbed. Certainly I would think it too much of a coincidence for Malaika Arora and Urmila Matondkar, among others, to have almost exactly the same voice. And yes, they're my favorites :)
posted by holterbarbour at 4:51 PM on October 17, 2010

Different cultures have different ideals of feminine vocal beauty. It's likely that her voice is simply reflecting a cultural expectation of what an ideal girl/woman's voice should be. The vocal attributes of ideal singing voices, especially pop and traditional styles, tend to reflect and exaggerate these ideal qualities.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 4:56 PM on October 17, 2010

That's a bit of an overstatement. Asha Bhosle is a very popular playback singer, but she doesn't dub all the songs in all the films.

You can hear Asha in this interview speaking and singing live (at age 75!). Her voice is lighter and less piercing than on the soundtracks. Her vocal style draws from Indian classical music, she says, and that means you are going to hear drones. The type of female voice that works against against heavy instrumentation may be a soprano, where the drone can take on that piercing sound.
posted by maudlin at 5:00 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The answer is that there are only around 5 female Bollywood playback singers out there. I'm not sure if the high pitch is "natural" or what, but I would guess that, when they were first recruited for this sort of work, a seriously soprano range was highly favored.

I'm curious as to what will happen when these women start dying off - will there be a new generation of crazy high pitched Bollywood playback singers, or will the trend be for a more naturalistic style?

As far as I'm aware, the high pitched female voice is not a "drone" - the drone in classical Indian music is usually supplied by instrumentation.

I'm pretty sure the high pitches are/were favored due to the influence of Indian classical music, or perhaps so that a contrast between the male and female parts of a duet could be heard even with inferior equipment (until recently most South Asian rural people's main interaction with film would be traveling movie projectionists who towed their equipment from village to village).
posted by Sara C. at 6:08 PM on October 17, 2010

Oh, and two of the most famous Bollywood playback singers, Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar, are sisters. So it might be that their particular high pitched singing genes are dominating Bollywood. For approximately half a century now.
posted by Sara C. at 6:12 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's an interview with Lata Mangeshkar which features her speaking as well as singing.
posted by Sara C. at 6:15 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in an all-girl Bollywood band. Our singer sings in Hindi, and she has since she was a little girl - she comes from a very musical family. She's lived in the states since the age of ten, and speaks in a general American accent. Her speaking voice is soft and low, and to hear her speak or sing Beatles songs, you'd never guess that she can sing Bollywood.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:39 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I stand corrected on the drone.

Given the mention of The Beatles, this performance by Mohammed Rafi and Asha seems relevant (she comes in at the two minute mark). To my western ears, his singing seems to be in more of his natural range than hers does (and that's not a criticism, as I think she's fabulous). But when she does sing a little in the interview I linked earlier (try 38-60 seconds in), she sounds more relaxed, too.
posted by maudlin at 8:15 PM on October 17, 2010

This Wikipedia page has a long list of female/male playback singers. There are a lot (more than 5, easily) of singers beyond Lata/Asha (I love them both), and the range of voices (as they appear to my untrained ears) goes far beyond "that unique high-pitched nasal singing voice".

To answer your specific question, Indian playback singers (the good ones, at least) get trained in classical singing traditions (Hindustani classical music, for the Hindi-centric Bollywood). I don't think that makes them prone to high-pitched nasal voice though. But then, there is this guy, so what do I know about nasal singing.
posted by vidur at 9:12 PM on October 17, 2010

Vidur, I've been watching big Hindi-language releases for the past 5-ish years, and it's invariably Lata or Asha doing the playback*. I'm aware that there are others (and was being slightly hyperbolic when I mentioned the number 5), but seriously, the Bombay film industry is small and there really aren't that many women who do this. Which is part of the reason for unfamiliar outsiders thinking that all female Bollywood vocals sound high pitched and tinny - it's a very select group of women doing the singing, and they all have a very specific sort of training.

And, yes, female singers in the Hindustani classical tradition typically sing at a much higher pitch than, say, Lady Gaga. It's not weird compared to Western opera, but it's somewhat jarring to hear in a pop context.

*A lot of my soundtracks also feature Alka Yagnik, who's only in her 40's, and Kavita Krishnamurthy, who is in her 50's. Which answers my questions about what happens when Asha and Lata are no longer with us.
posted by Sara C. at 9:22 PM on October 17, 2010

Many classically trained Indian singers (some of whom, like Lata Mangeshkar, also sing Bollywood) are trained in techniques to keep their voices naturally high. This was also done in 14th and 15th century present-day Italy with young boys who were to become opera singers. In Lata Mangeshkar's case, she also never bore children, which is supposed to help keep the voice high, as it often becomes lower post-childbearing.
posted by msk1985 at 10:01 PM on October 17, 2010

Sara C, Sorry, I didn't mean to sound sarcastic about the number 5. I just meant that there is a very wide range of female singers. Check our Shreya Ghoshal, who has been winning a lot of awards in recent years. Or Sunidhi Chauhan, who has been doing playback sining since she was a teenager. You're familiar with Alka Yagnik, though her best years are perhaps already behind her.

The reason why unfamiliar outsiders may be listening to the same singers over and over again (and forming certain opinions) is perhaps because the Bollywood films that get "exported" all seem to be made by a very small group of people, who keep employing the same people in turn.
posted by vidur at 11:08 PM on October 17, 2010

Vidur, I think the point made by Sara C is valid to the extent that there is much less diversity among female bolywood singers than you would expect (same can be said for actors in that generation). If you plotted a histogram most non-Lata non-Asha singers will be in the long tail for many years to come which is because Lata and Asha sang well over 70-80% songs for bollywood for well over 20 years

The nexus between music directors/producers and stars was broken by Gulshan Kumar a pirate turned music baron who promoted Anuradha Paudwal and Kumar Sanu. As with all barons, he created his own little monopoly before being shot dead in Mumbai in the 90s (He tried to launch his brother as an actor which was a mega disaster!). After which there seems to be a healthy competition among singers and indeed some of them have a very high pitched voice.

My $0.02 =

1. High pitch voice is considered a part of female beauty and is culture specific

2. A lot of popular live entertainment is bollywood cover songs hence a whole generation of singers either ended up emulating the Lata/Asha style of singing or were selected on that basis.

3. Singers wanting to break into the industry emulated the most successful singers.

4. Since bollywood singing is playback famous stars get linked to a voice and it can lead to a lock-in.
posted by london302 at 1:25 AM on October 18, 2010

High pitch is both trained and chosen. Lata Mangeshkar used to sing in a much wider range early in her career. Too lazy to search for examples on YouTube right now. But anyway, the high-pitched part of her range was more popular, and gradually songs were written for her in only that part of her range. A similar process happened with a lot of popular female singers from the subcontinent, notably "Madam" Noor Jehan aka Malka Tarannum. The difference between earlier songs and later songs is really marked.

Female singers with lower vocal ranges, who continued to sing in those ranges, were more likely to be found amongst the semi-classical and classical performers e.g. Iqbal Bano in Pakistan, Begum Akhtar in India.

Bollywood songs are dubbed by a limited number of singers, it's true. There used to be more variety pre-Lata and Asha, and the variety is again increasing, although yes, Alka Yagnik is incredibly popular.

Also, there is a similar training effect on male Bollywood singers. Mohammed Rafi also had a large singing range, but ended up singing in one particular part of it because that's how the songs were written for him. In his case, it provided a niche in contrast to Mukesh.

Oh, and as others have noted, no, Bollywood singers don't have that same timbre when they are speaking.
posted by bardophile at 2:15 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

This isn't about Bollywood, but I recall my parents mentioning how pansori singers would go to waterfalls and practice by "competing" against the sound of the water. I don't know if that's apocryphal or not (although it does appear in this book.) In any case, I wouldn't be confident in saying that the pansori singer you met was born with her voice.
posted by Busoni at 1:05 PM on October 18, 2010

What's more, the non-Lata/Asha playback singers definitely still sing in that high pitched classical style. There are a few singers out there coming from a more "westernized" pop background, but the predominant sound for the big budget Hindi films is that same Wannabe Asha sort of thing.

Oh, and London302 - I'd always wondered about that, re your #4. Does Shreya Ghoshal* always do Aishwarya Rai's* singing, or is it a total crapshoot? And how does that affect the way audiences perceive the actors' and singers' performances?

*Totally random singer/actor combo, I just remember Shreya Ghoshal did some of the singing in Devdas, which was a big Aishwarya film.
posted by Sara C. at 3:40 PM on October 18, 2010

As london302 said (and I agree), "After [Gulshan Kumar] there seems to be a healthy competition among singers and indeed some of them have a very high pitched voice." And some of them don't (It is possible that my "native" ears don't detect stuff that a fresh listener might perceive).

IMDB has a decent listing of who sang which songs in which Hindi movies. Some Aishwarya Rai movies, for example: Raavan, Guru, Dhoom 2, Umrao Jaan.

Here are the IMDB entries for some of the female playback singers listed for songs of these movies: Sapna Awasthi; Anuradha Sriram; Madhushree; Mahalakshmi Iyer; Richa Sharma. These names are in addition to the usual suspects - Shreya Ghoshal, Alka Yagnik etc. Singers with short filmographies have been left out of this list.

So, there are quite a few female playback singers these days. In my experience, the trend these days is to pick singers for individual songs rather than for the entire soundtrack (which is still something that is done by older production houses - Chopra, Johar etc. - which leads to the "predominant sound for the big budget Hindi films" effect).

One side-effect of this trend is that playback singers don't get as much limelight as they might have in the good old days of one singer doing the singing for one actor in one movie (and perhaps getting associated with that actor in many movies).

Growing up, I only knew two singers: Lata and Asha (and it was fun to guess who sang which song, and then check the cassette cover). But that era is mostly over, though their influence will continue to shape public perceptions for a long time.

My point in this thread is that OP's question may have been formed due to lack of exposure to different singers. The framing of the question: "Are female Bollywood singers trained to develop that unique high-pitched nasal singing voice, or is it because of the natural timbre of their voice that they are selected to become Bollywood singers?" gave me the impression that the OP is not very familiar with Bollywood and exposure to more singers may change his/her impressions of female playback singers in Bollywood.
posted by vidur at 4:18 PM on October 18, 2010

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