How do operatic singing techniques optimize for volume?
February 23, 2013 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Someone once told me that a lot of the distinctive "sound" of opera developed as a way to be heard without amplification. Two specific claims I remember: diphthongs are separated into multiple monophthonic syllables, and phonemes which are hard to sing loudly are replaced by easier ones (which sometimes don't even exist in that language). There were others relating to actual singing that I forgot. Does anyone know of a good discussion of this topic that talks about biomechanics and acoustics? Not to ignore artistic and historical considerations, but I'm looking for a somewhat technical discussion. In particular, I'd love to see a comparison with singing styles developed for amplification and recording.
posted by d. z. wang to Science & Nature (3 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've sung opera and I've been trained in that style and I'm a bit doubtful about the consonants thing. I've also studied phonetics and I really don't think I'm producing any non-English consonants nor do any of my teachers. Maybe there's a school of thought I haven't encountered.

I don't know of any specific page, but a search term for you is 'singers formant'. This is a characteristic of classically trained voices that is thought to help the voice carry over the orchestra. There should be plenty of technical discussions of it.

One thing I used to trot out to choir directors complaining to sopranos that their vowel shapings aren't clear enough is the idea that as you get higher in pitch the harmonics in a note are closer together and therefore it's actually much harder to make vowels distinct. I did have a good technical discussion of that but unfortunately I can't find it right now.

I'm afraid I don't know of anything specifically comparing phonetics of singing for recording and singing for opera. There's quite a lot written on singing technique for the two and there might have been acoustic studies of the two. In general, the type of singing used in musicals is known as 'belting' (that's a technical term!) so you might want to search for articles on the acoustic characteristics of belting, specifically as opposed to 'classical', 'bel canto' or other terms that cover singing styles developed to be heard without amplification.

Hope that gives you some places to start. It's a fascinating topic.
posted by kadia_a at 9:26 AM on February 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

The techniques used for unmiked classical singing are similar to those used in unmiked stage theatre, centred (in my experience and education) on
  • diction (both consonants and vowels at a minimum are much closer to the front of the face)
  • projection (sending your sound and energy to fill the room)
  • support from the whole body, including the diaphragm, and
  • giving over your energy through the end of every phrase

posted by thatdawnperson at 12:21 PM on February 23, 2013

Here is a short article from Scientific American about projecting more sound energy into higher harmonics that carry above the orchestra and other techniques. For more detail, this book (.pdf file) is pretty comprehensive. I think there was a different Scientific American article a few decades ago that was a good summary.
posted by Killick at 10:01 PM on February 23, 2013

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