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Singing as communication

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  • University College London Institute of Education

Abstract and Figures

This chapter examines the role of human vocalization and singing in musical communication. It reviews its neurological and physiological origins and its role in early infant-parent relationships, especially in the communication of emotion. It suggests that musical communication is integral to human vocalization and emotional expression.
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Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 1 of 25
In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves (Eds), Musical Communication. (pp239-259) In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves (Eds), Musical Communication. (pp239-259)
New York: Oxford University Press
Singing as communication
Graham F Welch
Institute of Education University of London
g.welch@ioe.ac.uk
Abstract
Human vocalisation is multi-faceted, contains key essences of our musical development
and fosters our earliest abilities to communicate musically. At the neurological level, for
example, spoken language is processed bilaterally, with a left hemispheric bias for
semantic and phonetic elements (the denotative features of language) alongside a right
hemispheric bias for prosody (its connotative features). The melodies of speech are the
first linguistic elements to be experienced and mastered and are indistinguishable from
the melodic precursors of singing as essential elements in intra- and inter-personal
musical communication. Singing as communication has its origins in vocal pitch contours
whose constituent musical intervals are subconsciously exploited by caregivers in infant-
directed speech to foster language development in their offspring. Similar, but more
explicit, musical features are evidenced in caregivers' infant-directed singing, such as in
lullabies and play songs. These basic musical elements of human communication can be
perceived 'in utero' and underpin the infant’s own subsequent vocalisations and their first
musical behaviours. Additionally, the underlying integration of emotion with perception
and cognition generates a network of linked vocal and emotional behaviours that are
central to human communication. Six primary emotions are each communicated vocally
and are intrinsic to human vocal behaviour. Such emotional features also form an
integral part of our musical communication and are evidenced across the lifespan, being
used to communicate increasingly complex meanings, aesthetic values and group
membership as well as emotional expression from childhood into adolescence and
adulthood.
The chapter will examine the growing evidence for musical communication as being
integral to human vocalisation and emotional expression.
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 2 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
Introduction: the significance of voice in the ontogeny of
communication
Vocal sound is one of the defining features of humanity. Its commonality, plurality and
development distinguish the species. Within the wide range of sounds that humans make
with their voices, there are two constellations that commonly have the greatest socio-
cultural significance. These are categorised as speech and singing, but there is potential
(and actual) significant overlap between the two, because both sets of behaviours are
generated from the same anatomical and physiological structures and initiated/interpreted
by dedicated neuropsychobiological networks whose development and function are
shaped by cultural experience.
Our predisposition to perceive particular vocal sounds as singing or speech is dependent
on the dominant acoustic features. Perception begins when the sensory system is
stimulated by acoustic information that is filtered according to principles of perceptual
organisation which group the sounds together according to key features, such as pitch
range, temporal proximity, similarity of timbre and harmonic relationships (cf Pierce,
1999). Perception is contextualised by the listener’s age, family, community membership,
enculturation and the development of the vocaliser. The first few months of life, for
example, are often characterised by vocal play (‘euphonic cooing’, Papousek [H], 1996)
in which the growing infant’s vocalisations could be interpreted as musical glissandi as
well as the precursors of prosody in speech. Such categorical perceptions of vocal sound
as being either ‘musical’ or ‘speech(like)’, however, are a product of the layers of
enculturation that inform our socially constructed interpretations.
To the developing infant, any such distinction is relatively meaningless, because speech
and singing have a common ontogeny. As far as sound production is concerned, infant
vocal behaviours are constrained by the limited structures and behavioural possibilities of
the developing vocal system (cf Kent & Vorperian, 1995). The first vocalisations are
related to the communication of an affective state, initially discomfort and distress
(crying), followed by sounds of comfort and eustress. The predisposition to generate
vocal sounds that have quasi-melodic features first emerges around the age of two to four
months (Stark et al, 1993), with increasing evidence of control during the three months
that follow (Vihman, 1996). These pre-linguistic infant vocalisations are characterised by
a voluntary modulation and management of pitch that emulates the predominant prosodic
characteristics of the mother tongue (Flax et al, 1991), whilst also exploring rhythmic
syllabic sequences with superimposed melodies and short musical patterns (Papousek
[M], 1996).
With regard to sound reception, hearing is normally functioning before birth in the final
trimester of pregnancy (Lecanuet; 1996) and the newborn enters the world capable of
perceiving tiny differences in voiced sound (Eimas et al, 1971; Aslin & Smith, 1988).
Infants are ‘universalists’ (Trehub, 2003) in the sense that they are perceptually equipped
to make sense of the musics and languages of any culture. This predisposition will lead
developmentally to the discrimination of vowel categories and consonantal contrasts in
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 3 of 25
In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves (Eds), Musical Communication. (pp239-259) In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves (Eds), Musical Communication. (pp239-259)
New York: Oxford University Press
the native language by the end of the first year (Kuhl et al, 1992; Vihman, 1996; Nazzi et
al, 1998). During these initial twelve months of life, it is the prosodic (pitch and rhythm)
features of ‘infant-directed’ speech (also known as ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’: Werker &
McLeod, 1989) that dominate early communication from parent/caregiver to child
(Fernald & Kuhl, 1987; Papousek [H], op cit). The prosodic envelopes that define spoken
phrases are thought to be essential perceptual building blocks in the infant’s developing
comprehension of language (Jusczyk et al, 1992).
The mother’s infant-focused utterances are also typified by having a regulation of pulse,
vocal quality and narrative form, theorised collectively as a ‘communicative musicality’
(Malloch, 1999) that engages with an ‘intrinsic motive pulse’, an innate ability to sense
rhythmic time and temporal variation in the human voice (Trevarthen, 1999; 2002; Nazzi
et al 1998). The expressive prosodic contours, pitch glides and prevalence of basic
harmonic intervals (3rds, 4ths, 5ths, octaves) of ‘infant-directed speech’ (Fernald, 1992;
Papousek [H], op cit) occur alongside the mother’s ‘infant-directed singing’ (Trehub,
2001), a special limited repertoire of lullaby and play song which is characterised by
structural simplicity, repetitiveness, higher than usual pitches (somewhat nearer the
infant’s own vocal pitch levels), slower tempi and a more emotive voice quality.
‘In general, the maternal repertoire of songs for infants is limited to a handful of
play songs or lullabies that are performed in an expressive and highly ritualised
manner. From the neonatal period, infants prefer acoustic renditions of a song in a
maternal style (performances from mothers of other infants) to non-maternal
renditions of the same song by the same singer. Moreover, they are entranced by
performances in which they can both see and hear the singer, as reflected in
extended periods of focused attention and reduced body movement in the infant.’
(Trehub, 2003: 671)
Early vocalisation is intimately linked to perception (Vihman, op cit) in which the
primacy of developing pitch control in infant utterances occurs alongside adult-generated
sounds that are dominated perceptually by melodic contour. As such, although the
‘precursors of spontaneous singing may be indiscriminable from precursors of early
speech’ (Papousek [M], op cit: 104), the weight of available evidence on the origins of
language and music in the child suggests a common dominance of ‘the tune before the
words’ (Vihman, op cit: 212), related both to the developing child’s own ‘tunes’ as well
as the ‘tunes’ of others.
The text that follows focuses initially on the nature of the physical realities involved in
singing as a form of communication. These psycho-acoustic features of the singing voice
and their development underpin the nature of intra- and inter-personal communication in
singing.
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 4 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
Singing as a physical activity: structure and communicative function
Probably because of the ubiquity and bi-potentiality of the human voice for speech and
singing (both in reception as well as production), the outputs of the vocal instrument are
central components in many of the worlds’ diverse performing arts. Examples include
hugely popular Bollywood genre of filmi music from the Indian subcontinent, virtually all
the musics of Africa, in which singing is often the core group activity, other indigenous
musics, such as the traditional ‘throat musics’ of Southern Siberia, Mongolia and Tibet in
which two musical lines are sung simultaneously by a single voice, as well as the musical
narrative forms of Japan, such as Nohgaku and Shinnai, which challenge a bi-polar
Western conceptualisation of vocal behaviour as either singing or speech.
Underpinning this worldwide use of the voice for musical performance and
communication is a common anatomy and physiology (figure 1) that are shaped by
biological maturation, experience, cultural imperative and tradition. The human vocal
instrument has a tripartite structure: the respiratory system provides the energy source for
the voice, the vocal folds within the laryngeal assembly vibrate in the exhilatory
airstream to generate the basic sound, whilst the vocal tract (the spaces above the larynx –
the pharyngeal space within the neck, the oral cavity and lips, often complimented by the
nasal cavity) shapes the sound output (cf Welch & Sundberg, 2002). Various
configurations of the vocal assembly are fundamental to vocal music behaviour and
communication. Vocal pitch is essentially a product of patterns of vocal fold vibration
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 5 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
(Titze, 1994), vocal loudness relates to changes in air pressure from the lungs
(Thomasson, 2003; Hixon & Hoit, 1999), vocal colouring is generated by the interface
between vocal fold vibration and the configuration of the elements of the vocal tract
(Sundberg, 1996; Howard et al, 1993).
In essence, the overall vibrating dimensions of the vocal folds at any given age, coupled
to the degree to which they can be stretched/lengthened or contracted/shortened, underlie
the voice’s basic pitch range (tessitura) and form the physical basis for the conventional
‘labels’ that are applied to singing voices, such as soprano, alto, tenor or bass. Young
children have smaller vocal folds than adults and so have higher pitched voices. The
pattern of vibration and resultant timbre are also dissimilar because of differences
compared with adults in the relative proportions of the vocal fold’s basic structure
(membrane and cartilage) in children (Stathopoulos, 2000). Perhaps surprisingly,
although boys tend to have slightly larger vocal folds than girls, they both use a similar
vocal pitch for speech (Titze, 1994), although girls attain a wider vocal range earlier in
singing (Welch, 1979b). Up to the age of twelve when adult-like breathing patterns
emerge, children can achieve similar vocal loudness levels to adults by using relatively
more breath (Stathopoulos, op cit).
The onset of adolescence brings growth in the average size of both male and female vocal
tracts, but there is a disproportionate increase in the length and circumference of the male
tract and size of the larynx, resulting in the adult male having a customary vocal pitch
range that is between a fifth to an octave lower than that of the adult female (see also the
gender section below on ‘interpersonal communication’). The size ratio of pharyngeal
and oral cavities is different between the sexes, with the female having a shorter pharynx
(Story et al, 1997), but a more similar mouth length (Nordström, 1977). There is some
overlap in women and men between sung vocal pitch ranges; this is greater between altos
and tenors than between sopranos and basses.
The infant vocal tract is not a miniature version of the adult’s (Vihman, 1996), but is
shorter overall and has a less right-angled orientation. The relative sizes of its
components (such as the pharynx) are different and the intrinsic musculature is
underdeveloped (such as within the vocal folds). As a result, tongue movement is more
constrained and vocal outputs are less diverse. Crying is the first vocal act and it forms
the substrate for all subsequent vocalisation, including singing, ‘…prosodic elements
such as variation in intensity and pitch, rhythmic patterning, and phrasing are all present
in cry long before they enter into vocal play’ (Vihman, op cit: 104). Greater variety of
vocalisation is only possible when the facial skeleton has grown downwards and forward,
thus increasing the size of the oral cavity, and the proprioceptive sense receptors in the
vocal tract (such as tongue tip and pharynx) are more mature (Kent & Vorperian, 1995).
The perceptual ambiguity of infant vocalisation (as pre-speech and pre-singing) is a
product of the functioning of its basic vocal anatomy as well as our adult categorical
perception.
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 6 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
A theory of intra- and inter-personal communication in singing
(i) Neuropsychobiological perspectives
Technological advances in brain imaging over the past decade have provided valuable
insights into the neural basis for a variety of cognitive and affective functions, including
those related to music. For example, neural areas and networks have been identified in
the perception of tonal structures (Janata et al, 2002), features of musical ‘syntax’ (Maess
et al, 2001; Patel, 2003), relative and ‘absolute’ pitch processing (Zatorre et al, 1998),
temporal processing (Samson et al, 2001) and how practice produces change in the motor
cortex (Pascuel-Leone, 2001). Hemispheric asymmetries are often evidenced, as are
relative biases towards particular neural locations, depending on the type of musical
behaviour under consideration.
Acoustic input
Acoustic analysis
Rhythm
analysis
Motor
analysis
Interval
analysis
Contour
analysis
Pitch organisation
Temporal organisation
Acoustic-to-
phonological
conversation
Phonological
lexicon
Musical
lexicon
Emotion
expression
analysis
Associative
memories
Vocal plan
formation
Song melody
Song lyrics
Figure 2: A modular model of music processing (adapted from Peretz &
Coltheart, 2003). Each box represents a processing component and arrows
represent pathways of information flow or communication between
processing components.
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 7 of 25
In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves (Eds), Musical Communication. (pp239-259) In D. Miell, R. MacDonald, & D. Hargreaves (Eds), Musical Communication. (pp239-259)
New York: Oxford University Press
Recent findings suggest that musical perception involves cross-hemispheric processing
(Schuppert et al, 2000), such that initial right-hemispheric recognition of melodic contour
and metre are followed by an identification of pitch interval and rhythmic patterning via
left-hemisphere systems, at least in musically experienced adults. There is also evidence
that specific neural circuits are devoted to dissonance computation and that these also
link to the emotional systems (either in the paralimbic structures or more frontal areas)
(Blood, et al, 1999; Blood & Zatorre, 2001; Peretz, et al, 2001).
Musical behaviours in adulthood appear to depend on specific brain circuitry that is
relatively discrete from the processing of other classes of sounds (Zatorre & Krumhansl,
2002), such as speech and song lyrics. A modular model of functional neural architecture
has been proposed (Peretz & Coltheart, 2003), based on case studies of musical
impairments in brain-damaged patients, to explain neuropsychobiological musical
processing, including that for singing (see Figure 2). Separate systems within the brain
are responsible for the analyses of language, temporal organisation and pitch
organisation. These systems relate incoming information to existing knowledge banks (a
phonological lexicon and a musical lexicon) as well as previous experience of emotional
expression. Song lyrics are assumed to be processed in parallel with song melody and
enacted by simultaneous cooperation between areas within the left and right cerebral
hemispheres, respectively (Besson et al, 1998), with common cortical processing of the
syntactical features of music and language (Maess et al, 2001), alongside an other-than-
conscious ability to perceive underlying harmonic structures (Bigand et al, 2001). Further
support for the Peretz and Coltheart model may be drawn from other neurological studies
that compare song imagery (thinking through a song in memory) with actual song
perception. Bilateral activation of the temporal and frontal cortex and of the
supplementary motor area suggests that an integration of lyrics and melody in song
representation is achieved through the combined action of two discrete systems for
auditory-tonal and auditory-verbal working memory (Marin & Perry, 1999). There is also
evidence that song imagery alone can activate auditory cortical regions (Marin & Perry,
op cit).
The Peretz and Coltheart model proposes that any acoustic stimulus is subjected to an
initial acoustic analysis. This is then ‘forwarded’ to a range of discrete ‘modules’ that are
specifically designed to extract different features, namely pitch content (pitch contour and
the tonal functions of successive intervals) and temporal content (metric organisation =
temporal regularity, and rhythmic structure = relative durational values). Both pitch and
temporal outputs are further ‘forwarded’ to a personal ‘musical lexicon’ that contains a
continuously updated representation of all the specific musical phrases experienced by
the individual over a lifetime. The output from this musical lexicon depends on the task
requirements. If the goal is a song, then the melody from the musical lexicon will be
paired with its associated lyrics that are theorised as being stored in the ‘phonological
lexicon’ (Peretz & Coltheart, op cit).
This is not to say, however, that the resultant sung output would necessarily be an ideal
musical ‘match’ to an original stimulus model. A significant proportion of young children
often experience difficulty (and for a small minority this can be a long-term difficulty) in
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 8 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
performing accurately both the lyrics and melody of songs from their culture (cf Welch,
1979a; 2000; 2002; Davidson, 1994). Analysis of longitudinal empirical data on young
children’s singing development (cf Welch et al, 1996; 1997; 1998) indicates that most
young children are usually very accurate in remembering and communicating the lyrics
of particular songs that they have been taught (or heard informally), but can often be less
accurate in reproducing the same songs’ constituent pitches. A similar bias is reported in
adult singers’ biased ability to make fewer errors in memorising the words of new songs
compared to the musical elements (Ginsborg, 2002). In relation to Peretz and Coltheart’s
model, this child singing data suggests that the average five-year-old’s ‘phonological
lexicon’ is often more developmentally advanced than their ‘musical lexicon’. In
addition, the child data supports the model’s notion of a pitch ‘contour’ module that has a
basic primacy over other perceptual pitch organisation. Young children who were rated
as ‘out-of-tune’ when singing particular focus songs were much more pitch accurate
vocally when asked to match pitch glides (glissandi) that had been deconstructed from
the melodic contours of the same songs for the purposes of assessment of singing
development.
The Peretz and Coltheart neuropsychobiological model also accords with an earlier
developmental model of children’s singing that drew together a large number of
independent studies (Welch, 1986; 1998). This developmental model and its associated
literature suggest that an important phase in the child’s journey towards accurate vocal
pitch matching is the ability to match a song’s melodic contour (Welch, op cit;
Hargreaves, 1996). Furthermore, a recent pedagogical study of the conscious
development and manipulation of vocal pitch contour in six-year-olds (including the use
of computer-assisted learning and visual feedback) produced significant improvements in
vocal pitch matching and in an extended vocal pitch range (Western, 2002).
(ii) The symbiotic interweaving of singing and emotion
The Peretz and Coltheart model proposes that in parallel, but independently, outputs from
the pitch and temporal perceptual modules are fed into an ‘emotion expression analysis’
module (see Figure 3), facilitating an emotional response to the musical sounds. With
regard to the emotional evaluation of vocal sounds, various distinct cortical and sub-
cortical structures, primarily (but not solely) in the right hemisphere, have been identified
as significant (Peretz, 2001). As part of our basic communication, six primary emotions –
fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise and disgust – are all commonly expressed vocally
(Titze, 1994) and are differentiated by strong vocal acoustic variation (Scherer, 1995).
Voice is an essential aspect of our human identity: of who we are, how we feel, how we
communicate and how other people experience us.
The ability to generate concurrent emotional ‘tags’ to vocal outputs (singing and speech)
is likely to relate to the earliest foetal experiences of its acoustic environment,
particularly the sound of the mother’s voice heard in the womb during the final trimester
of pregnancy. Although speech is partially muffled and the upper frequencies of the
sound spectrum are reduced, the pitch inflection of the mother’s voice – its prosodic
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 9 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
contour – is clearly audible (see Thurman & Grambsch, 2000 for a review). The final
trimester is also marked by the foetus developing key functional elements of its nervous,
endocrine and immune systems for the processing of affective states (Dawson, 1994). As
a consequence, a mother’s vocalisation with its own concurrent emotional correlate (pace
Peretz & Coltheart, op cit) is likely to produce a related neuroendocrine reaction in her
developing child (Thurman & Grambsch, op cit; Keverne et al, 1997; Uvnäs-Moberg,
1997; Seckl, 1998). The filtered interfacing of the maternal and foetal bloodstreams
allows the foetus to experience the mother’s endocrine-related emotional state
concurrently with her vocal pitch contours (see Figure 3). Feelings of maternal pleasure,
joy, anxiety or distress will be reflected in her vocal contours and her underlying
emotional state. Given that singing (to herself, listening to the radio, in the car, with
others) is usually regarded as a ‘pleasurable’ activity, this will be reflected in a ‘positive
body state’ (Damasio, 1994) that is related to her endocrine system’s secretion of
particular neuropeptides, such as β-endorphin, into her bloodstream (Thurman, 2000).
Her musical pleasure (expressed vocally and hormonally) will be communicated to her
foetus.
Figure 3: The shaping of an integrated foetal emotional response to sound through
concurrent experience of the mother’s prosody, sung melody and affective state
At birth, neonates are particularly sensitive to the sound of their own mother’s voice,
which derives from their foetal experiences of their mother’s singing and reading aloud
(DeCasper & Fifer, 1980; Panneton, 1985). The perceptual salience of maternal pitch
contour (Trehub, 1987) is also shown in the reported ability of infants aged three to four
months to imitate an exaggerated prosodic pitch contour presented by their mothers
(Masataka, 1992), as well as an ability to imitate basic vowels at the same age after only
fifteen minutes laboratory exposure (Kuhl & Meltzoff, 1996). Similarly, six-month-old
foetus
mother
Acoustic links
Prosodic and melodic features of the mother’s voice (singing and speaking) are perceived
in utero
Hormonal links
Mother’s emotional state when
vocalising (singing and
speaking) is ‘encoded’
hormonally and communicated
in the filtered interfacing of the
mother’s and foetus’
bloodstreams
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 10 of 25
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New York: Oxford University Press
infants demonstrate increased amounts of sustained attention when viewing video-
recordings of their mothers’ singing as compared with viewing recordings of them
speaking (Trehub, 2001).
(iii) Singing as emotional capital
Thus the child enters the world with an emotional ‘bias’ towards certain sounds, linked to
their earliest acoustic and affective experiences of maternal vocal pitch contour.
Arguably, this biasing will shape the way that developing infants respond to other
sounds, supplemented and expanded by concurrent auditory and affective experience of
their own voices, beginning with the acoustic contours of their first cries. As suggested
above, the available data suggests that there is a priming of the neuropsychobiological
system from pre-birth through early infancy in which vocal melodies are associated with
various emotional correlates. These associations provide a basis for musical
communication across the lifespan, both in the production and reception of voice-based
melodies and also for other intra-personal and inter-personal musical communications
that draw on similar acoustic features.
This integration of early musical experience with its affective correlates can be construed
as basic emotional capital, a resource which is employed as the developing humans
interact with, relate to, deal with and make sense of their immediate and expanding sonic
environments. Auditory experiences can be interrelated with six basic emotions that are
evidenced in the first nine months of life. Initial tri-polar emotional states that relate to
distress (evidenced by crying and irritability), pleasure (indicated by satiation) and being
attentive to the immediate environment lead to the emergence of interest (and surprise),
joy, sadness and disgust by the age of three months, followed by emotional displays of
anger and fear by the age of eight months (Lewis, 1997). As mentioned above, each of
these basic emotions has a characteristic vocal acoustic signature and an acoustic profile
that is associated with a strong characteristic emotional state. Sounds that have similar
acoustic profiles are likely to generate related or identical emotions. Musical performance
relies on expressive acoustic cues, such as changes in tempo, sound level, timing,
intonation, articulation, timbre, vibrato, tone attacks, tone decays and pauses to
communicate emotion, such as tenderness, happiness, sadness, fear and anger (Juslin,
2001). Analyses of recorded performances indicate that virtually every performance
variable is affected in ways specific to each emotion (Gabrielsson, 2003). In
performance, the patterns of continuous changes in such variables constitute an
‘expressive contour’ and have been likened to the prosodic contour of speech (Juslin, op
cit). Thus there appears to be a close correspondence between the acoustic characteristics
of voiced emotion in everyday life and the expressive cues used to convey emotion in
musical performance (Lavy, 2001). For example, a mother suffering from post-natal
depression will have a different vocal quality (quieter, lower pitched, longer pauses) than
her non-depressed peers (Robb, 1999). As children get older, they become more expert at
recognising and expressing intended emotion in singing as well as speaking (Gabrielsson
& Örnkloo, 2002). Arguably, this correspondence has its roots in mother-foetus/mother-
infant vocalisation and human neuropsychobiological development from the third
trimester of pregnancy.
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The acoustic features of the maternal voice and her immediate sonic environment are
socially and culturally located, such that the initial generic plasticity demonstrated by the
neonate for the discrimination of differences in any group of sounds (Eimas et al, 1971)
is soon shaped towards a biased detection of the particular distinguishing features of
salient local sounds. This, in turn, affects related behaviours. So by the age of one year,
for example, infants from different cultures are sufficiently cued into the maternal
language to babble differently: French infants babble with French speech units, Russian
infants with Russian and Japanese with Japanese (Meltzoff, 2002). It is hypothesised,
therefore, that any auditory contour event that is perceived as ‘alien’ to the dominant
sound culture (as previously experienced) is likely to be noticed and ‘tagged’ emotionally
on a positive/negative continuum, depending on its acoustic profile. These ongoing
concurrent experiences act as one of the bases for the generation of musical ‘preference’
within the developing musical lexicon. Examples of early musical ‘preference’ in relation
to singing are:
two-day-old neonates who listen longer to audio recordings of women singing in a
maternal (‘infant-directed singing’) style than to their usual singing style
(Masataka, 1999);
infant preferences for higher rather than lower pitched singing (Trainor &
Zacharias, 1998), which is one of the characteristics of ‘infant-directed singing’;
two- to six-month-old infants that listen longer to sequences of consonant musical
intervals than to sequences of dissonant intervals (Trehub 2003);
endocrine (cortisol) changes in six-month-old infants after listening to their
mothers singing (Trehub, 2001).
These ‘preferences’ for particular vocal pitch contours, vocal timbres and interval
consonance, linked to underlying endocrine and emotional states, may also be seen as
early examples of how musical experience (including singing) is multiply processed
within the overall functions of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems – the
integrated human ‘bodymind’ (Thurman & Welch, 2000).
Singing as intra-personal communication
Sounds can be self-generated as a basis for intra-personal musical communication, such
as the earliest melodic vocal sounds that emerge around eight weeks (Papousek [H],
1996), the vocal play that begins around four to six months (Papousek [M], 1996) and
subsequently in pre-schooler’s spontaneous ‘pot-pourri’ songs (Moog, 1976) and ‘outline
songs’ (Hargreaves, 1996) that draw on aspects of the dominant song culture. The sounds
can also be part of inter-personal communication, such as the interactive and imitative
vocal play of infant and parent (Papousek [M], 1996; Tafuri & Villa, 2002), or adult-
initiated song improvisations and compositions (Davies, 1992; Barrett, 2002). As the
human develops social awareness and communicative vocal skills, there is shift from
communication that is biased towards the intra-personal to the possibilities of inter-
personal communication in singing, but the former will always be present.
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The developing singer communicates intra-personally in a variety of ways related to the
nature of the feedback system. Feedback can be auditory, visual, tactile, kinaesthetic or
vestibular (Welch, 1985; Gabrielson, 2003) and it is used in the construction of individual
musical identity, both in the sense of ‘identity in music’ – as a musician – as well as in
the sense of ‘music in identity’ – as a feature of an individual’s overall personal identity
(Hargreaves et al, 2002). At one level, there is an internal psychological feedback system
that is essentially outside conscious awareness and which relates to a moment-by-
moment self-monitoring of the singing behaviour (cf ‘vocal plan formation’ - Peretz &
Coltheart, 2003). In the first months of infancy, this system is being developed in the
vocal behaviours that are the precursors of spontaneous singing and early speech, prior to
their use in the emergence of a ‘coalescence between spontaneous and cultural songs’
(Hargreaves, 1996:156) from the age of two onwards.
A schema theory of singing development (Welch, 1985) proposed that any initiation of a
specific singing behaviour (termed ‘voice programme’ in the original model), such as
copying an external song model, would generate expectations of proprioceptive and
exteroceptive feedback that are compared to the actual feedback received from the sense
receptors and auditory environment (as both bone and air conducted sound) respectively.
This internal motor behaviour feedback system also provides the basis for self-reflective
psychological judgements as to the ‘appropriateness’ of any given example of singing
behaviour, such as its correspondence to an external song model or to an internal mental
representation of a target melody’s key, tonal relationships, loudness and/or timbre. In the
absence of evaluative feedback from an external source (termed ‘knowledge of results’),
the singer has to make their own judgement of the ‘appropriateness’ of their sung
response compared to their internal model. This comparison is likely to depend on the
relative developments within and between their ‘musical lexicon’ and ‘phonological
lexicon’ (cf Peretz & Coltheart, op cit), in the sense that accurate reproduction of songs
from the dominant culture requires the combination of a range of musical and linguistic
skills (Davidson, 1994; Welch et al, 1996; 1997; 1998). In some cases, there will be a
realisation of a mismatch between the intended and actual singing behaviour and a
subsequent correction can take place. Awareness, however, is not a necessary guarantee
of vocal accuracy or singing development. ‘Out-of-tune’ singing can persist, for example,
because singers do not know how to change their behaviour, even though they may
realise that something is ‘incorrect’ or ‘inappropriate’. It can also persist because there is
no awareness that their singing behaviour needs to change.
At a conscious, reflective level, the singer’s intra-personal communication is a form of
self-monitoring that is essential for the development of skilled performance behaviour of
diverse pieces in a wide variety of acoustic contexts. Adjustments, both mental and in
physical coordination, may need to be made as the performer moves from the
individuality of the singing studio to the more public rehearsal environment, as well as in
relation to the demands of the actual performance, when stress levels may be higher
(Gabrielsson, 1999) due to the efferent stimulation of the adrenal gland (Rossi, 1993;
Thurman, 2000; Sapolsky, 2003). In addition, there are other context effects.
Performance behaviours are subject to social and cultural imperatives, as shown in
classical singing styles by a shift in emphasis from vocal agility in the eighteenth century
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 13 of 25
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to vocal resonance in the late nineteenth century (Mason, 2000) and by different cultural
stylistics in operatic performance (Rosselli, 2000). Practice, particularly deliberate
practice, may be regarded as an essential feature of intra-personal communication and the
development of performance expertise. Lehmann (1997) suggests that there are three
necessary mental representations involved, namely concerning the desired performance
goal, the current performance and the production of the music.
At the other end of the performance skill continuum are those who are less developed as
singers. Some may have experienced extreme disapproval about their singing, usually
from a significant person in their life (such as parent, teacher, peer) (Welch, 2001). Their
internal representations of themselves as (non)singers and, by association, as
(non)musicians are constructed by their negative experience of singing, usually in
childhood. This self-image is normally sustained by singing avoidance behaviours, at
least in public (Lidman-Magnussen, 1994; Knight, 1999), although there is evidence that
even those who regard themselves as singing disabled can be improved in an
appropriately nurturing environment (Richards & Durrant, 2003). Such labelling can also
be environmentally and culturally sensitive, as demonstrated by the woman who had been
born in Barbados and moved to the USA when she was four years of age. When
questioned as to why she was convinced that she was a ‘non-singer’, she replied: ‘Now
that I think about it, when I go home to Barbados I am a ‘singer’. I’m just not a ‘singer’
in this country’ (Pascale, 2002:165). She had two different internal representations of a
‘singer’: a USA ‘singer’ was someone who could lead songs, sing solos and perform
easily, whereas a Barbadian ‘singer’ was someone who could sing fast, ‘upbeat’ songs
and who generally participated with others in singing.
However, even less skilled singers may sing alone and to themselves, either as an
accompaniment to another activity (such as showering, housework, driving, deskwork,
gardening) or just for its own sake. This is further indication of pleasurable intra-personal
musical communication, first evidenced in infancy, and of the interrelated nature of
singing, emotion and self. When provided with an appropriately nurturing environment,
developing singers are likely to increase their range of vocal behaviours, improve their
self-image and feel generally feel better. For example, fourteen weeks of individual,
twice-weekly singing and speaking lessons that were aimed at generating a wider range
of vocal dynamics and colour, alongside greater ease in vocal production, also produced a
significant reduction in stress levels (related to both physical health and cognitive stress),
an increased sense of personal well-being, more self-confidence and a more positive self-
image (Wiens et al, 2002). ‘Voice training became a metaphor of self-discovery’ (Wiens
et al, op cit: 231).
Singing as interpersonal, social and cultural communication
Cross (2001) argues that the essence of music may be found in its grounding in social
interaction and personal significance, as well as being rooted in sound, movement and
heterogeneity of meaning. In singing, Salgardo (2003) goes further by suggesting that the
communication of emotion is at the heart of sung performance through the combined use
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 14 of 25
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of acoustical (vocal) and visual (facial) expressive cues. He undertook a series of
empirical experiments to demonstrate how the singer’s movements and gestures (vocally
and facially) facilitate the communication of their interpretation of the intended meaning
of the composer’s notation, including its emotional character. Furthermore, such vocal
and facial expressions in performance are similar to those used to convey emotional
meaning in everyday life. Salgardo (op cit) concludes that the emotions portrayed by a
singer, although performed, are not ‘faked’, but are built on the recollections of real
emotions. A performance that is regarded as ‘authentic’ or of high quality will have a
close correspondence between such vocal and visual gestures and the nature of the
original features of the musical structure; it is a form of corroboration.
In addition to the communication of a basic emotional state, the act of singing conveys
information about group membership, such as age, gender, culture and social group.
Several studies have demonstrated that listeners are able to identify and label certain
features of both the singer (as a ‘child’) and the singing (as ‘child-like’). Often there is an
accurate correspondence between the listener assessment and the acoustic item, but this is
not always the case because of the variables involved, both in relation to the listener and
to the singer. As outlined above (see ‘singing as a physical activity’), the vocal
performer’s manipulation of the pattern of vocal fold vibration and the configuration of
the vocal tract are basic to the act and art of singing. The acoustic output is dependent on
the physiological patterning and this, in turn, is closely related to the singer’s age, gender,
experience, skill levels, social and cultural background and the particular musical genre.
With regard to age, a study of three hundred and twenty untrained child singers aged
three to twelve years found a highly regular and linear relationship in listener judgements
between the estimated age and the true chronological age (Sergeant et al, unpublished
ms). Where listeners made erroneous judgements, they tended to underestimate the age of
those singers aged seven years and older, irrespective of gender, suggesting perhaps that
there was a categorical perception of child-like vocal quality that influenced judgements
towards some notional mean age. The ability to recognise that a singer is a child is
closely related to the nature of the acoustic output. Although development occurs across
childhood, the child’s vocal apparatus is significantly different in size and structure from
that of the adult (Kent & Vorperian, 1995; Stathopoulos, 2000) to produce a relatively
distinctive sung vocal timbre.
At the other end of the age continuum, older voices also have a characteristic acoustic
signature, both in singing and in speech, that relate to changes in the underlying voice
mechanism. However, there can be a significant difference between the chronological
and biological ages of a singing voice (Welch & Thurman, 2000). It is possible for a
person to ‘sound’ several decades younger (or older), depending on their lifelong voice
use and vocal health (Hazlett & Ball, 1996). ‘Older-sounding’ voices may have relatively
weaker vocal musculature and reduced functioning of the respiratory system, leading to
qualitative changes in vocal output, such as a more ‘breathy’ sound, reduced loudness,
greater variation in pitching and perhaps vocal tremor on sustained pitches. Nevertheless,
older singers are quite capable of leading fulfilling artistic lives as vocal performers if
provided with the opportunity (Silvey, 2002).
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In between these age extremes there are other ‘ages’ of singing, each related to the
underlying anatomical and physiological realities of the voice mechanism. These physical
realities have acoustic correlates, suggesting that there are at least seven ‘ages’: early
childhood (1-3 years), later childhood (3-10 years), puberty (8-14 years), adolescence
(12-16 years), early adulthood (15-30/40 years), older adulthood (40-60+ years),
senescence (60-80+) years. However, there is considerable overlap between these ‘ages’,
not least because of individual and sex differences in biological (maturational) and
chronological vocal ages.
With regard to gender, there is evidence of differences between the sexes in vocal fold
patterning across the lifespan from mid-childhood onwards. Females tend to have slightly
incomplete vocal fold closure, resulting in a ‘breathier’ production that is acoustically
distinctive spectrally, with more ‘noise’ in their vocal products above 4000Hz. Males, on
the other hand, tend to have stronger vocal fold closure and a steeper spectral drop-off
acoustically. Gender appears to be communicated by the amount of perceived
‘breathiness’ and the formant patterning within an overall spectral shape. The
aforementioned study of untrained children’s singing (Sergeant et al, op cit) found that
listeners made greater sex identification errors for boys aged below 7 years. There was a
highly significant linear trend in which correct sex identification was closely correlated
with boys’ ascending age: pre-pubescent boys became perceptibly more ‘masculine’ in
their singing as they got older. No such trend was evident with the girl singers, but there
were relatively few identification errors for all age groups.
The effects of education and training on the communication of gender in singing provide
similar evidence of both distinctiveness and similarity between the sexes. A range of
studies (cf Welch & Howard, 2002; Howard et al, 2002) have demonstrated that there is a
slight tendency for trained male choristers to be more correctly identified than trained
female choristers, but this perception accuracy is sensitive to individual performance, the
particular group of singers, their age and experience, the choice of repertoire and the
individual listener. Nevertheless, both acoustic analyses and perceptual outcomes suggest
that trained girl singers are capable of singing with a perceptibly ‘male-like’ voice
quality. The same singers are also capable of singing in a more characteristically
‘feminine’ manner. There is also evidence of gender confusability in ‘collective’ (choral)
as well as solo singing.
The effects of experience, training and skill levels are evidenced in studies of trained
singers, child, adolescent and adult. Singers who have undertaken classical music training
tend to produce a more even timbre across their vocal range. The relatively lower larynx
position creates a particular perceptual colour to the trained singer’s voice, although this
is also culturally sensitive (such as may be evidenced in the differences between German
and Italian opera performance styles). There is an intriguing interaction between gender
and training at the highest sung pitches. For males, the trained falsetto register is
distinctive, as in the countertenor voice, being a form of vocal production that uses a
particular configuration of the male vocal structure to produce a female sung pitch range.
This style of singing is exploited in both classical and popular musics across the world
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 16 of 25
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and can communicate a sense of sexual ambiguity or androgyny (Koizumi, 2001; Bogg,
2003). In contrast, the highest sung female register (employing a similar voice
coordination as the male – termed the ‘flute’ or ‘whistle’ register) presents challenges in
the communication of text in singing because all vowels share approximately the same
formant frequencies so that vowel intelligibility becomes problematic (cf Welch &
Sundberg, 2002).
There is an extensive literature on different musical genres and singing (for example, see
Potter, 2000) and there are certain key features about singing as communication with
regard to social and cultural groups, which can be summarised as follows:
Singing can be a form of group identification and social bonding. Examples are
found in the use of specially composed company songs to reinforce a senior
management’s definition of company culture (Corbett, 2003) and in many diverse
choral settings, such as bringing disadvantaged individuals together to create a
‘Homeless Males Choir’ (Bailey & Davidson (2002), as well as in the traditional
choral communities of Iceland and Newfoundland.
Singing can also be a transformational activity culturally, in which members or
groups evolve new musical styles or sub-genres or modify established
performance practices. Examples of such communities of practice are found in the
fusion music of South Asian youth groups (Farrell et al, 2001) and also in the
recent influx of female singers into the traditionally all-male cathedral choir that
offers the potential of a wider ‘vocal timbre palette’ in the performance of the
established repertoire (Welch, 2003). Here the messages are about musical
innovation, modernity, challenge and/or social justice, the latter being
demonstrated by the emergence of rap (Toop, 2000).
Regular singing activities can communicate a sense of pattern, order and
systematic contrast to the working day and week, such as in use of songs in the
special school classroom to frame periods of activity and in the seasonally related
rehearsals and performances of the amateur choir/choral society.
Singing can also be used as an agent in the communication of cultural change,
such as in the recent identification of certain ‘Singing Schools’ by the Ministry of
Education in New Zealand (Boyack, 2003) as part of their promotion of a new
arts curriculum.
In each of these cases, the act of singing, whether as an individual or as part of a
collective, can facilitate both musical and non-musical communication, a sense of
belonging or of being an ‘outsider’ (Becker, 1963).
Conclusions
It is impossible to imagine singing without some form of communication that is multi-
faceted and concurrent, with different messages being produced and perceived at the
same time. The singer communicates intrapersonally by the moment-by-moment acoustic
stream providing diverse forms of feedback concerning musical features, vocal quality,
vocal ‘accuracy’ and ‘authenticity’, emotional state and personal identity. To the external
listener (parent, peer, audience), there is also interpersonal communication that is
musical, referential (through the text), emotional and non-musical, such as in the
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 17 of 25
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delineation of membership of a particular social and/or cultural group. To sing is to
communicate - singing as communication.
Welch, G.F. (2005). Singing as communication. 18 of 25
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... The outcome is an interweaving of acoustic (prosodic/melodic) and emotional experiences pre-birth that are likely to underpin the developing infant's subsequent interactions post-birth with the sounds of the maternal culture. For example, our ability to determine particularly strong emotions in vocal behaviours in speech and singing (Johnstone & Scherer, 2000;Sundberg, 2000;Nawrot, 2003) is likely to originate in these earliest dual-channel (acoustic-affect) experiences and, arguably, to create a certain bias towards the association of particular vocal timbres with positive and negative feelings (termed "emotional capital" -Welch, 2005a). Six month olds, for example, exhibit endocrine (cortisol) changes after listening to their mothers singing (Trehub, 2001), becoming calmed when upset and more alert when sleepy. ...
... While some prefer to view both as separate faculties, others suggest that speaking develops out of singing, or vice versa (Stadler Elmer 2020). Canonical babbling, which starts between 5-10 months of age (Nathani et al. 2006), has more recently been defined to be the starting point for both singing and language development (Stadler Elmer 2020;Welch 2007). The vocalization of children shifts from more associated singing to higher frequency of speaking at the age of 2 years (Welch 2006)-a development which is also related to the fact that during this stage, children gain increasingly more control over their vocal-motor apparatus. ...
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... According to the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, a song is A form of musical expression in which the human voice has the principal role and is the carrier of a text; as a generic term, any music that is sung; more specifically, a short, simple vocal composition consisting of melody and verse text. (Randel, 1995, p. 768) The act of singing is a physical and emotional experience (Moore, 2002) and a form of communication (Welch, 2005). To sing is "to make musical sound with the voice" (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.). ...
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... Interestingly, speech overlap avoidance and turn-taking also represent the social core of human vocal interactions. It is found in all human cultures , while choruses and duets are absent except when humans sing (Welch, 2005). ...
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... In almost every book on acoustics and psychoacoustics, there is an opening section that refers to 'sound' being around us, 'with' us, constantly. Even before we are born, during the last trimester of pregnancy, our auditory system is functioning (Welch 2005a; Malloch and Trevarthen 2010). Research also suggests that due to our connection with our mothers pre-birth and the ability to hear sounds coupled with their emotional 'potential' through the bloodstream, during the last trimester in the womb, we enter this world 'pre-programmed' to like and dislike particular sounds, certain melodies and to recognise familiar timbres. ...
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Chapter
This chapter is as an introduction to the understanding of the nature of musical sound. In addressing the nature of musical sound, one must stray somewhat beyond the traditional sounds of music. But, one should also address traditional aspects of musical sound, including rhythm, pitch, and timbre. An understanding of such matters involves understanding of the physical properties of musical sounds and of the instruments that produce them. It involves vibrations of solid bodies and waves reaching ears through the air. Understanding also focuses the capabilities of human hearing, ability in listening to sounds to make judgments, say, of pitch or loudness that is consistent with physical differences in sound waves. But, differences that the ear can't detect don't matter musically. What really matters musically is the percept, the musical quality of a sound. In addressing the percept, one should describe the sound wave in some sort of analytical term and try to relate this description to musical perception.