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In the beginning: the Genesis of the art of singing.

HUMAN SKELETAL REMAINS PROVIDE HINTS on the hunting and mastication habits of Homo sapiens, but the nature of voiced sound emitted by our progenitors as they energetically chased, speared, and masticated their dinner victims remains speculative. The vocal bands (cords) are part of the complex thyroarytenoid sphincter that comprises the larynx. The epiglottis, one of three single cartilages of the larynx, deflects food and foreign objects from the trachea and the lungs, and directs them to the esophagus. Only the social and cultural grounds explain why the larynx should produce communicative speech or song. There is no biological need for either.

Sir Richard Negus, in his significant The Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Larynx, explained why the human larynx performs linguistic feats not available to other creatures on this planet. We are ideally constructed for phonation. Nonetheless, today's prima donna and primo uomo may be humbled to learn that a member of the primordial Bichir (Polyterus) fish family that inhabits the Nile has a primitive larynx in the form of a muscular sphincter valve. Primitive larynges also are met in the African lungfish (Protopterus), the Australian lungfish (the Barramundi, Neoceratodus), and in the Amazon mud fish (Lepidosiren). (1) Yet, the singer should not experience envy or concern, because those primitive larynges are incapable of producing sound, so their owners have never taken up singing. The alligator uses his or her rudimentary larynx only for valvular purposes for ingesting a quarry.

Aficionados of the singing voice often falsely assume that it is the larynx itself that is responsible for the exquisite sounds emitted from the vocal tracts of a Pamina, Violetta Valery Rodolfo, or Boris Godunov. But it is not the valvular laryngeal sphincter that is responsible for tone quality. Timbres of a Malibran, a Muzio, a Bjoerling, of Warren, Siepi, Price, Steber, or a Fleming are determined by laryngeal responses to airflow that incite the filtering vocal tract above it--but most tellingly, by the individual's concept of sound, and his/her technical prowess in producing it.

Higher apes (quite impressive looking individuals) have large larynges capable of producing imposing decibel levels. Had our prehuman ancestors chosen to swing from tree limb to tree limb instead of taking on laborious bipedal locomotion, our pectoral muscles would resemble those of the lemur, the gibbon, the mandrill, or the orangutan, with subclavicular musculatures ideally fitted to bough lurching. Constant subglottic pressure would have thickened the vocalis portion of the vocal folds, inhibiting the production of speech sounds. (2) Further, the inner edges (vocal ligaments) of the vocal folds, which occlude for voiced sound, are thinner in our fellow primates than with most humans, even in the ubiquitous genus coloratura soprano. Despite sharing valvular structures, among primates only our Homo sapiens ancestors developed a larynx suited to verbal communication and singing.

Other primates remain noncompetitive as vocalists, inappropriate to opera houses and concert venues, because their larynges are not ideally positioned in their necks so as to permit the production of a wide variety of aesthetically pleasing timbres. Our larynges lodge low in the neck, guaranteeing a relatively long resonator tube, whereas the utilitarian-but-limited chimpanzee larynx is situated much higher in the supraglottic vocal tract. Although the chimpanzee has the advantage of being able to breathe and swallow simultaneously, his/her vocal range and timbres are restricted. Ian Tattersall, eminent paleoanthropologist and Curator in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, speaks to this point.

In typical mammals, including apes and all other nonhuman primates, the larynx lies high in the neck, and the pharynx is short. This shortness severely limits the ability of the surrounding musculature to manipulate the pharynx and thereby to modify the vibration of the air passing upward from the larynx. In adult humans, in sharp contrast, the larynx lies low in the neck, lengthening the pharynx and making further sound modification possible. (3) (For a thorough discussion of the evolution of human speech, see Lieberman's The Biology and Evolution of Language.) (4)

The human larynx is a precision instrument that permits respiration and phonation, but not at the same time. (It must be kept in mind that the speaking voice is parent to the singing voice.) During the evolutionary process, the vocal tract--from the internal laryngeal lips to the external facial lips--underwent significant mutation. In the earliest evolutionary stages, phonetic definition may not have been possible. As societal endeavors such as hunting and foraging emerged, the need for oral communication grew beyond the nonverbal mood vocalization common to all higher mammals. From the inborn repertoire of grunts and squeals, there evolved a complex series of learned sound signals. These voice units became the basis for "information taking" signals, enabling users to name and refer to objects, to speak of events in the past and present, and to plan for the future. (5) When and where might this have happened?

A discovery at Dmanisi, Georgia of a hominid skull of 2.4 to 1.6 million years ago suggests that Homo habilis--predating Homo erectus--may have migrated to Europe from Africa far earlier than previously had been assumed. (6) Could a single individual have undertaken migration, or would there have been companions in need of communicating with each other? In 2003, anthropologists studying three Homo sapiens skull types concluded that group migration had occurred, making it probable that verbal communication existed. Alas, no hyoid bone remains from this finding.

Anthropologist Richard Leakey imputes the development of language to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of Homo erectus, the precursor of Homo sapiens. (7) Leakey and his fellow anthropologists think language emerged not long after Homo erectus surrendered the stage to Homo sapiens. Other sources, including Randall White, propose that prior to 100,000 years ago, verbal communication that resembled what we moderns call linguistics was nonexistent. (8) He speculates that language mastery is limited to the last 35,000 years. Identifying this discord, Leakey describes conflicting theories regarding language development.

Roughly speaking, two views have emerged concerning the evolutionary source of language. The first views it as a unique trait of humans, an ability that arose as a side consequence of our enlarged brain. In this case, language is seen to have arisen rapidly and recently, as a cognitive threshold was passed. The second position argues that spoken language evolved through natural selection acting on various cognitive capacities--including but not limited to communication--in nonhuman ancestors. In this so-called continuity model, language evolved gradually in human prehistory, beginning with the evolution of the genus Homo. (9)

In the first hypothesis, one postulated by Noam Chomsky, language emerges relatively late in the Homo sapiens evolutionary process.

Perhaps at some time hundreds of thousands of years ago, some small change took place ... in the cells of prehuman organisms. And for reasons of physics, which are not yet understood, that led to the representation in the mind/brain of the mechanisms of discrete infinity, the basic concept of language and also of the number system. That made it possible to think, in our sense of thinking ... That development would have been very useful for evolution. All that was necessary was for the right stage of historical and cultural development to take place for humans to begin to realize that they had this capacity which they never had used before. (10)

Clearly, Chomsky rejects the anthropologic-continuity model. In his small mutation event, spoken language evolved through natural selection processes. In an interview, Chomsky expands on how language underscores core human capacities that "go beyond understanding. [Language] is what is sometimes called a creative aspect, the free ability ... to express our own thoughts without limit, in novel ways ... This ability is somehow a fundamental part of human nature." (11) Many linguists share Chomsky's hypotheses, believing that the evolution of language itself was the antecedent of increased brain size. (12) Contrariwise, agreeing with Leakey many anthropologists maintain that language resulted from progressive evolution, with its beginnings in prehistory. Mithin summarizes this conflict: a gradual switch from gesture to spoken language accommodated precise communication; how and when visual and oral symbolism became amalgamated remains unresolved. Ongoing comparative study of hominid structures provides some insight."

Negus anticipated speculative hypotheses regarding Neanderthal phonation, based on laryngeal structure. (14) Neanderthal had a greater palate area that allowed him to grind hard food, but he suffered from a larynx high in the vocal tract and from a prominent snout elongation that our ancestors happily discarded. With snout truncation, the human voice could travel through a smaller oral cavity and a relatively larger pharynx than did voiced sounds of Neanderthal or those of our simian neighbors. In contrast to Neanderthal "modern man has a funnel-shaped oropharyngeal resonating chamber, which is of great importance in affecting the quality of the voice." (15) Lieberman develops this theme.

In short, the retention by Neanderthals of the primitive prognathous face typical of earlier hominids, in which the lower face is positioned in front of the brain, clearly indicates less efficient speech communication. They represent an intermediate stage in the evolution of human speech. Although their brain was as large as our own, the neural substrata that regulate speech production may also have been less developed. (16)

Lieberman and Crelin maintain that the size and shape of the Neanderthal vocal tract would have permitted the production of only a limited group of vowels: "Neanderthal man did not have the anatomical prerequisites for producing the full range of human speech ... It is possible that all Neanderthal vocalizations had a 'nasal' or 'seminasal' quality." (17) By contrast, the vocal tract of Homo sapiens was fully able to produce the language sounds of modern man. Lieberman concludes:

Neanderthals also had a nonhuman supralaryngeal vocal tract, although they walked perfectly upright and had brains that were as large or larger than ours [Holloway, 1985]--a fact that eliminates these 2 factors as possible reasons for the shape of the modern human airway ... The Neanderthal vocal tract could not form the configurations that are necessary to produce the vowels [I], [u], and [a]. Neanderthal speech is also nasalized and therefore would be subject to higher phonetic errors. (18)

The base of the tongue is attached to the upper regions of the thyrohyoid membrane, by which the larynx is suspended from the hyoid bone (the small ox-bow-shaped bone that joins the tongue and the larynx). The tripartite tongue/hyoid/larynx system forms an anatomical unit. Tongue movements affect laryngeal postures, altering the shape of the resonator tract. Instrumental timbres depend on the size and shape of set chambers in which vibrating air produces tone. But the resonance chamber for speaking and singing--the mouth and the pharynx--constantly changes shape for articulation. Feld explains:

The difference between pronouncing the words "hoot" and "heat," for example, involves a shift in the position of tongue. This positional change in turn changes resonant space of the mouth, which causes different clusters of overtones--called "formants"--to be emphasized for different vowel sounds. (19)

In the ongoing scholarly combat (not yet lethal) regarding the evolution of the speech mechanisms and the origins of language, the skull of an unsuspecting Neanderthal buried millennia ago at Kebara, Israel, provides a fertile arena for linguists and anthropologists to cross their highly sharpened intellectual spears. What can be determined about Neanderthal's speaking ability from the location of his hyoid bone, from which the larynx is suspended? In two scholarly articles, J. T. Laitman and associates give extensive consideration to the issue. (20)

Falk severely criticized the Kebara premises proposed by the Lieberman and Laitman groups, insisting instead that the skull reconstruction measurements they used are inaccurate. "It is concluded that the statement that Neanderthal was less than fully articulate remains unsubstantiated because it rests on a questionable reconstruction of the larynx." (21) Arensburg et al. also disagree with the Lieberman researchers, lining up with the Falk group: "The size and morphology of the hyoid bone from Kebara and its relations to other anatomical components are almost identical to those of modern humans, suggesting that Middle Palaeolithic populations were anatomically capable of fully modern speech." (22)

Lieberman rejoins the battle in "On the Kebara MH2 Hyoid and Neanderthal Speech." He perceives discrepancies in the Arensburg studies as to the extent of laryngeal descent in newly born humans, the relationship of the hyoid bone to the mandible, and the differences of tongue lengths in Neanderthal and Homo sapiens. "Half of the human tongue rests in the oral cavity, half in the pharynx. Therefore a long oral cavity must be matched by a long pharynx." (23) According to Lieberman, if Neanderthal had had the tongue described by the Arensburg group, it would have had to be lodged in the subject's chest, an anatomical impossibility. (Voice teachers in academia should be thankful the Dean's office is unable to assign Neanderthals to the studio.)

In "Neanderthal Supralaryngeal Vocal Tract," Houghton enters the debate and concludes that "the Neanderthal vocal apparatus need not have differed from that of recent humans." (24) Tattersall gives consideration to the Kebara controversy.

Analysis of the Kebara hyoid has merely succeeded in unleashing an appropriately vociferous argument about its significance. The problem is that, although this bone looks pretty much like its counterpart in modern humans, the preserved body element forms only a limited portion of the complete hyoid structure. And what the long-disappeared cartilaginous part of the Kebara hyoid looked like is anyone's guess. The issue remains unresolved. (25)

Tattersall finds that the vocal tract of Homo heidelbergensis (existing between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens) was "more or less modern, in which case acquisition of the vocal apparatus permitting speech preceded the arrival of Homo sapiens by several hundred thousand years. (26) He considers that laryngeal descent alone may not be the primary contributor to linguistic communication, and gives credence to the view that laryngeal descent may have been contributive to respiratory rather than to voice modification factors. There remains the possibility "that evolution of the vocal tract and of those centers of the brain concerned with language did not go hand in hand, which makes reconciling the anatomical and archeological evidence less problematic. (27) Tattersall deduces that Neanderthal did not have language as we know it, because of dissimilar morphological construction from our own.

Art, symbol, music notation, language, feelings of mystery, mastery of diverse materials, and sheer cleverness: all these attributes and more were foreign to the Neanderthals and are native to us. The first bipeds and stone toolmakers possibly apart, it is only with the arrival of Homo sapiens that we find true innovation: a radical departure from the pattern of sporadic improvement on existing themes that had characterized the rest of human evolution. (28)

Assuming inevitable contacts among contemporaneous species, it is doubtful that Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens and Neanderthal engaged in battle with greater fervor than do modern scholars in their search for the origin of voiced communication. Whatever the final outcome of the continuing battle regarding the comparative linguistic endowments of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, Lieberman's The Biology and Evolution of Language remains a thought provoking source on language evolution. Evidence based on the fossil evidence of extinct species and of our early human ancestors, suggests that language evolved relatively late in the prehistoric age. The voice of singing could not have been far behind (not a reason to attempt the recall of primitive vocalism).

Harmonic frequencies (overtones) are multiple integers of the fundamental that we perceive as pitch. This fundamental produces overtones (harmonic partials) that make up complex tone, creating a spectrum of sound. The vowels /i/ and /u/ can be spoken at identical pitch levels, but their characteristic multiple frequencies (upper partials or harmonic relationships) differ. The regions of the spectrum where acoustic strength of the overtone series is most prominent are called formants. The changing shapes of the resonator tube (chiefly the mouth and pharynx) alter the acoustic energy distribution.

All vowels, per se, have resonance, but each vowel has its own distinct pattern of resonance that is the result of the number, frequencies, and energy distribution of the overtones that are present. It is by means of these differences in the overall patterns of resonance that we are able to hear and to distinguish one vowel from another. Altering the shape and size of the discharging orifice produces changes in resonance patterns. (29)

Although the spectral frequencies of vowels are not uniform from voice to voice, the location of each vowel formant of an individual instrument is fairly predictable, in accordance with the motor theory of speech perception.

As Negus earlier pointed out, the tongue of Homo sapiens occupies much of the vocal tract that is involved in phonation, including singing. In all historic periods, much of what has been written regarding the technical aspects of artistic singing has been directed to skillful articulation; the relationship of the singing voice to the speaking voice is a major tenet of the historic Italian School. "Si canta come si parla" (one sings as one speaks) and "Chi pronuncia bene canta bene" (he who pronounces [enunciates] well sings well) are reliable precepts. Without an understanding of the mechanics of voice articulation, voice training is confusing.

Specific tongue postures contribute to the identification of vowels, classifiable as front, central, and back.

If the major constriction of the airway during vowel production is the result of elevating the tongue tip and blade so that the point of vocal tract constriction occurs near the alveolar ridge, the vowel is called a front vowel. Included in this category are vowels /i, I, e, [??], ae, a/. If the major constriction of the airway is between the dorsum of the tongue and the posterior pharyngeal wall, the vowel is called a back vowel. Included in this category are the vowels /u, U, o, [??], [??]/.

The remaining vowel sounds are produced with either no obvious points of vocal tract constriction, or with the major point of constriction occurring at the region of the hard palate. Such sounds are called central vowels. (30)

In distinguishing vowel and consonant formations, acoustic phenomena must synchronize with the shapes of the filtering resonator tract (supraglottic buccopharyngeal resonation system). Only the unimpeded Homo sapiens vocal tract permits the linguistic definition essential to speech and to singing.

The emotive sounds of speech and song emanate from the same vocal instrument. Although it is illogical to assume that song preceded speech, there can be little doubt that in the production of phonation, early Homo sapiens emitted communicative vocal sound without specific linguistic content. Origins of the singing voice are identical to those of the speaking voice. How primitive sounds became organized into the singing tone is a part of the history of singing in Western civilization.


(1.) Sir Victor E. Negus, The Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of the Larynx (London: William Heinemann Medical Book, 1949; reprint, New York Publishing, 1962), 2-3.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 167.

(4.) Philip Lieberman, The Biology and Evolution of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 256-329.

(5.) Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (reprint) (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 203.

(6.) Rick Gore, "New Find," National Geographic (August 2002).

(7.) Richard Leakey, The Origin of Mankind (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 74-77.

(8.) Randall White, "Thoughts on Social Relationships and Language in Hominid Evolution," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 2 (1985): 95-115.

(9.) Leakey, 120.

(10.) Noam Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 183-184.

(11.) Noam Chomsky, Power and Terror (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 40.

(12.) Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: William Marrow, 1994).

(13.) Steven Mithin, The Prehistory of the Mind (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

(14.) Negus, 190.

(15.) Ibid., 198.

(16.) Lieberman, 95.

(17.) Philip Lieberman and E. S. Crelin, "On the Speech of Neanderthal Man," Linguistic Inquiry 2 (1971): 215.

(18.) Ibid., 63-65.

(19.) Steven Feld, A. Fox, Thomas Porcello, and David Samuels, "Vocal Anthropology: From the Music of Language to the Language of Song," in Alessandro Duranti, ed., A Comparison of Linguistic Anthropology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 334.

(20.) J. T. Laitman, J. S. Reidenberg, P. J. Gannon, J. Johanson, and K. Landahl, "The Kebara Hyoid: What Can It Tell Us About the Evolution of the Hominid Vocal Tract?" American Journal of Physical Anthropology 18 (1990): 243; J. T. Laitman, et al., "What Sayeth Thou, Neanderthal? A Look at the Evolution of Their Vocal Tract and Speech," American Journal of Physical Anthropology (supplement) 12 (1991):109.

(21.) Dean Falk, "Comparative Anatomy of the Larynx in Man and the Chimpanzee: Implications for Language in Neanderthal," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 43 (1995):123.

(22.) B. L. A. Arensburg, A. M. Schepartz, B. Vandermeersch, and Y Rak, "A Reappraisal of the Anatomical Basis for Speech in Middle Paleolithic Hominids," American Journal of Anthropology 83 (1990): 137.

(23.) Philip Lieberman, "On the Kebara MH2 Hyoid and Neanderthal Speech," Current Anthropology 34, no. 2 (1993): 174.

(24.) Philip Houghton, "Neanderthal Supralaryngeal Vocal Tract," American Journal of Physical Anthropology 90 (1993): 139.

(25.) Tattersall, 170.

(26.) Ibid., 171.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Ibid., 173.

(29.) Claude Kantner and Robert West, Phonetics (New York: Harper Brothers, 1960), 68.

(30.) F. D. Minifie, T. J. Hixon, and F. Williams, Normal Aspects of Speech, Hearing, and Language (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 243.

Among Richard Miller's many activities and honors are: Internationally acclaimed master classes; recurrent engagements in Austria, Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and thirty-eight U.S. states. Voice research in Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, Finland, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland. Distinguished international opera, oratorio, and recital career. Tenor soloist with Knappertsbusch, Ackermann, Ludwig, Sebastian, Slatkin, Lane, Szell, Boulez, etc. Pedagogy/performance texts: English, French, German and Italian Techniques of Singing (Scarecrow, 1977, revised 1997), The Structure of Singing (Schirmer Books, 1986) [French Ministry of Culture La Structure du Chant (1990)], Training Tenor Voices (Schirmer Books, 1993), On the Art of Singing (Oxford University Press, 1996), Singing Schumann: An Interpretive Guide for Performers (Oxford University Press, 1999), Training Soprano Voices (Oxford University Press, 2000). Editor, Liszt: 25 French and Italian Songs, Liszt. 22 German Songs, High/Low (International Music, 1998); 120 professional journal articles. Chevalier/Officier, L'ordre des arts et des lettres (French Ministry of Culture honorary); Doctor of Humane Letters; Otolaryngology Adjunct Staff, Cleveland Clinic; Collegium Medicorum Theatri; American Academy; Professor/Director, Vocal Arts Center; Wheeler Professor of Performance, Oberlin Conservatory. International adjudicator at primary competitions. Students contracted at major opera houses in Europe, Asia, South America, the United States, and in major young artist programs.
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Title Annotation:VOICE PEDAGOGY
Author:Miller, Richard
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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