Open throat: acoustic and perceptual support for pedagogic practice.
"Open throat" is a term regularly used in the singing studio. It is a pedagogic concept transmitted through the oral tradition of singing. Mitchell and Kenny examined the technique in the modern singing studio using qualitative, acoustic, perceptual, and statistic analyses to relate singing instructions, terminology, and spectra to the sound qualities produced by instruction in this technique and validated its role in singing pedagogy. (1)
How are beautiful singing voices developed? What features of the singing voice define a voice of quality? Can these features be measured accurately and, more importantly, specifically taught? Historically, teaching and evaluating singing have been guided by an oral tradition in which pedagogic techniques are handed down from one generation of singing teachers to the next. Today, empirical research into the singing voice has the potential to benefit the singing community by documenting and systematically assessing the acquisition of vocal mastery.
Since the 1980s, technology to measure vocal acoustics has become steadily more sophisticated and has been increasingly used in experimental research, with findings now incorporated into texts on singing. (2) International authority Richard Miller asserts, "It is the responsibility of the singing teacher in a scientific age to interpret and expand vocal traditions through the means of current analysis so that the viable aspects of tradition can be communicated in a systematic way." (3) However, it often is difficult to see how the general principles established in scientific studies can be applied to the subtleties of developing individual vocal quality. To date, few studies link the vocal strategies used by singers to acoustic studies and perceptual judgments by pedagogues. This makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the implications of these scientific studies for singing pedagogy, as they rarely identify the teaching/learning approach of the subjects. (4)
This paper reports the first body of work to track a singing technique as practiced in the singing studio using a comprehensive approach to all aspects of singing research. (5) As it is pedagogically informed and verified, this series of studies has the potential to advance substantially the fields of acoustic and perceptual assessment of voice in order to benefit the wider singing community and enhance pedagogic approaches.
DEFINING OPEN THROAT TECHNIQUE
Concepts relating to open throat can be traced throughout pedagogic and scientific singing literature. (6) It is defined as a complex process that is both a pedagogic instruction and a perceived sensation or action that results in a specific sound quality. Use of the technique makes a difference to vocal quality. Indeed, Vennard defined open throat as the "condition agreed upon by most voice teachers as desirable for resonance." (7) Current support for the use of open throat in singing technique is widespread. (8) It elicits a sound quality which is perceived as resonant, (9) round, (10) free, (11) pure, (12) rich and warm, (13) and is attributed to freedom from "constrictor tensions."14 The sound quality is linked to vocal actions: the preparation to sing or inhalation;15 through the surprise breath or smelling the rose imagery;16 and visualizing space within the throat, through an "air-ball" or "soap bubble." (17)
Do expert singing teachers actually agree on the definition of open throat technique, and if so, on what such a technique was meant to achieve? Subjective terminology used in singing pedagogy does not always indicate a specific vocal instruction or action. Often terminology and meaning are not the same for each teacher. Communication of techniques in voice pedagogy can be improved by attempts to gain consensus on the use of terminology. This was the goal of our first study on open throat. We interviewed fifteen expert voice pedagogues to explore current thinking regarding terminology, pedagogy, sound quality, and the perceived physiology associated with open throat technique. (18)
Terminology of Open Throat
The majority of our fifteen voice pedagogues interviewed agreed that open throat was essential to good singing and more specifically to classical singing. Most included the technique as fundamental in their singing training. Freedom, collar, and depth were suggested as alternative terms to clarify meaning or to refer to an action. Pedagogues were aware of the need to tailor terminology and instructions in the singing studio to each student's vocal needs and learning styles. Despite the use of different terminology to describe the technique, there was consistency in the vocal instructions to achieve it and with respect to the sound qualities it produced. Pedagogues taught conscious control of open throat using laugh, sob, correct inhalation, or maintaining the posture of inhalation.
Open throat produces a distinctive sound quality recognized by most voice pedagogues. Table 1 identifies the most common terms used to describe the sound quality. Pedagogues associated open throat with both a sound quality that was characterized by freedom, warmth, and openness, and an action that produced balance, coordination, evenness, and consistency. The terms related to voice quality such as "warm," "full," or "round," as well as the functional terms such as "easy" or "clean" were used interchangeably by participants in this study. Although the 15 participants offered 18 terms to describe sound quality, there were clear associations or similarities in their usage and application.
Singing pedagogues relied on their perceptions of sound qualities to determine the physiologic processes at work in the production of the sound quality. Open throat was defined as a technique to maximize pharyngeal space and/or abduct the ventricular folds. Participants who consistently mentioned a presumed abduction or retraction of the false vocal folds or ventricular folds reported seeing the action of endoscopy and linked the technique to the term retraction. Those participants who used the term and technique of retraction did so to reduce constriction or tension to achieve a healthier sound quality as well as to achieve a specific sound quality.
This study advanced previous work in clarifying terminology related to open throat. (19) In this study, pedagogues' use of open throat confirmed the perceived value of the technique. Pedagogues did not separate quality and function descriptors and seemed comfortable with their use interchangeably in the studio. The research highlighted the usefulness of qualitative research as a tool for the generation of research questions and clarification of terminology used to describe voice quality and to encourage the use of anatomically correct terms in voice pedagogy. For example, deconstriction is a more accurate term than retraction.
Having established the widespread usage of the term open throat and its practice in the voice studio, the next challenge was to assess whether open throat had identifiable acoustic and perceptual characteristics.
ACOUSTIC AND PERCEPTUAL VERIFICATION OF OPEN THROAT TECHNIQUE
The musical community increasingly has become fascinated with the link between acoustic measures of voice quality and perceptual judgments of listeners. Prior to the already cited work of Mitchell and Kenny, two studies examined this link. Wapnick and Ekholm established twelve generally accepted perceptual criteria for the assessment of voice quality in classical singing (appropriate vibrato, color/warmth, diction, dynamic range, efficient breath management, evenness of registration, flexibility, freedom throughout vocal range, intensity, intonation accuracy, legato line, and resonance/ring). (20) Ekholm, Papagiannis, and Chagnon used four of these criteria (appropriate vibrato, resonance/ring, color/ warmth, and clarity/focus) and related them to objective measurements taken from acoustic analysis of the voice signal. (21) Both studies required listeners to focus on specific vocal dimensions, as well as making an overall judgment of voice quality. In both studies, analysis of the listener rating scales of voice quality revealed that the specific dimensions outlined above were collinear and hence likely to be tapping into a single underlying construct, that of (overall) voice quality, thereby rendering individual assessments on each dimension at least partially redundant. While focusing listeners by using a number of criteria may improve the consistency of judges' responses, (22) studies have reported very high correlations between all dimensions of voice quality studied. (23) All of these dimensions were found to converge with the overall judgment of voice quality. It may not be possible to separate individual features of good singing from the overall perception of a "good voice."
Assessing Acoustic and Perceptual Characteristics of Open Throat
Our next challenge was to determine whether this pedagogic technique could reliably produce desirable acoustic and perceptual changes in voices. Six advanced female opera students (3 sopranos, 3 mezzo sopranos) were asked to sing in three conditions: optimal (O), using maximal open throat; sub-optimal (SO), using reduced open throat; and loud sub-optimal (LSO), which was the same as SO but with the additional instruction to sing as loudly as in O. Singers performed three musical tasks: messa di voce (crescendo-diminuendo on a single note of long duration) on three pitches across their range, portions of an aria (Mozart, "Ridente la calma," K. 152, mm. 1-27); and a lied (Schubert, "Du bist die Ruh," D. 776, mm. 54-80) (Example 1a and b). These were chosen as they require vocal skill and technical mastery within the capacity of tertiary level students of opera. Singers' voices were recorded to CD (Marantz CDR 630) using a high quality microphone (AKG C-477) positioned on a head boom a constant 7 cm distance from the singer's lips. This ensured we recorded only voice energy, not room reflections. We calibrated each recording in order to compare each singers' recording with the others at the same SPL, heard as "loudness." Recordings were analyzed with Soundswell (Hi-tech, Sweden) and Cool Edit software.
PERCEPTUAL DIFFERENCES OBSERVED IN OPEN THROAT
In this study, we explored whether particular sound qualities were associated with one voice technique, open throat. We asked voice pedagogues to judge the singing of our sample of female classical singers as O (maximal open throat) and SO (reduced open throat) in 48 messa di voce and 30 song samples (including six repeated samples to test judges' response reliability). Fifteen expert singing pedagogues made a forced choice decision (O or SO) on each sample they assessed. Correctly identified responses were counted by condition (O/SO), by judge and by singer.
The majority of listeners correctly recognized the use of open throat when it occurred. Collectively, judges were accurate in their identification of O (81.1% correct) and SO (91.0% correct) in messa di voce samples. In the individual song samples, listeners identified the use of open throat in 84% of O samples, and 69% of SO (Table 2). They were more likely to make a correct identification in the Mozart task (85% correct) than in the Schubert task (68%). Listeners identified >83% of Mozart O and SO, and Schubert O. They were least reliable in judging Schubert SO (53%).
The 15 judges identified the experimental condition in 372 of 450 messa di voce samples (82.7%). Twelve of 15 judges were moderately consistent in their judgments (k[greater than or equal to] 0.600); and three judges were inconsistent in their judgments. Listeners demonstrated reliability (fair to highly consistent) in their judgments through the duration of the song task, repeating their judgement of O or SO in an average of 86% of the six repeated samples in the perceptual test.
Listeners recognized a specific quality in singers' sound that they associated with the use of open throat technique. These findings suggest that there is a specific voice quality in classical singing associated with the use of open throat technique, which is a perceptual reality to singing pedagogues. Perceptual verification of a single vocal technique indicates that other pedagogic strategies can be assessed and evaluated making it feasible to track the methods by which good singers are trained and which produce the most effective outcomes in terms of voice quality.
Singers rely on expert listeners' judgments in auditions, competitions, and examinations. Research indicates that listeners show some degree of reliability and consistency in their perceptual judgments of timbre, between vocal genres (from opera to music theater),24 and between good and poor vocal and instrumental performance, (25) in the assessment of excellence in overall voice quality, (26) and in rankings and ratings of performers in competitive situations. (27)
ACOUSTIC CHARACTERISTICS OF OPEN THROAT TECHNIQUE
Having verified that open throat technique has reliable perceptual qualities, we then investigated whether these were associated with consistent acoustic characteristics. A number of voice qualities (loudness, vibrato, and long term average spectra [LTAS]) were assessed for their acoustic features.
Pedagogues suggested that the use of open throat resulted in loudness. (28) We used SO and LSO in experimental conditions to demonstrate that voice quality changes from O to SO were not simply the result of changes (for example, reductions) to sound pressure levels (SPL). (29) A pilot test found that LSO did not produce a sufficiently discernible voice quality to be reliably distinguished from SO and was therefore not included in the perceptual studies.
Vibrato is taken for granted as an intrinsic quality of the classical singing voice and in pedagogic literature, as a component of tone quality in coordination, (30) richness, (31) and vibrancy. (32) Despite acoustic, physiologic, and perceptual studies, (33) it has been difficult to define its most desirable parameters. Consistent vibrato occurring within specified parameters has been associated with a beautiful sound (34) and to listeners' overall preference. (35) In classical singing literature, a steady and even vibrato is universally promoted, while poor vibrato is considered indicative of poor technique and inferior sound quality. In classical singing, sound without vibrato, or straight tone, has been described as dull or spread and lacking freedom, power, and ring. In fact, delay in vibrato onset is argued to be indicative of a faulty technique and an unnatural voice quality. (36)
Few studies compare the same singers' vibrato in different tasks. When they do, they find it changes across musical styles, (37) as a result of emotion, (38) drama, (39) or indeed variations in loudness (40) or dynamics. (410 Our study is the first to assess the impact of a specific singing technique, that is, open throat on vibrato. As pedagogues associated evenness and consistency with the technique, we hypothesized that frequency modulations associated with vibrato rate, extent, and onset would vary outside acceptable or desirable parameters for SO and LSO compared to O, that is, rate (VR) would be less consistent, extent (VE) would be reduced, and onset (VO) would be delayed.
We demonstrated reliable differences in vibrato parameters as a result of varying the degree to which singers applied the technique of open throat. Figure 1 illustrates the changes to vibrato parameters observed in spectrographs of the three experimental conditions. Hypotheses were confirmed for vibrato extent and onset, that is, a reduction of open throat technique for these singers produced a significant decrease in VE in SO/LSO and a significant increase in VO in both SO/LSO. There was no statistically significant change for VR. However, visual inspection of the spectrographs shows that reduction of open throat in the SO and LSO conditions was associated with greater irregularity of the vibrato pattern compared to O. There were no significant differences between SO and LSO on any of the vibrato parameters.
As vibrato is considered a key indicator of good singing, these findings suggest that open throat is important to the production of a good sound in classical singing. Since vibrato parameters largely define good singing technique in the literature, open throat would appear to be an essential element of sound voice pedagogy. Inappropriate vibrato is indicative of poor singing in general; therefore further acoustic tests were required to test the differences in timbre.
Long-term Average Spectra (LTAS)
LTAS is widely used to represent singers' sound and its different vocal qualities based on energy changes that occur during different vocal tasks. (42) Researchers in this field have used LTAS to develop exemplars of voice types or singing genres. (43) LTAS curves have also been used to differentiate male and female voices, (44) to note differences between singing and speaking voices, (45) solo and choral voice, (46) and pop or country from opera singers. (47) Some LTAS have become exemplars of particular voice qualities and of voices of quality. In classical or operatic voice, for example, an LTAS presents an energy boost around 3 kHz, and this has been linked to carrying power over an orchestra or audibility in an opera theater. (48)
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In research, we perform two simple measurements on LTAS. Figure 2 illustrates how the ratio measurements of singing power ratio (SPR) (49) and energy ratio (ER) (50) are derived from the LTAS curve. From the LTAS plots, the highest peaks in the 0-2 kHz and 2-4 kHz regions were labeled P1 and P2, respectively, and the areas below the peaks A1 and A2. The SPR is the difference between the energy peaks P1 and P2 while the ER is the difference in energy area between 0-2 kHz and 2-4 kHz. A low ER or SPR represents a greater reinforcement in the 2-4 kHz region and better balance between the spectral energy 0-2 and 2-4 kHz. When there is less reinforcement in the 2-4 kHz region, ER results follow SPR.
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As inconsistent vibrato is considered indicative of poor singing, it was hypothesized that testing the energy distribution in our singers' voices in each condition would identify the timbral changes associated with open throat. Hypotheses were generated regarding the LTAS plots in O compared to SO: that peaks P1 (0-2kHz) and P2 (2-4kHz) would be reduced, that overall LTAS shape would demonstrate smaller or multiple energy peaks above 2 kHz in SO/LSO compared to O. Differences between spectral peak height (SPR: singing power ratio) and spectral area (ER: energy ratio) between the 0-2 and 2-4 kHz frequency ranges were performed to assess the effect of open throat on carrying power in the voices.
Visual inspection of long term average spectra (LTAS) confirmed differences between O and SO/LSO, and the O condition produced a rounder peak between 0-2 kHz indicating a warmer sound quality compared to SO (Figure 2). Despite these findings, there was no significant difference in measurements of SPR (peak height) or ER (peak area) between O and SO/LSO. There were, however, significant differences between SO and LSO for P2, SPR, and ER, but hypotheses were not confirmed for O. These findings did not accord with differences in vibrato extent and onset between O and SO/LSO.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
As these results were not consistent with the vibrato findings, they suggest that while LTAS provides information on energy distribution, measurements performed on the LTAS were unable to differentiate between experimental conditions, whereas the human ear produced the most reliable assessment of voice quality. Plotting the differences between O and SO/LSO pairs of LTAS clearly indicates the areas of spectral change (Figure 3). This appears to be the most sensitive measure of energy distribution differences between conditions, but we have no way of capturing and quantifying such data at this time.
DO ACOUSTIC MEASURES MATCH PERCEPTUAL JUDGMENTS?
The conflicting results from the perceptual and acoustic studies of open throat technique highlighted potential problems with these conventional analyses as measures of voice quality. In the final study, we compared perceptual ratings of voice quality with acoustic measures performed on LTAS to assess whether SPR and ER were sufficiently sensitive to evaluate LTAS or vocal timbre and whether acoustic measures can predict a voice of quality.
Characteristic LTAS shapes, particularly of classical or operatic voices of performers of the highest regard have been accepted as an accurate visual representation of good sound. Operatic singing is positively associated with an increase in energy between 2-4 kHz. (51) While measures of SPR and ER are not intended to give information about singer's formant, they should illustrate differences in energy distribution, or carrying power. However, Vurma and Ross found that increased energy above 2 kHz did not necessarily represent vocal quality judged perceptually.
To test the value of acoustic measures, we matched pedagogues' perceptual ratings to acoustic measures of each perceptual sample. Perceptual scores, SPR and ER were rank ordered for overall quality as defined in the singing literature. We then compared perceptual rankings with rankings of acoustic measures (SPR and ER) to assess whether the acoustic characteristics matched the perceptual judgments of overall timbre. Table 3 presents the rankings of each singer and the respective musical task and experimental condition, ordered by perceptual rank from highest to lowest. While we found the expected significant relationship between SPR and ER, there was no relationship between perceptual rankings of voice quality of singers based on SPR or ER. LTAS measures were not consistent with perceptual ratings of voice quality, and could not therefore be used to define a voice of quality in our studies.
Measurements of comparative energy (SPR and ER) were inconclusive indicators of voice quality. A science of the singing voice cannot progress without addressing the problem inherent in accepting long-term average spectra as analogues for voice quality without providing a link between perceptual cues and a visual representation of quality in singing. This presents a major challenge to the current wisdom that acoustic parameters of voice must emulate the established acoustic norms in order to achieve overall vocal excellence.
In Figure 4a-d, we compared exemplars of LTAS sampled from voices ranked high, middle, or low on the perceptual rating scale. LTAS of the highest-ranking singers (Figure 4a-b) showed an increase in energy between 2-4 kHz, whereas LTAS of middle and low ranked singers (Figure 4c-d) lacked the unified peak of energy increase above 2 kHz. Previous similar findings have interpreted these visual cues in singers' LTAS as a good sound. (52) However, as third equal ranking Singers 1 and 3, singing in the O condition produced this unified energy peak > 2 kHz (the most "masculine" LTAS shape), they should have had the "best" voices perceptually. However, their LTAS were different to the highest-ranking singer (Singer 5), who had a wider distribution of energy above 2 kHz. The SO plots of the lower ranked singers (Figure 4d) showed a spectral roll-off more consistent with plots for speech than singing.
CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
In this series of studies, we have demonstrated that open throat is a technical and perceptual reality to singers and singing pedagogues and produces a specific voice quality in classical singing that can be reliably identified by expert listeners. Through qualitative, acoustic, and perceptual studies, we have defined the term "open throat" as a technique, an action, and a sound quality.
While we know that singing improves over time and through training, specific components of the training that produce improvements in voice quality hitherto have not been isolated. This series of studies presents a first attempt to study a single technique, to identify its perceptual and acoustic characteristics, and its effect on vibrato.
Voice quality results from a complex combination of acoustic parameters. To date, no single objective evaluation captures or characterizes voice quality in a systematic way. We have demonstrated that acoustic analyses such as LTAS do not reliably match perceptual judgments by expert listeners and therefore cannot be used to define or predict voice quality. We recommend that any future acoustic analyses or visual representations of voice must emulate the human ear. A new generation of acoustic recording equipment and analysis software is emerging that has the potential to provide much finer acoustic and psychoacoustic representations of voice quality. Voice research will benefit from other areas of acoustic research--for example, room acoustic quality (53) and audio systems (54)--oriented to listener sensation and will use binaural measurements (using a dummy head microphone) virtually to place the listening subject in the same acoustic environment as in the original recording. (55) A singing quality model will be more appropriately derived by representing listener experience.
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(4.) Ibid.; Jean Callagan, Singing and Voice Science (San Diego: Singular Publishing Group, 2000).
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Dr. Helen Mitchell graduated from the University of Oxford with an honors degree in music. After winning the Northcote Graduate Scholarship, she moved to Sydney to commence doctoral studies at the Australian Centre for Music Performance, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney. Her doctoral thesis focused on the pedagogy and acoustic and perceptual features around the "open throat" technique in singing. In 2004, Helen was Dean of Students at The Women's College within The University of Sydney. Since 2005 she has continued her research in enhancing quality in Western classical singing and pedagogy with Professor Professor
Kenny, A/Prof. Michael Halliwell, and Dr. Densil Cabrera through an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project for which she was awarded an Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship. Professor Dianna Kenny holds a BA in music and psychology, an honors degree in psychology, a Masters degree in School Counselling, and a PhD in Developmental and Educational Psychology. She is also an accredited music teacher (Trinity College, London) in piano and theory of music, school counsellor, and registered psychologist. She has joint appointments as Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Music and Director, Australian Centre for Applied Research in Music Performance, Sydney Conservatorium of Music (SCM), The University of Sydney, Australia. She and her higher degree research students explore novel questions about musical performance in her laboratory at the SCM, focusing on acoustic and perceptual studies of voice, music performance anxiety, sight-reading, music and mood, and music and pain. She has published widely in these areas as well as in developmental and educational psychology and developmental psychopathology.
TABLE 1. Sound qualities associated with open throat-pedagogues' individual choices indicated by . Pedagogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Balanced/Coordinated        Free       Open        Even/Consistent     Warm       With space   Healthy/Safe      Round      Overtones/Formants    Easy/Flexible     Clear    Full   Efficient   With depth  Clean   Sexy/Juicy/Lusty  Natural Voice  Relaxed Pedagogue 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 % Balanced/Coordinated        93 Free      67 Open   53 Even/Consistent     53 Warm    53 With space     40 Healthy/Safe  33 Round   33 Overtones/Formants    33 Easy/Flexible  33 Clear  27 Full  20 Efficient  20 With depth   20 Clean  20 Sexy/Juicy/Lusty  13 Natural Voice  13 Relaxed 7 TABLE 2. Song responses; percentages of correct (hit) and incorrect (miss) responses to the song task, by condition (optimal and sub-optimal) and by condition and task (Mozart and Schubert). Task Hit % Miss % All O 84% 16% All SO 69% 31% Mozart O 86% 14% Mozart SO 84% 16% Schubert O 83% 17% Schubert SO 53% 47% TABLE 3. Singer, task, condition, and rankings for perceptual score, singing power ratio (SPR), and energy ratio (ER), sorted by perceptual score ranking from highest to lowest. Perceptual Rank SPR Rank ER Rank Singer Task Condition 1 16 9 5 S O 2 13 3 5 M O 3 10 10 1 M O 4 5 2 3 M O 5 9 11 1 S O 6 21 20 4 S O 7 6 13 4 M O 8 23 23 2 S O 9 19 19 3 S O 10 8 6 2 M O 11 11 14 6 S O 12 4 4 5 S SO 13 3 12 1 M SO 14 24 24 2 S SO 15 15 8 6 M O 16 7 7 5 M SO 17 20 21 3 S SO 18 18 18 6 S SO 19 12 16 1 S SO 20 1 5 3 M SO 21 22 22 4 S SO 22 17 15 2 M SO 23 14 17 4 M SO 24 2 1 6 M SO
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|Author:||Mitchell, Helen F.; Kenny, Dianna T.|
|Publication:||Journal of Singing|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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