What’s on : Lectures

The Science of Singing

6 Nov 2012
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Prof David Howard
The Science of Singing

Event Information

The Science of Singing
Professor David Howard, Head of the Audio Laboratory at the University of York & Dr Helena Daffern, singer

Singing is something that many people enjoy both doing and listening to.  Singers have years of training to develop their voices and this lecture will look at some of the things that singers are asked to do in their training and it will look at the acoustic effects of these changes that are being made as a result of the learning process.  Why can an opera singer sing over a large orchestra to a large audience in a large building with no amplification?  What does ‘support’ mean?  What are the main acoustic features of the sound of the singing voice, whether pop, rock, country, belt, opera or as a choir member?  These and other questions will be considered in this lecture which will feature Dr Helena Daffern as a live singer accompanied by the lecturer, Professor David Howard.

Download a poster for this event by clicking on this link: YPS 2012 11 06 Science of Singing

by Patrick Mason

David Howard and Helena Daffern performed a wonderful double act explaining the science of the singing voice in such an entertaining and engaging way that it is difficult to describe it as a “lecture”.

The audience was first treated to a musical introduction with Helena singing “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” (Roger Quilter). Having heard what fine sounds the human voice can produce, an explanation of how it works followed.

The engineering view of the voice consists of: a power source to move air (lungs); a vibrating aperture as a sound source (vocal folds); and a variable shaped sound modifier (vocal tract). Controlling each aspect of this system is the key to singing. Each explanation by David Howard on the principles of how these aspects of the voice work was very effectively demonstrated by a real voice – that of Helena.

According to sex and age and size, the voice is affected in its pitch and range due to changes in the nature of the larynx. An interesting observation: although the average male and female voice diverge in pitch in early life (female high pitch – male low pitch), both voices are gradually modified such that the average pitch converges by the age of 100.

The control of the vocal tract is a significant skill of the professional singer and allows modification of sounds (e.g. vowels) without adversely affecting the timbre or loudness. This quality was demonstrated by Helena performing “Lascia ch’io pianga” (G.F. Handel).

Vowel sounds are less distinct at higher pitches. This was explained in technical terms by David and then demonstrated by Helena singing, at two differing pitches, the following words:

Bead, Bid, Bed, Bad, Bard, Bod, Booed, Board

It’s true – sung at high pitch, the words are very much less distinct. Try it at home for fun!

The finale was a performance of “The Way You Look Tonight” (Jerome Kern) in which Helena showcased again her remarkable singing talent.



David Howard is author/editor of the following books available from Amazon: