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New Worlds: The Human Voice

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Over time, the list of things unique to the human species gets shorter and shorter. We’re not the only tool-users; we’re not the only ones with names or culture.

We may, however, be the only ones with music.

Sure, birds sing, and so do whales. But when you break music down, it’s possible that nobody else has the full package: according to the Netflix documentary series Explained, some species can identify rhythms, others the contours of a melody, still others the particular interval of an octave. All of them together, though? That might be specific to us.

Music almost certainly started with the human voice. We’re born with an incredibly versatile instrument that can not only achieve a wide range of pitches and timbres (the tone quality that makes an instrument identifiable), but can even shape those sounds into words. The human voice is intimate in a way no other type of music can be. When Don Davis was hired to write music for The Matrix, he represented the robotic antagonists with metallic percussion and discordant collisions of notes, but humanity appeared in the film score as a choir.

I suspect the voice more often features in massed deployment than any other instrument. No doubt some organization has set the record for the most clarinets or sitars ever played together, but choirs routinely feature dozens or even more than a hundred people singing in concert. Having been a musician myself, I know the magic that comes with playing in a group — but it’s even stronger when the instrument you’re working with is as personal as the voice. However much we may admire soloists for their skill, the communion that comes with singing together is potentially transcendent.

And yet, for all of that . . . singing has a very mixed reputation. On the one hand, it can be holy; many religious traditions involve singing as part of certain ceremonies, or in religious worship overall. (I don’t think I’ve ever been in a Christian church that didn’t have hymnals scattered along the pews, laying out the melody and words of the approved sacred songs.) Faiths all over the world have made use of chanting for the performance of mantras or other religious texts like the Torah; on the less-musical end this is limited to one or two pitches, but other times it expands to a monophonic melody, with everyone singing the same note together, a la the famous Gregorian chants. Polyphony, with people singing different notes, is more challenging for the performers.

Singing can also be mobilized for other kinds of social bonding. National anthems, for example, seek to achieve a similar feeling of unity and community through elevating a secular tune to an exalted position. We bond at a smaller scale over things like the singing of the familiar “Happy Birthday to You” tune — which, by the way, has been ruled to be not under copyright, though a certain company claimed ownership of it for a while. Anything we can sing along to together, whether it be an ancient hymn or the latest pop tune, helps bring us together.

But when it comes to those pop hits — oh dear. Music overall has been blamed for as many ills as goods, decried as the devil’s own seduction even when other forms might be holy. Opinions on this vary from religion to religion; the more puritanical the faith (in the general sense, not just the specifically Puritan sense), the smaller a swath of music is likely to be permitted. At the extreme end, even the singing of religious songs might be forbidden.

This is precisely because of music’s ability to move us, and especially music rendered by the human voice. It’s a fabulous tool for manipulating people’s emotional states, inducing everything from anger to serenity to lust. If you come from a culture that side-eyes pleasure of any kind as a temptation to sin, then it isn’t surprising that music might come under scrutiny. The “Directions for Singing” printed at the beginning of United Methodist hymnals, written by John Wesley in the eighteenth century, straight-up exhorts the reader to “Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan” — i.e. any music not contained in that hymnal.

The emotional effect of music, though, is more culturally dependent than you might think. In the West, a strong convention has developed that associates major keys (used in most of the music you hear) with brightness and cheerfulness, while minor keys (which sound “darker”) come across as somber, ominous, or angry. This association is so strong that for those of us steeped in it, interpreting the music any other way is difficult — but it’s not at all universal! In fact, basically everything about music is a cultural invention, down to the notes we use: I don’t want to fall down too deep a rabbit hole of music theory here, but the heptatonic scales standard in Western music are not necessarily used elsewhere (e.g. the pentatonic scale dominates much Asian music, though not all).

Although it’s not quite the same as the human voice, I also want to make special note of whistling. Physical whistle devices belong with the instruments, which we’ll talk about in a couple of weeks, but there are a variety of techniques for producing that sound with nothing more than the human body. It rarely features in musical performances nowadays, but back in the day, vaudeville whistlers were common enough to have their own name (siffleurs). We also use it for signaling, to catch someone’s attention or cue them to perform a certain action; it’s similarly useful among animal trainers. There’s even a whistled “language” — not really a full language, but a way of encoding Spanish through whistling — called Silbo Gomero, used on La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate at distance across the rough terrain.

Like singing and music in general, whistling has a very mixed reputation. In some cultures and some contexts within those cultures, the superstitions are beneficial: whistling in the morning brings good luck, while whistling on a ship encourages the wind to grow stronger. Conversely, whistling in the wrong place or the wrong society invites calamity, e.g. whistling indoors is “whistling your money away,” inviting poverty. While checking my facts on these things, I found that there’s even religious whistling! Chángxiào was a transcendental Daoist technique credited with outright magical effects. I don’t know of any instances where whistling is used in formal, communal religious rites — maybe the difficulty of getting unity of pitch between performers contributes to that — but hey, no reason it couldn’t exist.

These days, many of us are self-conscious about singing in public. It was easier when we didn’t have abundant recordings of highly-trained professionals — recordings that not only represent the best take out of an unknown number of attempts, but now are often digitally massaged to correct every last wobble of pitch. But we still enjoy karaoke, because singing it still fun . . . and all the more so when you do it with friends.

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4 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Human Voice”

  1. Time was that inability to sing was a serious lack. After all, you have to entertain yourselves of an evening somehow, and letting everyone else sing for you and not being able to return the favor was serious.

  2. “Polyphony, with people singing different notes, is more challenging for the performers.”

    And for the listeners. There’s this album of polyphonous songs inspired by Norse myth, and the performance and lyrics and spin on Norse apologetics are great, but it can be hard for me to understand the lyrics from the performance when you have 2+ people singing different lines at once.

    One thing I like about filk[1] culture is that it’s still largely circles of variably talented amateur performers (and listeners), not just pro performers and a sea of listeners. Even a high-effort album like Sundown was done by amateurs with day jobs; Ada Palmer’s (a)vocation is Renaissance Italy historian, and I know one of the performers was a Latin teacher at the time

    [1] “The folk music of sci-fi fandom” is how I define it.

    1. This is where my musical theory vocabulary fails me, but that particular track is more than just polyphonous — and yes, I agree that it’s difficult to understand!

      Agreed on filk still being a fairly democratized art, though, and that’s one of the nice things about it!

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