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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Forbes

Your voice is like a that the full picture, though?

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

There's a well-known analogy within singing voice pedagogy circles that the voice is like a car.

The analogy comes from a documentary (produced by a consortium including the National Centre for Voice and Speech, The Voice Foundation, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts) called "The World Within Your Voice" on youtube.

The budget for the doco must have been pretty generous, because there is some star power with an appearance by "The Odd Couple" Tony Curtis and Jack Klugman, who are seen arguing at their kitchen table as to why the voice is like a car. In the next scene, one of the stars of voice science, IngoTitze brings some gravitas to the discussion. Titze explains the similarities between our voice and a car: both convert energy from one type to another, both make sound, both "condition" the sound (car muffler, vocal tract)...

But is this really the full picture? Anyone who sings knows that it most decidedly is not! Clearly this is a highly mechanistic analogy - the voice is akin to a machine. However, cars are not sentient (yet!), and they don't get offended when someone tells them they're slow. Cars don't suffer colds which make them feel grumpy (nor do cars go through menopause...).

While the car analogy may be useful to explain aspects of voice function, it stops being useful or accurate when we consider the voice is housed within a complex, living, breathing, feeling, human being (who lives within complex social and cultural contexts).

We use analogy and metaphor to communicate what we find difficult to articulate. A metaphor usually represents something which we find mysterious (e.g. singing) by referring instead to something more concrete (e.g. a car) - for example, the function of the (mostly hidden) human voice is represented by a car which is readily understood (and seen) as a simple machine.

There is no doubt that we have benefitted from a mechanical understanding of the voice thanks to voice science. But in terms of its usefulness, I think the car analogy's revelatory nature about the voice ends with mechanics. A car does not go anywhere without a driver. Conversely, a singer does not get to "close the garage door" on their voice. Despite scientific advances, unfortunately we still know very little about who is driving the car—that is, we know very little about the inner life and lived experience of the singer.

Quantitative research for the win

Since the publication of Vennard's Singing: The Mechanism and The Technic in 1967, the quantitative approach has dominated singing voice research.

To provide just a few examples, voice scientists have studied, among other things, the acoustic properties of the singing voice (Bozeman 2013, 2017; Sundberg, 1987), the structural and mechanical properties of the vocal folds (Hirano et al.1982), laryngeal muscle activity (Kochis-Jennings et al., 2012) and vocal pathologies in singers (Lloyd et al., 2020) (see Hoch (2019) for an overview of some of the landmark scientific developments in voice science and pedagogy).

Cognitive scientists, neurobiologists and psychologists have explored singing accuracy and ability (Pfordresher, 2022; Pfordresher & Demorest, 2021) and self-perception of singing ability (Forbes et al., 2022; Yeom et al., 2023).

These are just a few examples of the breadth of quantitative singing voice research as it pertains to understanding how the singing voice works, and how to train singers in very specific ways to sing optimally.

The world's premier journal for voice research, The Journal of Voice, predmoninantly publishes quantitative research on singing. This sends a message to the field, including to singers and singing teachers, that quantitative research is the type of research that matters. The problem is, quantitative research, by its very nature, can not report on the subjective experience of singers.

Where are the voices of singers in this vast body of quantitative research? And how do singing practitioner-researchers (without considerable training in the scientific method) actively engage in singing research if quantitative research is prioritised and celebrated as "rigorous research" (Winter, 2021)?

Qualitative research: Making sense of experience

Quantitative studies such as these have certainly contributed to our understanding of singing. This has created breadth of knowledge. However, few studies explore depth of experience.

Qualitative designs are ideally suited to exploring vitally important questions such as: 1) What is it like to sing for the singer? and 2) What does singing mean to us as human beings? These are phenomenological questions which seek to explore and understand our experiences of singing, holistically.

Such studies could specifically target singers' experiences of key insights from voice science e.g. What are the impacts of vocal injury on a singer's lived experience? What does it feel like when an elite music theatre singer uses resonance strategies to achieve certain vocal sounds/styles?

For singing voice research to explore such questions, we must acknowledge that singing is a complex system (Camlin et al., 2020), and is experienced as "greater than the sum of its parts". Big Q Qualitative research can take an experiential, holistic perspective on singing, which can complement existing mechanistic understadnings of how the voice works.

By telling singers' stories, Big Q Qualitative research can help to "translate" findings from the world of voice science for practitioners, and even lay audiences.

Perhaps more importantly, however, building a body of knowledge which draws on quantitative and qualitative singing research will produce a more complete understanding of the mystery of singing, and why it is so important to us as human beings.


Bozeman, K. W. (2013). Practical vocal acoustics: Pedagogic applications for teachers and singers. Pendragon Press.

Bozeman, K. W. (2017). Kinesthetic voice pedagogy: Motivating acoustic efficiency. Inside View Press.

Camlin, D. A., Daffern, H., & Zeserson, K. (2020). Group singing as a resource for the development of a healthy public: A study of adult group singing. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7(1), Article 1.

Krause, A. E., Forbes, M., & Lowe-Brown, X. (2022). Does reality television-style singing influence singing self-concept? Journal of Voice. Advance online publication.

Hirano, M., Kakita, Y., Ohmaru, K., & Kurita, S. (1982). Structure and mechanical properties of the vocal fold. In N. J. Lass (Ed.), Speech and Language (pp. 271–297). Elsevier.

Hoch, M. (2019). Historical landmarks in singing voice pedagogy. Voice and Speech Review, 13(1), 43–60.

Kochis-Jennings, K. A., Finnegan, E. M., Hoffman, H. T., & Jaiswal, S. (2012). Laryngeal muscle activity and vocal fold adduction during chest, chestmix, headmix, and head registers in females. Journal of Voice, 26(2), 182–193.

Lloyd, A. T., Gerhard, J., Baker, P., Lundy, D. S., Diaz, J., Bretl, M. M., Landera, M. A., Anis, M., Marchman, J., & Rosow, D. E. (2020). Prevalence of vocal fold pathologies among first-year singing students across genres. The Laryngoscope, 130(8), 1996–2002.

Pfordresher, P. Q. (2022). Singing accuracy across the lifespan. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1515(1), 120–128.

Pfordresher, P. Q., & Demorest, S. M. (2020). The prevalence and correlates of accurate singing. Journal of Research in Music Education, 69(1), 5–23.

Sundberg, J. (1987). The science of the singing voice. Northern Illinois University Press.

Winter, D. (2021). Voicing a practitioner research methodology: Further framing the conversation. Voice and Speech Review, 15(1), 76–88.

Yeom, D., Stead, K. S., Tan, Y. T., McPherson, G. E., & Wilson, S. J. (2023). How accurate are self-evaluations of singing ability? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Advance online publication.


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