Is Singing Special?

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singing group cartoonWell, of course singing is special and wonderful and a good way to spend your life. That’s not quite what I mean with the question. What I’m wondering is whether singing has particular attributes that makes it inherently different from other forms of musical participation such as playing instruments, or – I suppose – dancing.

Now if you get a bunch of voice specialists together (such as at the Phenomenon of Singing Symposium I recently attended in Canada), you will hear the following kind of assertions:

  • Singing is a way to find your true self
  • Singing provides a means to bond with others at a profound human level
  • There is something transcendent about the very sound of the voice itself

Put in such bald terms, these statements look a little simplistic, but below the effusive surface there are some interestingly complex psychological processes going on, and you’ll find enough people agreeing with them that it’s pretty safe to accept them as true. But does this make them unique to the voice?

Naomi Cumming has written subtle and insightful things about the relationship between musical performance and the sense of self – and she was a violinist, not a singer. Instrumental and dance ensembles also bond at a non-verbal level, bound together in patterns of shared understanding. And the kind of sonic shock people experience in response to distinctive timbres is not restricted to vocal sounds.

The trump card for singing, however, is that you are your own instrument. The separation between performer and their means of sound production is collapsed into a single being. That is why the voice has a special intimacy: the unique physical being of the singer inscribes itself on the sound. This is why we use the word ‘voice’ as a metaphor for that capacity to make our completely individual contribution to the world.

However – instrumentalists also have their unique power of utterance, their individual sound, their voice. And two things I came across recently made me think that on the one hand, the elision of instrument and operator that singers celebrate is not so complete as they’d sometimes claim, and on the other, neither is their separation for instrumentalists.

The first was Wendy Nielsen’s humane and insightful presentation at the Phenomenon of Singing. She spoke about the way the role of the singing teacher is to help the singer ‘create their own acoustic’. The sound source – the larynx – is as your genetics have given you; there’s nothing much to be done about that. But learning to sing well is a matter of creating the optimum environment in which the larynx can operate. The division between the natural (unique) and the nurtured (technique) is re-opened up within the singer’s own body.

The second was a report on the BBC News site about a study that suggests that when we use tools, they become ‘temporary body parts’. Our brain incorporates the implements with which we operate on the world into its map of the self for the duration of the usage. And anyone who has seen an instrumentalist trying to remember a tune away from their instrument will know that they carry their physical modes of interacting with instruments with them as part of how they think about music.

So, sure singing is special – just like any other musical activity.

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