Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ear to Larynx - What the Voice Learns from Listening

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Did you know your voice can listen? Think about it - your vocal cords, larynx, pharynx, mouth, tongue and lips act to create sound that communicates messages, right? So how do they learn what to do? Your brain connects your ear to your voice and enables it to listen for directions. It may further surprise you that you can magnify or numb out this connection.

Active listening

First let's talk about an action choice made by your brain. To misquote Shakespeare, 
...to listen or not to listen; that is the question.
You know how a dog lifts and cocks it ear to the side when it wants to check out some sound more closely? It does this to open its ear more fully to pick up more frequencies for its brain to process. This is active listening. Alternately, you know how its ears either don't move or drop down closer to its head when you call it in from a backyard squirrel chase? That is numb listening. It hears and ignores you.

To enable more active listening, I've actually used bone on bone to conduct sound from my voice to a student's ears. I put my forearm firmly against my student's forearm, then I make a vocal sound and ask them to 'listen with their larynx'. It can be amazingly and quickly effective in helping them hear more closely and do something new.

What the ear can hear

There is a ton of information the ear can pick up, if your brain chooses to listen actively. For instance, from listening to human voice the ear can detect:

  • articulation
Consonants, vowels and syllables define words and languages. Without clear articulation, a message is hard to understand. Actively listening to nuances or subtle mistakes with articulation (fluency) can indicate where a person is from and the musical genre they're singing. Articulation can also suggest a person's confidence level and how much they've had to drink!
  • tone quality
The colors of vocal tone or timber can turn articulation of the same words into very different, specific messages. The phrase 'I'm sorry' spoken in a dark tone can deliver a threatening omen, a bright tone can indicate sarcasm, a breathy, tight tone can indicate authentic remorse. Your ear hear messages from vocal tone even from articulation you don't understand, such as foreign languages. All types and combinations of emotion can be indicated by infinite depths and shades of tone colors a voice can create.
  • volume 
The volume level of the voice can tell the ear things like distance and location of the person, what kind of room they are speaking or singing in. It can suggest the physical size of the person, though the physical size of the larynx and certain throat opening vocal techniques can cause a small person to sound large. It can indicate emotions of anger, sadness, urgency of message, intimacy. 
  • pitch
Pitch frequencies can indicate age, gender, size (again, the ear can be fooled here). Pitch changes in speech can indicate excitement, confidence, friendliness; monotone pitch can indicate boredom, numbness, anger. Pitch is also very much a part of musical language. Inaccurate pitch (singing out of tune) can tell the ear the singer is not very listenable - not good! When too absolutely accurate it tells me the singer has been over-tuned!
  • phrasing and rhythm
Phrasing can be a big part of musical genre. Crooner music (think Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble) is marked by loose jawed syllables in rhythmic patterns laid behind the beat. Hiphop and gospel phrasings are laid behind the beat in their own unique ways, as opposed to bluegrass, electronic dance music and most pop country, all of which are typically right on the beat.

How the ear directs the voice

From birth the ears teach the voice how to deliver messages from listening to other speakers and singers. This is because the sounds the ear receives can be processed by the brain which can then send neural messages directing the muscles, ligaments, cartilages and other membranes of the larynx, pharynx and mouth to copy what the ear hears. Your vocal apparatus literally moves to what the ear hears! 

But this ear-voice collaboration can be much more efficient! To train your voice to deliver specific sounds, train your ear to listen more accurately! It's hard to direct your voice to do something your ear didn't hear first. 

Practical advice for the listening and learning voice:

  • Remember it's Ear to Brain to Vocal Cords! 
Don't just listen and then speak or sing. Give your brain time to process the aural information before sending directions to your vocal apparatus! Then...
  • Practice miming what you hear
To learn a song, vocal lick, articulation, language, phrasing, rhythm or other subtle vocal nuance, do the mime exercise while listening actively to a voice that has mastered what you want to do. This also works tremendously for gaining more accurate pitch. And it works for speakers as well. Listen deeply, listen with all your attention, and let your eyes, jaw, tongue, soft palate and larynx silently try to copy what your ears are picking up.
  • Don't listen to what you don't want your voice to do!
Your larynx can rise uncomfortably when your ears hear a strangled sound, or freeze when hearing monotone speaking. Sometimes it can't be avoided, but like that ear flap dropping puppy dog, try to avoid actively listening to strained or tight, yelly voices. Avoid or numb your ears to speakers with vocal fry.  If you have laryngitis, as my own vocal coach Gerald Arthur suggested years ago, don't even listen to music. Remember, your vocal apparatus can move even without making a sound.  If you need to rest it, then rest your ears as well!

For more vocal training like this that can enable your best voice, be sure to check out  PPP vocal lessons and courses.  I welcome your comments and questions. If you like this post and podcast, please leave a review on itunes. Thanks!

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