Ethnomusicology and the voice

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Kane (2014) critiques Schaeffer’s notion of “reduced listening,” which ignores a sound’s referential properties and considers it independently of its causes or its meaning. Bracketing the question of whether this is even possible, is it desirable to restrict musical discourse so much by neglecting sound’s signifying properties? Kane’s critique is especially apposite when we consider the voice.

Pink Trombone

Is it possible to hear a human voice (or an instrument that sounds like one) without imagining the body that produced it? Kate Heidemann argues that when we listen to singers, we imagine ourselves having the bodily experience of producing their voice. Thus the pleasure of Aretha Franklin is the opportunity she gives us to imagine being relaxed while still producing a loud and authoritative voice.

Husserl’s “phenomenological voice” is the inner monologue, a lossless medium for which we speak to ourselves, without mediation. This is a strange framing to me; people are capable of tremendous self-deception and delusion, and I am hardly alone in finding my inner voice to be more a confused and noisy babble. Mediatization can stabilize the voice long enough to be able to think about and understand it. A message (musical or verbal) might not get through until after the tenth or hundredth or thousandth listen. On the other hand, while recordings may be stable, listening context is not. Fletcher points out the same operatic vibrato that has profound emotional impact in the concert hall might simply be an unpleasant “wobble” in an “unmatched environment,” for example as background music from a radio.

Derrida describes the written sign as being iterable, enabling it to be “released from any context, to be freed from all determined bonds to its origin, its meaning, or its referent….” Since recorded audio is a kind of written sign, the same is true. It is a remarkable fact that so many people around the world use recordings of black American music as “a musical sign of value and power, an aural and actual embodiment of revalorized alterity,” as Fisher (2016) puts it. Americanized blackness has become a “global cultural value” that is coming to occupy a position of hegemonic ubiquity formerly held by the “high cultural forms” of the European Enlightenment. Fisher ties this development both to America’s cultural dominance generally, and to the resonance between the African-American freedom struggle and global anticolonial movements. When Fisher refers to the Australian Aboriginal feeling of being “black but not African,” I am reminded of the line from The Commitments: “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

Fisher asks whether pop culture and satellite TV spell the end of Australian Indigenous cultural “difference and distinction.” Can you have a “real” culture once it has come into contact with “the commodities of the distraction factory”? All those Charley Pride fans in the outback probably feel that he speaks authentically for them, and they can use his music to speak authentically for themselves. Does the voice have to be “distinct” to be authentic? I listened to some Jessica Mauboy songs, and to my ears they are indistinguishable from African-American R&B. She presumably feels that this sound is a perfectly “real” representation of her voice; who are we to argue otherwise?

Recording is not the only technological method for inscribing the voice. Ashley (n.d.) uses anatomical descriptions to analyze the “swansong” of boy sopranos. Technology has given us a clear understanding of how singing works in the throat, though we are a long distance from understanding the corresponding biological processes in the brain. It is certainly of value to voice teachers to visualize the thin mucosal layers of the epithelium colliding; does that add to the listener’s understanding of the meaning of the voice? Perhaps visualizing the anatomy enables us to imaginatively inhabit the singer’s body more completely.

In his discussion of vibrato, Fletcher (2010) considers massed instruments as single voices. Orchestral string sections do not synchronize their vibrato, producing a voice composed of “narrow-band noise centred on the note being played.” It is interesting to compare the tightly synchronized vibrato of Count Basie Band, which sounds like a tight chorus effect applied to a single “voice.” Double-tracking is ubiquitous in pop music as a way to turn a single singer into a “choir.” We seem to get great pleasure from the contradiction of a chorused timbre playing as though from a single mind. Can we still inhabit the imaginary body of this choir?

Whether a voice is acousmatic or not, mediatized or not, “purely” acoustic or electronically altered, the question remains: where does the musical inspiration driving it come from? A sound engineer quoted by Pandian (2015) attributes it to Saraswati. The film composer Yuvan describes himself as more of a receiver than a creator of ideas. I have heard a similar sentiment expressed from Keith Richards. I resist supernatural explanations and instead subscribe to the meme theory, that music is made of self-replicating information viruses using us as their hosts. Certainly this aligns with my own subjective experience of writing music, but our knowledge of the brain is still too coarse and partial to offer any clear answers yet.


Martin Ashley (n.d.) Beautiful Swansongs of English Cathedral Music: Adolescence and the boy “treble” voice.

Daniel Fisher (2016) Introduction. In The Voice and its Doubles. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-42.

N. H. Fletcher (2010) Vibrato in Music: Physics and Psychophysics. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Music Acoustics.

Brian Kane (2014). The Acousmatic Voice. In Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Anand Pandian (2015) “Sound.” In Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 181-198.