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The Science of Sound: Part III

Have you ever wondered what your vocal cords look like? Why do some people sound the way they do? Today we will dig into those topics during the third installment of the Science of Sound.

If you missed Part I or II, just scroll down the page.

Remember, all sound waves are created by vibrations: this includes your own voice. When we speak (or make any other vocal noise) air passes through our vocal cords, causing vibrations. The tighter your vocal cords are, the higher the pitch of the sound they make. If we were to put a camera straight down our throat to look at our vocal cords, we'd see something like this:

Basically, when we go to breathe, our vocal cords open like the picture on the left. When you go to speak, the folds close up. When you push air through them, it creates a vibration, which in turn creates the sound of your voice. Since everyone's vocal muscles are shaped slightly differently, everyone has a unique sound to their voice.

Neat stuff, right? The folks at PowertoSing have created an excellent resource, and the video below shows you live action shots of your vocal cords in action. It also shows you how we make high pitches and low pitches, and what our vocal cords look like making those sounds. It's about five minutes, but well worth it:

When I showed this video to middle school students, half of them were always grossed out by it. Then again, I think middle school students tend to be grossed out by literally everything or nothing at all!

While we're talking about vocal cords, I wanted to talk about some common misconceptions about voice. Remember, everyone's vocal cords are unique to them. In general, females have vocal chords that produce higher pitches, and males lower. However, that's not always the case. Boys start with higher voices that lower in pitch as they mature; but some men (through practice and development of the vocal muscles) are able to keep that higher pitched voice and sing well with it. (Think Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, etc.)

In fact, in the Renaissance Era it used to be quite common for young boys within church choirs to be castrated so that they retained their higher pitched voices for use in the chorus. (Women were not allowed to sing at this point in history). These castrated, male singers were called "castrati" singers. Unfortunately, this practice continued well into the 1800s. Below is a link to a recording of Alessandro Moreschi, singing Ave Maria. He lived 1858-1922, and is widely considered to be the last castrato singer.

Thankfully, there are many successful male singers today who don't need such drastic measures to sing high. Since the vocal cords are muscles, they can be trained like anything else. Here is a short clip of Mitch Grassi singing with Pentatonix; he has the highest pitched voice of the singers in the group. Traditionally, male voices are grouped lowest to highest as follows: Bass, Baritone, Tenor. Mitch is a classified in a group above Tenor, known as a countertenor. The whole video is long, but you'll get the idea quickly.

Just as males can have naturally higher voices, females can have naturally lower voices. Traditionally, female voices are classes low to high as alto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. Just like the males however, there are women who can sing lower. They are classified as contralto singers. Here is a fun video of Helen Leahey attempting to break the world record of the lowest note recorded by a female.

My point in all of this is that everyone's vocal sound is unique; you shouldn't be swayed one way or the other that you should sound a certain way. If you would like to sing higher or lower, you can train your voice to do so through patience and hard work. (Similar to how an athlete trains to run longer distances, lift more weights, etc).

If you're interested in hearing more of Pentatonix, I highly recommend them. There is a link at the top of the page you can click to check out their albums.

I went a bit longer than I wanted on that, but I had fun! We'll save my other topic for next week: Why does sound carry over water? How does sound travel in general?

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