Our voices are amazing things. Starting with the grunts of early man, humans devised common vocal sounds to communicate knowledge – exponentially enhancing their ability to build upon each other’s accomplishments by eliminating the need to, for example, discover how fire is made all over again.
31,000 languages and countless more songs later, the human voice’s accomplishments span everything from opera to ornithology. Here are ten fascinating chords struck by our vocal cords.
10 A Solo Duet: The Throat Singers of Tuva
Part of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tuva is located in southern Siberia, just north of Mongolia. Tuvans have been living in birch-bark yurts and herding goats and yaks on the region’s vast plains since prehistoric times. The area is perhaps best known for its folk musicians’ “throat singing”, which relies upon seemingly impossible vocal control to emphasize the faint overtones of different aural frequencies.
Tuvan throat singers can produce as many as four pitches simultaneously, an effect that has been compared to a bagpipe (albeit more pleasant). The result is a singer that can effectively sing two or more notes at once – literally harmonizing with himself.
Starting with a low drone, throat singers subtly manipulate their vocal tracts to break up the original sound, amplifying one or more overtones enough that they are heard as additional pitches while the drone continues at a lower volume. Often, the singers are mimicking or interacting with sounds of their native outdoors — whistling birds, bubbling streams, blowing wind, or a camel’s deep growl.
Only recently did throat singing begin to be performed in indoor halls, where concerts are now popular with tourists. Here is a terrific example of Tuvan throat singing. Notice how many notes don’t segue into one another but rather actually overlap – instances where the performer is making two sounds simultaneously.
9 Click Languages
Click languages are a set of African tongues in which clicks function as certain letters or parts of letters. Originally an extensive feature of the Khoisan languages, clicks have proliferated into several additional languages of the Bantu and Cushitic groups. In all cases, clicks form only a portion of the total number of a language’s consonants, interwoven with more universally recognized verbal cues.
The clicks themselves are distinctive. When formed between the tongue and the roof of the mouth, the result is a sharp popping or smacking; when orienting the tongue between the lips – the so-called “kiss click” – the teeth, or the side of the mouth, the sound is more subtle.
Xhosa, a main language of Africa’s Eastern and Western Capes, is a prime example. As shown in this uber-optimistically titled video, “The Three Xhosa Clicks Taught Easy!” (above), the process usually involves generating one of the clicking sounds in unison with a more traditional linguistic component – meaning one produced by the vocal chords. Xhosa’s clicks are represented in writing by the letters x, c, and q. The clicks are then coupled with vowel sounds in a process that, after several minutes of practice, I can attest is a LOT harder than that guy in the video makes it look.
There is only one known example of a click language’s use outside of Africa: Damin, a now-extinct ceremonial vernacular of the aboriginal Lardil people of northern Queensland, Australia.
No, that wasn’t a typo. It’s a language – the most aurally diverse one in the world.
With five distinct variations of clicks, numerous tones and strident vowels often vocalized with a quick choking sound, the Taa language, which is utilized by just a few thousand people in Botswana and Namibia, is accredited by most linguists as having the widest sound inventory of any tongue on Earth.
Taa has two officially recognized dialects, per the locales of the people, the !Xoon (also not a typo) who speak them. Describing the language is as complicated as the language itself. While research is a bit muddled, it can be safely said that East !Xoon Taa has at least 58 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones – high [á], mid [a], low [à], and mid-falling [â] – while West !Xoon Taa has at least 87 consonants, 20 vowels, and two tones.
7 Hooooooooooooooolding a Note
The length of time a person can hold a single, uninterrupted note is known as maximum phonation time, or MPT. The exercise provides an estimated measure of how closed that person’s vocal cords are. In this instance, closed is actually good: the more closed the vocal cords, the less air wasted and the longer a sound can be maintained.
MPT is more than just something to impress a concert audience. It’s also a diagnostic tool used by doctors in the fields of speech and respiration. For example, it can be a key prognostic indicator for someone suffering from partial vocal cord paralysis. Often, it is used in conjunction with MLPT – the maximum loudest phonation time – to gain insight into the overall strength of a patient’s voice.
Typically, healthy adult males can sustain a sound from 25 to 35 seconds, and women from 15-25. However, this can differ markedly. In 2017, a viral video showcased pop star Ariana Grande holding a high note for well over a minute. While impressive, claims that Grande had broken an MPT record were erroneous.
No, that record goes to Richard Fink IV, who in 2019 achieved the MPT version of the four-minute mile by holding the same note for two minutes and one second, shattering Turkish singer Alpaslan Durmus’s mark of one minute, 52 seconds.
Often referred to as “the tingles,” ASMR – autonomous sensory meridian response – is a computer-age experience characterized by a pleasantly stimulating, sometimes static-like feeling, originating on the scalp and continuing down the neck and upper spine. Though the acronym was coined only a decade ago, ASMR has taken YouTube by storm; many practitioners, dubbed ASMRtists, enjoy millions of subscribers, and a handful even have become millionaires.
Aural triggers that typically cause ASMR’s shiver-esque sensation include soft vocalizations like humming, whispering and tongue clicking. Highly sensitive microphones often amplify and reverberate these vocalizations – a sort of ASMR autotune – and non-vocal elements like tapping, crinkling and dripping are also frequently utilized. Some people also have visual ASMR sensitivity – brought about, for example, by a calming hand gesture or lulling metronome.
ASMR may never have existed were it not for one man: PBS painter Bob Ross, whose The Joy of Painting attracted viewers less for his canvas technique that his rhythmic, shush-shush brushstrokes, gently scraping palate knife, and soothing, baritone narration. Many reported an inexplicable, tingly, euphoric sensation, a sort of blissful zoning out while Ross crafted his trademark majestic mountains and “happy little trees.”
Much of the science behind ASMR is still unknown, but studies show the phenomenon is a physical reaction rather than an emotional experience – making it a feat of the vocal chords rather than the heartstrings.
5 TEN Octaves?
The widest vocal range in recorded history belongs to American singer and composer Tim Storms, who was born in 1972 and is amazing. Storms holds the Guinness record through his ability to span a full 10 octaves — about twice as prolific as Mariah Carey’s famous range, and more than three times the standard singing range of three octaves.
Any singer with this distinction, of course, must also hold the record either for highest or lowest recorded note. Here, Storms’ prowess comes at the lower end of the scale – or rather, completely OFF the scale’s lower end. Storms has belted the lowest note ever sung: a G (-7) (0.189 hertz). That’s a full EIGHT OCTAVES below the lowest G on a piano. The note is, in fact, outside the range of human hearing; it was captured with a low-frequency microphone, then verified via precision sound analysis.
Storms’ unique talent was discovered when he sang in a Christian choir as a child. When his voice continued to deepen, he began to fascinate not only concertgoers but also the medical community: one ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist) was so intrigued that he stuck a video scope up Storms’ nose and down his throat. It was determined that Storms’ vocal chords are nearly twice the normal human length, and that the surrounding muscles, called arytenoids, have significantly above-average movement – lending to his rich reverberations.
4 Gimme a Break
The human voice can make the glass half… period. Many people – including this little boy – have the ability to shatter a glass with no tool other than their vocal cords.
Every object has a resonant frequency, a pitch at which it begins to vibrate. Hollow objects, such as wine glasses, are particularly resonant, as witnessed by running a damp dinger along its rim, or simply tapping it.
To shatter such a glass, a singer’s voice much match that frequency (it also helps mightily if the glass has microscopic defects, which many do). Loudness is also a factor, with a minimum of around 105 decibels – roughly twice the sound of conversational speech – needed to break the “sound break barrier.” A singer must strike – and hold – just the right note for several seconds to have a chance at pulling off the trick.
Still, luck is also a factor: Invisible cracks and chinks cover every material’s surface, but the size and locations of these mini-defects vary dramatically. For that reason, wine glasses that appear identical have radically different fracturing susceptibility. So while some glasses may succumb to human-generated sound, others may not, as evidenced by this compilation of even more little children.
3 Gone Pishin’
Pishing is the term birders use for luring birds from their treetop hiding places using nothing more than their own voice. According to Nicholas Lund, founder of The Birdist blog and a contributor for the Audubon Society’s website, those skilled at the craft create something akin to an Ace Ventura: Pet Detective effect.
“I’ve had big flocks of Pine Siskins completely surround me,“ writes Lund. “I’ve had warblers bounce around my feet. I’ve pished into a silent copse and summoned bird life like some kind of avian Aquaman. When pishing works, oh man, you’re on top of the world.”
The word “pishing” is an onomatopoeia; the word derives from the actual sound the act requires, a “psssshhhhh”-ing sound that mimics a vocalization many species of birds use to sound alarm to others. Birders place avian noises into a variety of categories – mating calls, short-burst flight chirps, etc. Pishing is intended to imitate a “scold,” basically a bird’s community alarm system. When a bird emits a scold, other birds commonly emerge to discover the nature of the emergency.
A boon for birders, scolds are typically recognized across bird species – meaning a successful scold can draw out a slew of different avian varieties. Here’s a video of pishing in action.
Decidedly more substantive than K-Pop, Pansori is a South Korean form of musical storytelling. The term is a combination of the Korean words “pan,” meaning “a place where many people gather,” and “sori,” meaning “song.” The genre is characterized by expressive singing, stylized speech and gesture, and narratives evoking both elite and folk culture.
Pansori is a marathon rather than a sprint: performances can last up to eight hours, during which time a lone singer, typically clutching a fan and accompanied only by a single barrel drum, improvises on themes rooted in various rural and sophisticated stories and texts.
Pansori originated in the 1600s, and remained an oral tradition among commoners until the late 19th Century, when it started to become popular with more affluent Koreans. This educated audience began to infuse pansori with more sophisticated literary content. Subject matter now ranges from romantically tragic to anthropomorphized fantasy. The Ch’unhyangga portrays the difficult love between an upper-class man and the lower-class daughter of a female entertainer, while the satirical madang Sugungga recounts the exploits of a hare who finds himself in a sea kingdom – a reverse fish out of water motif.
Marginalized by modernization, Pansori was designated a National Intangible Cultural Property by the South Korean government in 1964, to ensure it remains in practice.
Pansori was the subject matter of a beautiful award winning Korean Film called Seopyeonje. It is well worth the watch. The trailer is here.
1 A Near-death Aural Experience
Klaus Sperber, known professionally as Klaus Nomi, was a German countertenor whose otherworldly stage persona was as remarkable as his wide vocal range. Nomi became an operatic and absurdist attraction rolled into one, staging bizarrely visionary theatrical performances in heavy make-up, eccentric costumes and a signature hairstyle that proudly flaunted his receding hairline.
His catalogue was just as unique, spanning synthesizer-laden interpretations of classical opera to pop-culture covers of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. He also sang back up for rock legend David Bowie during a riveting 1979 performance of The Man Who Sold the World on Saturday Night Live.
Tragically, Nomi’s life was cut short by the emerging AIDS epidemic just beginning its spread in the early 1980s. Still, Nomi saved some of his best for last. Over the final few months of his life, he shifted gears to operatic pieces – including, per his penchant for pageantry, Baroque era opera garb complete with a full collar. The collar provided function as well as form, covering the outbreaks of AIDS-related cancerous lesions (called Kaposi’s sarcoma) on his neck.
One of Nomi’s final performances (above) shows that his voice was still brimming with life even as his body approached death.
About The Author: Christopher Dale (@ChrisDaleWriter) writes on politics, society, and sobriety issues. His work has appeared in Daily Beast, NY Daily News, NY Post, and Parents.com, among other outlets.