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August 19, 2016

Some singers seem to fill the theater effortlessly, while others blast to be heard. What is it that gives a good opera singer the carrying power to soar over an orchestra, even at piano?

There is an aura around these voices, an extra bit of zing, that flies to the farthest reaches of the theater. This goes by various names: resonance, 2800, squillo, singer’s formant, mask, etc.

Another way to ask this question is, Why do some singers get hired by larger companies, while others don’t?  A while ago, I went to a performance in NYC of singers chosen from a particular ex-conductor’s masterclasses, and marketed as the singers of tomorrow, or some such.  I sat next to a baritone who has sung major roles at the Met, and he asked, “Where’s the resonance?”  These singers, in addition to singing repertoire they never should have sung, did not have this zing, and so the companies and managers there left quickly.  They all had big voices up close, but not the thing that will actually carry to four thousand seats.

What is this thing? The names “2800” and “singer’s formant” are the most accurate names for this. When sung with this, there is an extra bump in the overtone series of any given note, in the vicinity of 2800 cycles per second. (remember, middle A is 440 cps, so this is near the F 3 ½ octaves above middle C, or an octave above the Queen of the Night’s top.)

If you chart the combined overtone series of the orchestra, you will see that the higher the overtone, the softer it sounds, in general. Charting a good operatic voice, you’d see that the volume of the sound mostly diminishes as you go up through the overtones, except for a major bump around 2800 cps. There is a good chart of this accompanying an article in Scientific American from March, 1977 called “The acoustics of the singing voice.” The link to a copy of the article is here. I highly recommend you read the entire article, but take a look at this chart:

Partials

This chart is not particularly well reproduced, but you can see there are three curves, all normalized for a fundamental of 440 hertz, our tuning A. One is the averaged distribution of sound in an orchestra, the second is the same for normal speech, and the third is Jussi Bjorling. He’s the one with the bump, the other two are nearly the same.

From what I understand, if the ear hears the overtones, or partials, and cannot hear the fundamental, the ear will recreate the fundamental from those partials. So, even if Bjorling’s note was buried by the orchestra, the ear will get the overtones (especially around 2800 since it has such a bump) and recreate that note.

So, how do we do that? That’s a subject for next time.

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