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← What's a squillo, and why do opera singers need it? - Ming Luke

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Showing Revision 3 created 03/05/2020 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. Gripped with vengeful passion,
  2. The Queen of the Night
    tears across the stage.
  3. She begins to sing her titular aria,
  4. one of the most famous sections
    from Mozart’s beloved opera,
  5. "The Magic Flute."
  6. The orchestra fills the hall with music,
  7. but the queen’s voice soars above
    the instruments.
  8. Its melody rings out
    across thousands of patrons,
  9. reaching seats 40 meters away—
  10. all without any assistance
    from a microphone.
  11. How is it possible that this single voice
    can be heard so clearly,
  12. above the strains
    of dozens of instruments?
  13. The answer lies in the physics
    of the human voice,
  14. and the carefully honed technique
    of an expert opera singer.
  15. All the music in this opera house
    originates from the vibrations

  16. created by instruments—
  17. whether it’s the strings of a violin
    or the vocal folds of a performer.
  18. These vibrations send waves into the air,
    which our brains interpret as sound.
  19. The frequency of these vibrations––
  20. specifically, the number
    of waves per second––
  21. is how our brains determine
    the pitch of a single note.
  22. But in fact, every note we hear
  23. is actually a combination
    of multiple vibrations.
  24. Imagine a guitar string vibrating
    at its lowest frequency.
  25. This is called the fundamental,
  26. and this low pitch is what our ears
    mostly use to identify a note.
  27. But this lowest vibration triggers
    additional frequencies called overtones,
  28. which layer on top of the fundamental.
  29. These overtones break down
    into specific frequencies
  30. called harmonics, or partials—
  31. and manipulating them
    is how opera singers work their magic.
  32. Every note has a set of frequencies
    that comprise its harmonic series.

  33. The first partial vibrates
    at twice the frequency of the fundamental.
  34. The next partial is three times
    the fundamental’s frequency, and so on.
  35. Virtually all acoustic instruments
    produce harmonic series,
  36. but each instrument’s shape and material
    changes the balance of its harmonics.
  37. For example, a flute emphasizes
    the first few partials,
  38. but in a clarinet’s lowest register,
  39. the odd-numbered partials
    resonate most strongly.
  40. The strength of various partials
  41. is part of what gives each instrument
    its unique sonic signature.
  42. It also affects an instrument’s ability
    to stand out in a crowd,
  43. because our ears are more strongly
    attuned to some frequencies than others.
  44. This is the key to an opera singer’s
    power of projection.

  45. An operatic soprano—
  46. the highest of the four standard
    voice parts—
  47. can produce notes
    with fundamental frequencies
  48. ranging from 250 to 1,500 vibrations
    per second.
  49. Human ears are most sensitive
    to frequencies
  50. between 2,000 and 5,000
    vibrations per second.
  51. So if the singer can bring out
    the partials in this range,
  52. she can target a sensory sweet spot
    where she’s most likely to be heard.
  53. Higher partials are also advantageous
  54. because there’s less competition
    from the orchestra,
  55. whose overtones are weaker
    at those frequencies.
  56. The result of emphasizing
    these partials
  57. is a distinctive ringing timbre
    called a singer’s squillo.
  58. Opera singers work for decades
    to create their squillo.

  59. They can produce higher frequencies
  60. by modifying the shape and tension
    in their vocal folds and vocal tract.
  61. And by shifting the position
    of their tongues and lips,
  62. they accentuate some overtones
    while dampening others.
  63. Singers also increase their range
    of partials with vibrato—
  64. a musical effect in which a note
    slightly oscillates in pitch.
  65. This creates a fuller sound
    that rings out
  66. over the instruments’
    comparatively narrow vibratos.
  67. Once they have the right partials,

  68. they employ other techniques
    to boost their volume.
  69. Singers expand their lung capacity
    and perfect their posture
  70. for consistent, controlled airflow.
  71. The concert hall helps as well,
  72. with rigid surfaces that reflect
    sound waves towards the audience.
  73. All singers take advantage
    of these techniques,

  74. but different vocal signatures
    demand different physical preparation.
  75. A Wagnerian singer needs
    to build up stamina
  76. to power through the composer’s
    four-hour epics.
  77. While bel canto singers require
    versatile vocal folds
  78. to vault through acrobatic arias.
  79. Biology also sets some limits—
  80. not every technique is feasible
    for every set of muscles,
  81. and voices change as singers age.
  82. But whether in an opera hall
    or a shower stall,

  83. these techniques can turn
    un-amplified voices
  84. into thundering musical masterpieces.