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Inside the Vocal Apparatus of an Emcee and a Soprano

June 4, 2010

MRI.jpegOne of my editors sent me this fascinating link to a video created by the University of Southern California's electrical engineering and linguistics department. Researchers at the university asked an opera singer and a beatbox emcee to sing and create beats respectively inside an MRI machine.

It's incredible to see how different the vocal apparatus works for the emcee versus the opera singer.

The soprano's tongue is fat, it doesn't move a lot. Her lips also remain fairly still. There's a huge space inside the mouth and the larynx is lowered. You can also see her vibrato going.

Meanwhile, the emcee's tongue and lips are working overtime. They actually look like drumsticks whacking skins and the cavity inside the mouth and throat are quite closed.

It would be interesting to see the technique applied to other forms of vocal artist such as Tuvan throat singer, blues singer, professional whistler, yodeller etc. The mind boggles.


  • Actually, there is a bit of a risk here of comparing apples and oranges. The emcee is using his mouth for percussive effects (as the narrator observed); and his text delivery is much more consonant-heavy than the soprano's. Where lingual consonants are involved (they both do "la" in the course of the footage), the activities are not that different (which has a lot to do with why we perceive "la" from both of them).

    More interesting for me was the upper-register work of the soprano. There is no tongue activity at all; and (surprise!) we do not hear any consonants. So I think the question that needs experimental support is whether or not it is actually physically impossible (or at least very difficult) to create consonants in high-register coloratura or bel canto vocalization. I wonder how much evidence can be gathered from a few really good teachers. I bet that consulting them costs a lot less that running that MRI equipment!

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At June 4, 2010 at 12:48 PM  

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