Tag Archives: Human Voice

Imitation of Voice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musical treatises of late antiquity regularly gave preference to wind instruments over strings. The order was based on the belief that winds imitate the human voice. Since the time of Plato, singing has been placed above instrumental music in both philosophical treatises and popular imagination. This is partly because the vocal instrument is thought to be God-given (instrumenta naturalis) rather than human-made (instrumenta artificialis), and partly because the voice produces speech as well as song. For writers like Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636), winds were the closest representation of vocal music, as both operate by sending a column of air through an apparatus controlling vibration and resonation.

From a mechanical standpoint, the similarity between voice and winds is fairly obvious. Blowing and breathing involve the same anatomical tools and physiological processes. But when sound is added to the discussion, comparisons are not always so neat. For instance, the bassoon—a wind instrument—has been likened to a “burping bedpost,” whereas the cello—a string instrument—is widely equated with the male singing voice. Similarly, violins are heard to “sing” like a female soprano.

The latter statement was recently put to scientific test. According to Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist and violin expert, great violinmakers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century designed their instruments to mimic the human voice. In an article comparing Guarneri violins and operatic singing, Nagyvary contends that the instruments “produce notes that gravitate toward certain types of vowels, implying that old masters could have used vowel identification as a means of quality assurance.” It is therefore possible that, echoing views from antiquity, the superiority of certain violins derived from their closeness to the vocal instrument. The more humanlike, the more coveted.

For the study, entitled “A Comparative Study of Power Spectra and Vowels in Guarneri Violins and Operatic Singing,” Nagyvary compared a series of vowels sung by Metropolitan opera soprano Emily Pulley with a recording of Itzhak Perlman playing a scale on a Guarneri violin. Using high-tech phonetic mapping and analysis, he found that the violin created a number of English and French vowel sounds, along with the Italian “i” and “e.”

This suggests that esteemed makers, like Guarneri and Stradivari, strove to replicate the human voice in their violins, and that their success in doing so provided an objective standard for determining the quality and value of the instruments. They may have been inspired by the theological concept of voice as divine instrument, the philosophical assertion of the perfection of nature, or the basic human affinity for things resembling ourselves.

Though philosophers and theologians have long extolled wind instruments for approaching the mechanism of the human voice, the sound of those instruments can fall short of the lofty theories. Alternately, our response to a masterful violin does seem to resemble the pull of a virtuosic soprano. If the value of an instrument can truly be measured by its proximity to the human voice, then the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century violins certainly deserve the millions they sell for. In a manner more than just metaphorical, they speak mellifluously to our ears.

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