Resonance Strategies and Formant Tuning

Thanks to advances in voice science we are learning more and more about “formant tuning”, sometimes also called “resonance strategies”.

The idea is that the first formant and the first harmonic can link up to give the sound a “boost” acoustically. The second harmonic and second formant can do something similar. They move around, sometimes intermingling. This phenomenon is just being explored and there doesn’t seem to be to much controversy about it yet.
On it’s own, it’s great information to have. Every sound we make can be explained as some grouping of those five primary formants that are the resonating frequencies of the vocal tract. EVERY SOUND. There may be other formants, above those, but they don’t seem to have much of an impact, at least with the information we have now. So, all the fancy maneuvers we learn in the voice studio can be reduced down to five numbers. That’s it. Humbling, no?
Unfortunately, as with everything else, this new information has already begun to be new jargon in the world of teaching singing. It has begun to substitute for the use of the word “placement” and that’s not good because replacing something that didn’t work with something else that doesn’t work is not improvement in any direction. Telling someone that “their resonance strategies need to be different” is no better than telling them that “the tone should vibrate in the mask.” Asking a student to align the first formant with the first (or second) harmonic is just as useless as asking him to align his cheekbone “resonance vibration” with that of his eyebrows.
The formants align because of the pitch, the volume and the vowel sound, and the shape we make while singing one. There are multitudes of possibilities with vowel sound shapes and very small differences can make the sound “maximally efficient” or not quite “good enough”. The jaw, the tongue, the mouth/lips, the back of the mouth (velo-pharyngeal port), the height of the back of the tongue, the height of the larynx and the amount of open/closed quotient as well as the depth of the vocal folds during vibration all play a part in the overall sound we hear when someone sings. The “at rest” position of the length of the folds, the size of the larynx, the size (both diameter and length of the vocal tract) of the throat and mouth cavities, and the bones of the head and face all play a part as well. And “resonance” as a destination isn’t needed in anything but classical repertoire and some kinds of music that might be done acoustically.
So you still have to find a balance of register quality and make an undistorted vowel throughout your range if you are to sing with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of effort. Since these configurations change as pitch and volume change, it isn’t so easy to “just do this” without training, and training has to last quite a while for it to become second nature or automatic during singing.
Therefore, I might want to know about “resonance strategies” and “formant tuning” but I can’t really use them as teaching tools. I still have only my ears and my eyes to guide my students to make better (or more appropriate) sounds and I must rely on my ability to discern what they are doing that can be improved, changed or magnified. Since there are so many factors (including breathing), this can take quite a lot of skill and it can also take the student quite a while to do and do well.
Resonance strategies. Vibrating your forehead. Not particularly meaningful as instruction, at least not without a lot of explaining and demonstrating. It just isn’t the same as saying, “Sing that nice AH (/a/) again. This time make it softer, keep your mouth a bit more closed and make sure your head is level and over your torso.” Now, what kind of a sound do we have and can you do it again?
Now I am going to go turn off my “formants” for the night and grab some Z’s.
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4 thoughts on “Resonance Strategies and Formant Tuning”

  1. I agree that placement and the like are such nebulous and problematic teaching tools.

    We do have sufficient information regarding formant tuning though. A dropped jaw will lower your first formant and a more closed jaw position will raise it. Spectral analysis will show you that immediately. The second and third formants have correlations to tongue base and dorsum, respectively.

    1. That’s true. It is also true that many opera singers who have “big” voices really felt a lot of vibration in their heads when they sang. If, howeer, you were not one of those singers, that idea was of no use. Understanding voice science is very important but using it is something different. If you want to investigate how confused singing teachers are about what controls pitch, you need only look at some of the teaching sites to see for yourself.

  2. I’m not entirely sure you fully understand this topic, as you seem to have missed the point somewhat.

    Firstly, you say that “Every sound we make can be explained as some grouping of those five primary formants that are the resonating frequencies of the vocal tract. EVERY SOUND.”
    This is simply not true; it is only VOICED sounds that have harmonic content, and we only talk of VOWELS as having formants. So sounds like “sss” and “th” do not contain formants.

    Secondly since formant tuning can be detected from a spectrum (by recording a sound using a microphone and analysing it using a computer) it is much more clearly defined than woolly terms like “placement”, so we are replacing a slightly wooly pedagogical term with a specific scientific one.

    1. Yes, only vowels can be “tuned up” with formant/harmonic balance, so not every sound. I exaggerate sometimes here to make a point — artistic license. But unless you are looking at the voice analysis software while you sing, you really have no good way to know which formant is doing what with which harmonic. I don’t rely on software and most people who sing don’t do so by looking at a voice analysis software monitor. That can be a good teaching tool but you still have to be able to make the sounds in the first place in order to see what they are doing. Beginners don’t necessarily do that well. It is certainly not a way to help people learn to to sing jazz, pop or any sound that doesn’t rely on “resonance” as a primary tool.

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