Tuning Formants to Harmonics

Used to be we talked about “placing the tone” somewhere “in the mask”. We talked about “vibrating the bones in the face” and “sending the sound forward”. We talked about “diaphragmatic breath support”.

Now, however, people talk about lining up the first formant with the first harmonic and maybe the second formant with the second harmonic or the first harmonic, depending. People talk about using various “resonance strategies”.

Know what? It’s still the same silliness, just dressed up in 21st century clothing.

When Angela Lansbury sang “Gypsy” on Broadway, she just opened her mouth and sang. She didn’t have any lessons. She didn’t study. Neither did Merman or Streisand. How about countless other singers who wouldn’t have known a formant from a harmonic from a hole in the ground like Rosa Ponselle? Think she was busy thinking of resonance when she sang with her sister as a young woman in Connecticut and was heard by Caruso?

Understand, folks, I am a big supporter of voice science (hygiene, research, medicine) and what it teaches us. Discovering something and explaining it after the fact is a vital part of science. We NEED that information. We need to know why things do what they do. But confusing the what with the how is just dumb. Just because you know which ingredients are in your stew doesn’t mean that I will get the same stew if I put those ingredients together in one of my own, but maybe in random order, or in the wrong proportions. Knowing the what won’t help you much with the how. You need a definite recipe.

Science is only useful to us as intellectual information. It cannot substitute for physical coordination and skill. It cannot substitute for excellent ears and eyes. It cannot give us emotional freedom. It isn’t ever going to make us more creative artists. When science becomes the end instead of the means it gets in the way. As I have said here many times, if voice science were the only answer, every one of the people teaching voice science would sing like an angel and that is absolutely not the case. Some of them don’t sing at all or sing very badly.

Beware the people who throw voice science in your face to impress you with what they know. They are hiding behind information, not skill. Beware the people who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. If you can sing and make the audience cry, then it doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t know formants and harmonics and how to “tune them”. It you can command an audience and bring them to their feet, you have something to say and people “get” your communication. If you are very good at bringing the second harmonic to meet the second formant, well, that’s nice. That, and $2.50, will get you on the New York City subway.

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7 thoughts on “Tuning Formants to Harmonics”

  1. You! Thank You! Thank You! You started me on my exploration of voice science and I will always be grateful. It informs my teaching. I know why I am asking for a certain vowel or quality or register. I would never ask a student to ‘tune the fundamental to a certain harmonic’. If they were a voice geek or science nut I might show them on voce vista why Pavarotti doesn’t sound like Domingo. I’m afraid I’d have little success tuning my own fundamentals to my harmonics, if that were my strategy for singing.

  2. “Discovering something and explaining it after the fact . . .” – that is an important distinction: a result isn’t a prescription. Or as you say, the what is not the how.

    I am one who is easily intimidated – and also tremendously turned off – when people start throwing around voice science terminology.

    Thanks for saying what really needs to said about this topic. Voice science study hasn’t figured out yet how to actually apply the knowledge to the art of singing or the teaching of singing – or perhaps even realized that it’s necessary. My guess is we’ll need to pull back and find the balance between science and art as the pendulum has swung way over in the science direction.

    1. “Voice science study hasn’t figured out yet how to actually apply the knowledge to the art of singing or the teaching of singing – or perhaps even realized that it’s necessary. ”

      Michelle, I wholly disagree with this statement. I see master teachers applying voice science everyday to the art of singing. When I teach my voice division master class every week, I use voice science to inform the art of singing. First, I hear the vocal issue (agreed THAT is most fundamental), then I filter the vocal problem through my knowledge of voice science. This strategy gives me several options to approach the student because I have a fundamental knowledge of cause and effect.

      Certainly, this is not to say that someone without the science background can’t do the same thing…..they can. For example, if I am working with a student have issues singing through the passaggio, I know from voice science/acoustics that slightly rounding the vowel is ONE way to help facilitate a smoother transition. I know this because I know acoustics. Another teacher may know this simply from life-long experience….which is just fine.

      Perhaps, I am not reading your post accurately?

      Art Joslin, DMA

  3. As a vocal science “geek” I have to say that you reflect my sentiments exactly! I enjoy learning what is happening, but it has little to nothing to do with what I’m experiencing or thinking while I’m singing. They are two very different disciplines. Great post! Thank you!

  4. Hi there,

    I am a tenor.

    I have an issue, when I sing I hear myself perfectly in-tune where as I am half step or little higher than half-step flat.

    I tried many things, and as last resort I have learned that in some cases the second formant can be out of tune making the sound out of tune totally. I have been checking ways on how to change the second formant tuning and I have found this page.

    Thank you very much, I also think so… All this info about second, third, fourth and fifth (singer’s formant) didn’t help and has just confused me more…

    1. You can’t “tune to a formant”. What you can do is change the shape of the vowel you are making with your jaw, face, mouth and (over time) what happens in your throat, and control breath pressure. If you are flat, your sound is “too heavy” and you are pulling your mechanism away from enhancing the upper harmonics and that reads (outside) as flatness. Lighten up your sound (go towards head register) and forget about “tuning harmonics to formants”. Maybe, if you were on one of the software programs that does voice analysis, which reads your acoustic output (like VoceVista) looking at the acoustic spectrum you might be able to “see” what’s happening, but without that, your best bet is to change the responses of your machinery. Get a good technique teacher.

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