Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 1: Phonetics and Singing

Hi again, everybody! Sorry about the long gap! I will try to blog semi-regularly! A new series on non-standard claims/theories commences here.

(prepared with the expert help of Dominic Watt, University of York)

Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) is a singing method developed by Danish singer, vocal coach and vocal researcher Cathrine Sadolin, and forms the basis for teaching at her ‘school’. Since the 1980s she has been researching ‘all the sounds the human voice is able to produce’. She came up with a new terminology and visual representation for her findings, which can be found in the book Complete Vocal Technique (revised edition 2012). The technique ‘covers all the sounds the human voice can produce’. Sadolin states that the method is not to be regarded as complete in the sense that there is always room for improvement; research is still going on and techniques are updated regularly.

Some basic CVT principles (

CVT is based on anatomy and physiology instead of myths. Its goal is to use the voice in a healthy and unharmful manner.
CVT can be used in all musical genres.
The applied technique must work at once. If not, the singer is doing something wrong.
Singing is not difficult: anyone can learn how to sing.
Singing should always feel comfortable and never hurt: trust your own sensation.
All sounds can be made in a healthy way.
In teaching: separate taste and technique. The singer makes the artistic choices, not the teacher.
Sounds which sound hazardous, like grunting or screaming, are perfectly healthy to the voice as long as they are performed correctly.

Sadolin is in contact with mainstream academics and especially with medical professionals. Her colleague Eddy Bøgh Brixen, whom she cites, is known for having given expert evidence in the forensic phonetic context. However, because he comes from an audio-engineering rather than a phonetics background there has been some doubt in Denmark and beyond about his competence to talk about speech production as such. On the other hand, Sadolin has obviously has worked to good effect with some professional phoneticians, notably Adrian Fourcin.

There appears no reason to doubt that Sadolin’s own vocal training techniques are generally effective. The feedback which she reports suggests that most learners find them very useful. In fact, the techniques appear quite conventional in many respects, not especially innovative (this may not be immediately obvious, because terminology varies from writer to writer, especially among non-linguists).

Sadolin’s ‘theory’ (the ‘four modes’, etc) IS more novel, and this would have to be assessed carefully by phoneticians (not yet attempted). But proposals of this kind often work well in practice even if the associated theory is obscure or not yet demonstrated.

In this context: some of Sadolin’s specific phonetic assumptions do not appear very sound. For example, she suggests that rounding one’s lips perturbs what the vocal folds are simultaneously doing. It is not clear how this would happen.

Sadolin’s intermittent bombastic-sounding statements (‘The technique covers all the sounds the human voice can produce’, ‘The applied technique must work at once. If not, the singer is doing something wrong’, etc.) may have discouraged some professional phoneticians or linguists from looking further at her material. This is not the usual tone in academic writing. If these statements were re-phrased as claims or hypotheses (and defended), more linguists would be inclined to set out to test them, and if such strong statements really proved to be justified they would be most impressed and interested.

The main problem with Sadolin’s ideas is that they can be read as EXCLUDING some accents from use in singing as not meeting her criteria. (This kind of issue has arisen in the context of some earlier proposals by non-linguists regarding speaking and/or singing, for example those of the French author Alfred Tomatis.) Sadolin’s stance suggests that she is ‘prioritising’ standard varieties of languages. Her comment ‘Different languages and dialects can trick you into thinking that you are using the correct vowel. This is why, in the beginning, you must spend time familiarising yourself with the exact vowel sounds’ could well serve to make speakers of non-standard varieties feel that they will never master vocal techniques unless they first adopt the ‘correct’ vowels of RP (‘BBC English’) and so forth. This type of ‘normative’ discourse is actually common in dialect/accent training literature (except where actors/singers are being trained to use a specific non-standard or regional accent which is not their own). The community of (socio-)linguists may need to engage more with the entertainment community to explain what we think we have learned over the decades about variation in speech. Of course, many non-linguists might still disagree with our views on such matters even after hearing what we have to say. But if Sadolin really is saying that it is impossible to sing well in some accents, we linguists would call upon her to defend this view against our objections. And, if she is NOT saying this, we would welcome a clearer statement of what she does think about this issue.

In this context: Sadolin has little to say about the less usual airstream mechanisms, for example as the ‘velaric ingressive’ mechanism (involving the velum/soft palate, referred to by Sadolin as the ‘palate’) which is used when producing certain consonants in the ‘click’ languages of Southern Africa and does not require ‘pulmonic’ air coming from the lungs – although her comment ‘The technique covers all the sounds the human voice can produce’ would imply that her approach does cover such sounds and other special categories such as ‘implosives’.

In addition, Sadolin’s book contains some errors of detail (for example, in the use of phonetic symbols) and also some inconsistencies involving which specific accents are envisaged (for example, some of the transcriptions assume an accent where /-r/ occurs before a consonant or before silence at the end of a word, such as General American or Scots, while others assume an accent where /-r/ does NOT occur in such cases, such as RP and indeed most accents in England; but almost all accents are internally consistent in this respect, and it is therefore difficult to imagine an accent where all these transcriptions were simultaneously correct).

In the context of the theory: using ‘popular’, non-specific terms like twang in an otherwise technical context rather detracts from the scientific gloss.

Mark Newbrook

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