Curiosity Podcast Transcript: The Science Of Singing

The human voice is the oldest musical instrument. But how exactly does it work? Voice training is a lot more complicated than you might think, and in this podcast, opera singer Matthan Ring Black discusses why. A baritone with decades of experience as a performer, Matthan gets into the science behind how the human voice works, with some bonus insights into the worlds of vocal pedagogy and opera.

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Curiosity Podcast Transcript

Cody Gough:

I'm curious, why do people need to learn how to sing?

Matthan Black:

The difficult thing about learning to manipulate the vocal mechanism, is that there are no instructions. And you can't see how all the things function. So much of vocal science is trying to figure out the way that all these acoustical phenomena and breath posture and the way that our body naturally works, how to harness all of that and make great art from it.

Cody Gough:

Hi I'm Cody Gough from Curiosity.com. Today we're going to learn about the science of singing. Every week we explore what we don't know. Because curiosity makes you smarter. This is the Curiosity Podcast.

Do you like to sing? Or do you like to speak? Well then this is the podcast for you. Turns out the human voice is a lot more complicated than just using your vocal cords and calling it a day. And to learn more, who would make a better teacher than an opera singer?

My guest today is a highly educated and experienced opera singer who gets into what makes a person's voice distinct, and even how to train your own voice to sound a certain way. Oh, and the best part? His sheer passion for opera singing. You'll see what I mean.

I am here with Matthan Ring Black, classical musician, opera singer, baritone, everything ... what aren't you? You've performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and many other places around the world. You're quite the performer.

Matthan Black:

Oh yeah man, that's what we're shooting for, right?

Cody Gough:

So you're a good singer?

Matthan Black:

Well I try very hard to be a skilled, talented, and accomplished singer.

Cody Gough:

You wouldn't say you're a good singer?

Matthan Black:

You know, it's always so strange when you're trying to do something at such a high level. Sometimes we think of our skills from the perspective of a deficit. Because, you know, I'm spending so much time trying to correct my flaws, trying to enhance the things that I'm naturally good at. So it's sometimes really difficult to think of yourself as really good, when you spend so much time trying to get better. But I think that's true for anyone that does anything.

Cody Gough:

Well, I think a lot of people sing. That's a pretty universal thing.

Matthan Black:

Yes.

Cody Gough:

Whether you sing in the shower or you love karaoke. Do you love karaoke?

Matthan Black:

I love karaoke!

Cody Gough:

Well, because you probably kill at it.

Matthan Black:

Oh, man, I've got my songs that we go in and sort of rip it up.

Cody Gough:

What are your songs?

Matthan Black:

So, I love singing some old Muse tunes, which is kind of fun. Muse is one of my favorite bands of all time. And they have "Feeling Good," which Michael Bublé has also covered, and a lot of other people have done. Their version of it is just like, raw and gritty and killer. You want a tip for how to kill at karaoke?

Cody Gough:

Yeah.

Matthan Black:

So it doesn't matter how good you are, as long as you can sing in tune it's totally fine. But if you add dynamic range to your karaoke songs, if you sing really soft and then sing really loud, people lose their minds.

Cody Gough:

Really?

Matthan Black:

Dynamic range, man. Most people don't think about changing the volume at which they sing. If you do that makes you seem real artsy.

Cody Gough:

Wow. Well I want to talk a little bit about how to become a good singer, not in a lesson kind of way, but some of the science behind it. But, to lay the groundwork, I have to ask, what makes a good singer?

Matthan Black:

So there's a couple of things that I think about when I think of really high quality singing. There's few things that really matter. The first being that you have to be able to sing in tune. So you know, we talk about people who think that they're tone deaf, or people who have a hard time matching pitch along with the radio? I think with a little bit of practice everybody can do that. So baseline you have to be able to sing in tune.

After that, I think you have to be able to use your voice in a way that doesn't damage it. So if you can sing in tune, and the technique that you use to sing in tune allows to continue singing for the rest of your life, doesn't give you vocal nodules, doesn't hurt your voice and make you hoarse, then you're in a pretty good place.

But the thing that makes a great singer is using those two skills to then use your voice to show your own artistic vision. It's not enough to just go out and sing the notes. It's note enough to just go out and show off how loud or how soft you can sing or how high or how low you can sing. You have to be saying something. And so, although everybody wants to sing, and everybody can sing well, it takes a lot of skill and devotion to be able to use your techniques to really say something with your voice.

Cody Gough:

So is that in order of difficulty?

Matthan Black:

Oh gosh, I think so. You know, singing in tune's not that hard. Singing with a healthy voice takes some time. But really using all the skills you have to say something artistic into the world? That's no easy task.

Cody Gough:

How do you teach someone to sing in tune?

Matthan Black:

Ah, man, you know there's a lot of exercises that you can od that center around matching pitches. One of the difficulties of the human voice is that we don't have buttons or keys that you can press to make a different sound. So it's sort of like using a brass instrument like the trombone, that doesn't have specific keys that you press or buttons that you can press.

So one of the things that we do is we'll take a piano, which does have keys that you can press, and you press a key on the piano and then try to match that pitch with your voice. As long as you're singing with enough support, with enough airflow, and your ears are set up in the right way, you can generally start building your range of which you can match from there.

Cody Gough:

What about people whose ears are not set up in the right way? You mentioned "tone deaf" earlier; is that a condition or is it just a lack of training?

Matthan Black:

This may be controversial, but I don't think "tone deafness" is a thing. Now I know that there's going to be some scientist somewhere listening saying, "No, tone deafness is a thing!" And that may be true. But most people who think they are tone deaf, usually it's just a lack of technical singing ability.

You know, because our instrument is our body, our emotions affect the way that that mechanism functions. So if you're scared, your stomach tightens up; your shoulders come in. You know, the lizard brain in us makes us want to protect our neck. So we sort of scrunch our whole body together. That is the absolute worst body posture for singing. It doesn't allow your airflow to move easily. So if you're nervous about singing, you're going to sing worse. So I think lots of people who can't match generally are just being self conscious about the way that their body mechanism is working.

Ashley Hamer:

Hey, Ashley here! "No, tone deafness is a thing!" As a professional musician myself, there's a fast fact for you, I agree that most people's definition of "tone deaf" is just a product of insecurity and lack of practice. But, there is a real impairment of music perception called "congenital amusia." In other words, genetic tone deafness. It affects nearly 4% of the population. According to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, if one person has the disorder in a family, around 40% of their first degree relatives are likely to have it too. Thanks, Mom! Beat deafness is also a thing, though there hasn't been enough research to determine if it has a genetic basis.

Cody Gough:

What about people with a really good sense of pitch and tone? Because I wonder, there are music majors, people who study vocal pedagogy. What are you learning other than hitting the right notes?

Matthan Black:

Oh man, so much! The complication of vocal pedagogy, which is the study of the vocal mechanism, which involves your body posture; it involves your breathing mechanism; it involves the circulatory system and the two little folds of flesh that live in your larynx that actually make the sound.

The difficult thing about learning to manipulate the vocal mechanism is that there are no instructions. It wasn't created by a person. There's no user manual. And you can't see how all the things function. So much of vocal science is trying to figure out the way that all these acoustical phenomenons and breath posture and the way that our body naturally works, how to harness all of that and make great art from it.

The most interesting thing for me is that, our modern vocal pedagogues are finding out that everything the Italian masters in the Renaissance knew about great singing is absolutely true. They may not have had the right words for how to describe things; they may not have had a clear picture of how all the muscles and tendons and bones were shaped, but they knew what great singing was. And their idea of how to produce beautiful tone and great artistry is being proven more and more every day by science.

Cody Gough:

So what's your music education background?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, so I have three degrees in music. And that was like, the last two-thirds of my life! You know, like most people who come to music, I was a very musical child. I came from a very musical family. I was singing in choirs and playing guitar and playing in rock bands all through high school. And then decided that I wanted to study seriously, so when I went to college I studied music education.

So, music education is an interesting degree; it's about two-thirds music and one-third education. So I spent, you know, hours and hours and hours learning about the voice, learning music theory, having ear training classes, music history, all of this time just learning great names and techniques for how to become a better singer.

Once I got through there I decided I needed a little more work, so like most people who try to sing at an elite level, I went on to a master's degree. Got a master's in music in opera performance from Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. Where you get rid of, you know, your ancillary classes; I wasn't studying education classes; I wasn't taking algebra and science and history, the normal classes that you take in college. It was an intensive academic pursuit of music and the study of getting better.

And then I came to Chicago and had the opportunity to get a professional diploma in opera from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, which is an amazing program because not only are you really studying music at an elite level, and you're working on your performance technique and you're getting to work with better and better musicians, but you also get to apprentice as a singer with Chicago Opera Theater here in the city. So I got to spend two years working with an amazing coach and teaching staff at the university, and then spending my off time learning the business inside the business from the amazing people at COT.

Cody Gough:

You mentioned that, at certain stages of your education, you're not taking chemistry classes or biology classes. But aren't you learning some of the science and history and isn't a little bit of that baked into your music education?

Matthan Black:

Oh absolutely. And you know you have chosen the right thing, when in your off time, even when you're not required to be studying music history, I'm such a nerd; I'm reading books. I'm even reading books right now that masters wrote in the 1700s about singing and the science of singing and all of those things.

And one of my favorite things about music is that, the study of music and the study of singing is so closely wrapped up to the history of our world. And where people's brains were at any given time, and how the art sort of matches the reactions to what's happening in political life, and historical life as well.

Cody Gough:

The art of vocal performance in general, or opera specifically?

Matthan Black:

Opera specifically, vocal performance in general. Oh man, now there's something interesting to talk about. The instance that I always think about is in Germany after wars. After World War I you start seeing this real interesting trend in what's happening in what they call "Expressionism." Which you see in art as well, very dark and jagged, angular colors, trying to express the angst of what was happening in Europe between the wars and into World War II.

So the great three composers, the German opera composers of that time, were Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. Who are creating bonkers, bleep, bloopy kind of music that isn't the lyrical lines that we think of from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, but are angular and full of pain and chaos. So the singers of that time had to find ways to get the mechanism to produce this extreme range and vocal color of that anger and pain and sadness. And people had to learn how to do that in a healthy way, in tune, while still imbuing it with artistic fire.

That stuff's crazy. All because a war happened in Europe, the entire idea of what great singing is had to change and adapt.

Cody Gough:

So they were at level three in that, part of being a good singer, or a good musician, is that artistic element of that there?

Matthan Black:

Absolutely.

Cody Gough:

So, I just can't image walking into a practice room and having a teacher that says, "All right; here's how you become a better singer." What's one of the first things you work on?

Matthan Black:

I think the first thing that you have to get a basic mastery of are just the basic fundamentals of music. You have to understand counterpoint; you have to understand theory; you have to understand voice leading. So that your brain gets to start recognizing patterns in the way tones flow and react to one another.

Once that starts taking root in your brain, you start attributing, you know, emotional ideas to these sounds that we hear. And then once you start having ideas about what sound means, then you go the next step, which is then how to create music, and how to create those feelings and those sounds.

So my basic education would be, like a normal day in my life in my undergrad would be a morning music theory class where we're studying the theory of how tones interact with one another and the sounds therein. Then I would go to a choir rehearsal where I was singing with 60 other people for an hour. Then I'd have lunch. Then I'd have "Music History of the 14th Century," where I'm studying the Catholic Church, and how they dealt with music and Gregorian chanting and all of those things. And then I would go to a voice lesson where I just worked on my technical prowess. And those things that we talked about: how to sing in tune; how to sing beautifully; how to protect my voice; and how to imbue my own voice with artistic passion and ideas.

Cody Gough:

How does the technique and what you're projecting with your voice differ in opera versus other areas?

Matthan Black:

That is one of my favorite things to talk about. If you think about singing as a whole as being broken down to those three things that we talked about ... We just mentioned it briefly but, one of my top three things for singing is not singing beautifully. You don't have to sing beautifully. I don't know that I would say Kurt Cobain sang beautifully, but he was amazing. Jeff Buckley, on the other hand, sounds absolutely beautiful to me, both other people think he sounds gross. Louis Armstrong doesn't have a traditionally beautiful voice, but the art that he's able to make is sort of amazing there.

So you have all of these different kinds of voices doing different kinds of things. So the thing that differentiates the operatic vocal production from pop music or music theater style or R&B, whatever else you have, is the purpose of the sound. So the one big thing that sets classical singing away from most others, is the use of amplification. In the opera house, you're not going to find people using microphones and electricity to project their voice into the hall so people can hear it. You know, you go see John Mayer, and he's got his electric guitars hooked into amplifiers, and the electricity is shoving it out more powerful than a human voice ever could. But when you go to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, that entire building, all of its seats, its walls, the material that it's used, the space, is created to protect and project unamplified sounds.

So when a singer is singing with a full 100-piece orchestra, they have to be living and singing and breathing in a way that the voice cuts through a very specific range, harmonic range, called the singer's formant. Where it's not competing for space from the music that's coming out of instruments.

You it's like, you know we think about hertz, and we think about sine waves and the way that science shows us that sound travels; there's a very specific place where the voice can live and project and cut through all the other sound, all the way to the back of the hall to be heard without any microphones.

Ashley Hamer:

Ready for some science? The reason the so-called singer's formant is able to cut through a concert hall is because it matches the resonant frequency of the vocal tract.

Okay, okay, let's back up. If you've ever stood in a small, echoey room and hummed, you may have noticed that certain notes sounded louder than others, as if they made the room ring like a bell. That's because those notes match the resonant frequency of the room.

Now imagine instead of changing the note you were humming to make it resonate with the room, you could change the shape of the room to make it resonate with that particular note. That's how the singer's formant works. Singers adjust the shape and position of their vocal tract, jaw, and tongue to help each note they sing ring out, thereby cutting through the orchestra and past the stage all the way to the people in the cheap seats.

Cody Gough:

So you're able to cut through ... anything?

Matthan Black:

I wouldn't say "anything" because with the advent of amplification technology, electric amplification technology, you couldn't be heard over a T-Pain concert at Soldier Field, right? But, if the conditions are right, you can all work together so that the sound can be heard perfectly, with clarity and beauty.

Cody Gough:

How do you find the singer's formant?

Matthan Black:

Oh man, that's like ... What we can basically distill it to, is that you have a system of breathing and positioning your body that allows your vocal folds to vibrate unencumbered in a way that uses your entire body as a resonating chamber and then projects the sound and uses diction to help be crisp, clear, and beautiful.

Cody Gough:

Wow. So when an opera singer is performing, it's not just coming out of their mouth or even their diaphragm; it's the whole body is resonating?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, because you know, all sound is vibrations, right? So whether you're, you know, knocking on a window or playing a tuba, whatever it is, is it's some sort of vibration, the way that the air is moving that creates the sound. And the quicker that vibration happens, that changes the differences of pitch.

So what we have to do is breathe deeply, set up your body in a way that your vocal folds come together and vibrate to create a pitch. Now that vibration moves though all of your bones, all of your sinews, all of your tendons, rattles around in your chest and in your head, and then comes out through some sort of acoustical magic and makes a beautiful sound that we know of as opera.

Cody Gough:

Is vibrato part of that?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, so vibrator is an acoustical phenomenon that happens because of the way the body is set. Because we have that, you know, sine wave that's moving as the vibrations are created by your vocal cords, vibrato has to happen naturally to be free and unencumbered. You know, people can get in trouble; I get in trouble sometimes, because if my vibrato is balancing and moving unequally, or off kilter, then it will actually affect the way that you hear the pitch of my voice. So my voice may sound a little under pitch or a little sharp, above pitch, if I'm not having a free and even, open vibrato.

Cody Gough:

So, so far we've learned that the entire body vibrates to emit certain pitches and that depending on the speed or depth at which it's vibrating I guess, or any of a number of factors can affect the exact sound and the exact amount of vibrato that that makes and whether it's inside or outside of the singer's formant ... That's a lot of variables.

Matthan Black:

And then you have to make art on top of that.

Cody Gough:

That I won't even touch. I can't even get into that at all. I don't understand technically how you get there.

Matthan Black:

Just like anything else, you practice, very slowly, and you have to dedicate your life to it.

Cody Gough:

Practicing voice is difficult because, I'm a podcaster so I've heard my own voice a million times. A lot of people hear their own voice in a recording, and they think it's really crazy and they hate the sound of their own voice. Your voice is always going to sound different to you that it does objectively to a microphone or to a third party. So, if you're standing in a practice room by yourself, how are you able to evaluate the sounds that are coming out of you?

Matthan Black:

So the reason that your voice sounds different to you than it sounds to somebody else or to a microphone, is because of the way the sounds are conducted. I'm hearing my own voice, the vibrations, I'm hearing them conducted through the bones. You know how your eardrum is made up of a bunch of tiny bones that vibrate, and then turn the vibrations into sounds that you can understand? So rather than the sound leaving my mouth, bouncing around the room that we're in, and then coming back purely in through the air, the bones of my jaw, the bones of my neck, all the bones are connected to the little bones in your ears. So you're hearing the vibrations from the inside and the outside. So you're always going to sound different from someone else.

It's important when you're practicing, and you're evaluating your own sound, that you have people that you trust to help you out. That's why we use really talented voice teachers and coaches. You know at a certain point, people ask me, "You know you've been singing for 20 years now; why do you still have to go to a teacher?" And I always go to a voice teacher because I don't hear myself the same way that you hear me, and I need someone that I can trust to help me do those things. But at a real elite level, you find yourself singing more by the way that it feels than by the way that it sounds.

Cody Gough:

Because you've got a kind of muscle memory?

Matthan Black:

Yeah. I think it's probably the same way that like, an Olympic gymnast doesn't practice by the way that they look because they can't see themselves. They have to practice their routines by the way that it feels knowing that someone else is helping them to guide and direct it there.

Cody Gough:

That makes sense. Then when you're standing in a practice room for an hour or two hours by yourself singing, there's not a teacher there all the time.

Matthan Black:

No.

Cody Gough:

So what are you practicing at that time?

Matthan Black:

A couple of different things. A lot of times we're practicing with languages, to make sure that our diction sounds authentic to another person's ear. We're practicing building vocal stamina, so that when you do go on stage and have to sing for two or three hours, you're not doing that as a herculean task; you're building up to that the same way you would with weight lifting or distance running.

Another thing that we spend a lot of time on is making sure that everything we are doing is happening with elegance. You know, it's one thing to sing a musical line; it's another thing to sing that perfectly with elegance and economy of breath and beauty of tone as well. That's where I spend most of my practice. I'm never quite satisfied with the way a line feels or the way a line sets me up for the next line, or the way that the language bounces up around the room. I'm always trying to perfect that so that it can communicate better down the line.

Cody Gough:

So it's like a much more artistic version of maybe a commercial actor that's standing there with this script reading, "YOU can buy this car today. You can buy this CAR today." You know, figuring out where to put the emphasis on the right syllables?

Matthan Black:

Oh absolutely. And one of the best things that we have in classical music, whether it's opera or art song, is that we have these genius composers who took the texts that we're singing and set it to music. So they give us all these clues about how they were interpreting the music. So instead of having to say, you know, "How can YOU buy this car today," we have someone who set that to music in a way that shows you how they wanted that to exist.

Cody Gough:

Very helpful.

Matthan Black:

Yeah, very helpful.

Cody Gough:

But still some difficulty there.

Matthan Black:

Oh, it's so hard!

Cody Gough:

So, you've given lessons before. What do you find has been the most challenging thing to get people to do?

Matthan Black:

Yeah. I think the most difficult thing right off the bat is setting up the body in a way that is helpful for breathing and singing. You know, we grow up singing, you know, whether it's with your friends or just "Happy Birthday" to somebody's party, or in churches or schools or choirs, and we never really spend enough time to think about what actually happens, because you start singing so young. But there is a real difference between pop singing and the breath support that you use, and then the volcanic power that you have to create with your breathing mechanism. So convincing, especially young singers, to set up their posture in a way and breathe so deeply that you can efficiently run the mechanism, is a lot harder than I thought it would be.

Cody Gough:

Why is breath so important?

Matthan Black:

Oh man, breath is everything to a singer. Singing does not exist without breath and without air. So when we think about the breathing mechanism, when we think about the singing mechanism, everything starts with a deep, low inhalation, and then we have to control the rate at which that air leaves our body, so that it vibrates the cords perfectly and gives enough energy to create enough sound so we can sing enough.

Ashley Hamer:

Everyone can benefit from the kind of full, deep breathing of an opera singer. Your lungs expand and shrink thanks to your diaphragm, a parachute-shaped muscle that spans across your ribcage right below your sternum. Try taking a long breath from the bottom of your chest. Don't move your shoulders at all. Instead, stick out your stomach to give your diaphragm room to expand. Then breathe out, pushing from the very depths of your abdomen. Mmm, so relaxing.

Cody Gough:

Earlier you mentioned practicing safely, and singing safely. How do you do that?

Matthan Black:

It's the same way that you would find, like, trying to make sure that you're speaking safely without screaming. You know, there are things that you know, if you talk too much, if you talk too low in your register, if you talk too loud; any of those things. You're looking for balance; you're looking for a tone that is supported by the breath deeply and protectively, and you're looking for not overusing.

One of the things that I have to be very careful about is over-practicing. If I have an opera that I'm learning and I want to learn it really fast and really good, I'll practice too much for too long and tire out my voice.

Cody Gough:

So what happens, physiologically, what's so bad about that? It's just your voice, right?

Matthan Black:

This is the way that I think about it. If you take your hands and form fists, and then hit those fists together gently, that's what your vocal cords are supposed to do. But add a little power behind that, and you start getting a little pain ...

Cody Gough:

Ah, that sounds painful. Stop doing that!

Matthan Black:

Sounds terrible, right? And you can build up inflammation in your hands, and they get a little bit thicker. You can make bruising; you can get callouses on your hands that way. The exact same thing can happen to your vocal folds. Actually, you know, in the news it's a big thing now because Adele is having voice problems, and she's having to cancel concerts again because of vocal nodules and some other problems. Vocal nodules are callouses that form on your vocal cords. And if you aren't hydrated enough, if you don't give your body enough time to rest behind all of that singing, then those bruises can become callouses, can become formed in a large way, and it doesn't allow your vocal folds to close completely and open freely, so you can't make a pure, perfect tone.

Cody Gough:

Some I'm guessing a lot of professional vocalists don't like going to loud bars and screaming over the music to talk to their friends?

Matthan Black:

100%.

Cody Gough:

Do you just totally hate going out?

Matthan Black:

No, I love going out. Which makes it even worse!

Cody Gough:

Oh no! Well how do you get around that?

Matthan Black:

You have to be very conscious and careful. I have to make decisions knowing that I have to protect my voice if concerts are coming up. And so one of my favorite things to do is after a concert closes down, or after we're finished with a show, we'll have a big cast party and hang out with a bunch of friends, because we don't have to be worried about the next performance. So you can chill out, relax, have a few drinks, and really not have to always be worried so much. But most of the time, I'm always very much so on guard as to what's happening with my voice, where it's feeling, and what could be problems in the future.

Cody Gough:

So I bet those cast parties get pretty crazy.

Matthan Black:

They have, yes sir.

Cody Gough:

Is there a lot that you limit yourself from doing because of vocal performance? Because we use our voices all the time, for everything. Does it limit activities outside of performing and practicing?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, so the idea is that you find ways to do everything you want to do, just in healthy ways. So I saw a speech pathologist for a while a few years ago because I found out that I was getting a little tired, more tired than I wanted to in performance. And through my work with her we found out that it wasn't so much the way that I was singing that was tiring out my voice, it was the way that I was talking. So I was speaking a little too low in my register and I was trying to speak a little loud because I get excited about things, because I'm very passionate about the stuff that I do.

And so I was talking too loud, too forcefully, and too low. And she helped me figure out that if I can have my voice a little higher pitch-wise in the register, that's easier on my cords. If I can learn to calm down and breathe deep while I'm talking and I'm excited, that can help things out too.

So the idea is yeah, you've got to abstain from things that dry you out, like soda, and like really powerful air conditioning and alcohol. But if you can, you know, imbibe a little bit here and maybe keep your a/c on 73 instead of 71, you can still live a pretty happy life.

Cody Gough:

Your a/c on 73 instead of 71?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, if it's too cold and it's at night and my voice isn't doing so great, sometimes that can affect the way that my voice feels.

Cody Gough:

Oh, wow.

Matthan Black:

Yeah.

Ashley Hamer:

Some singers go to ridiculous lengths to avoid air conditioning, which saps moisture from the air and consequently, the vocal cords. According to Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin always insists on her performance venues turning off the a/c, even when there are 2500 people sweating it out in the audience.

Cody Gough:

You talked about how our whole body is a resonance. I've got to ask, there are a lot of opera singers who are bigger, and that probably gives them more to resonate with. But you see a lot of opera singers that are smaller, too. So, how does that work?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, that's just something that's, it's like the trends of history and art, right? So the thing that you were kind not to bring up, is you know your normal, stereotype of an opera singer is the very large woman with horns and a breastplate and a spear and wings, you know, the Valkyries from Wagner's opera. And there is something to be said about bigger bodies creating bigger sounds.

But just like everything else we've been talking about, it's about finding the way to use your instrument in the best possible way to say what you want to say. So yeah, a bigger voice from a bigger body is going to have a different tone and be able to do different things. You know, there are certain roles in operas that I'll probably never sing because my body just wasn't naturally built for them. My voice isn't big enough or cut in the same way. My favorite thing is like, Mozart operas require less vocal volume than say Wagner or Verdi operas. So generally your bigger people are going to be doing, you know, Verdi and Wagner. But there's always going to be exceptions to those rules.

You know, the vocal cords in your body, for a man, are normally around the size of a nickel, and for a woman are normally around the size of a dime. So that can of course fluctuate and a larger person with a larger head, with a larger neck, with a larger larynx, is going to have slightly larger vocal folds and that's going to change the pitch range and the sound and the color of the voice.

Cody Gough:

Interesting. Would you compare that to ballet dancers? And the way that some bodies are kind of more suited for that?

Matthan Black:

Yeah. I do think that you're right. You know, the natural musculature of a ballet dancer, hip width, leg length, torso length ... Yeah there are going to be people who are naturally more attuned to the ballet sort of movement. But then you find someone like Misty Copeland, who didn't naturally have the ballet dancer's body, but is one of the greatest artists of our time.

I think we find that in opera as well. You do have people like Bryn Terfel, who is this gigantic, huge, mountain of a man who sings all of this amazing music, but then you also have someone like Natalie Dessay who is this tiny little French woman, who creates a very different sound, but both equally artistically beautiful.

Cody Gough:

Just since I have an expert in opera in the room, I have to ask, a lot of the newer compositions, do you find that composers are composing for wider ranges or different characterizations, or what's happening in the world of opera today?

Matthan Black:

Yeah, yeah, I do find that. You know, when we study music history, we find that especially with Italian opera, from the birth of opera, there were these very specific sort of like roles based on commedia dell'arte players. And so you had your fool, and you had your pure woman, and you had all these different people. And they were played by different sounding people: lower voiced men, higher voiced men, lower voiced women, higher voiced women, you know, and different colors and all of that stuff.

As opera has progressed, we have seen new, different kinds of sounds come up. All throughout the years, in France, in Germany, here in the United States, in England as well. And then now as we get into a new era in modern classical music, I find it being like a culmination of everything we have seen so far. You get more extremes of range used: higher notes, lower notes. You get different colors because of the kinds of instruments that we're using in our orchestras now.

But I always like finding the way that these things are more similar than the way they are different. You know, you're still having human stories conveyed by these sounds. So even though a modern day tenor for sprechstimme may sound completely different from a lyric bel canto tenor from the bel canto era in Italy, they're still talking about pain, love, the human experience, and progressing, showing all of that in very similar ways, even though it may sound slightly different.

Cody Gough:

What do you wish more people knew and understood about opera that you have found people don't know?

Matthan Black:

Opera's easier to enjoy than you think. A lot of times we do think about opera being, you know, something for the elite, or opera being something for people with money, or opera being something you feel like you have to have a lot of education to ... It's just stories, man. All opera is, is stories set to music by some of the most artistically genius people you have ever heard of that, that our world has ever seen.

There's something really beautiful about being able to go into a building, and be swept away by an amazing story set to gorgeous music. You don't have to have a master's degree in opera to understand it. Go to your local opera house; see a show. It doesn't even matter what show it is, you're going to find something to love if you pay attention, and you listen well.

Cody Gough:

What show got you hooked on opera?

Matthan Black:

Oh, man. Verdi's Rigoletto is one of my favorite operas, and probably the best starter opera. It comes in at just under three hours, so it's not too long. It's got death; it's got sex; it's got murder; it's got sadness. All of this drama. And the music is just perfect. If I were to hum a couple of tunes for you from the show right now, you would absolutely know them. They've been used all throughout history in commercials, in movies all over the place. It's the best hits of the best music with the greatest singing, all about sex and death. What else do you want?

Cody Gough:

How you found the people that enjoy Looney Tunes really get into the opera?

Matthan Black:

Dude, I am all about those Looney Tunes cartoons! Like, all of the stuff that showed opera, The Barber of Seville that Bugs Bunny did. Dude, we would just sit and watch those on YouTube in college all the time. So much fun!

Cody Gough:

That's really cool. Anything about opera that you would like to add that we have not touched on?

Matthan Black:

Oh yeah. You know, my favorite thing about the art form is that it's happening all over the United States, all over the world. Wherever you are, listening to this right now, there's opera around you. And, you know what, people talk about opera dying as an art form because it's not at the height of popular culture right now, and I don't believe that's true. But one of the ways we can make this art form bigger is by taking people and just going and supporting whatever's around you.

So if you're interested in opera and you think it's cool, just go buy a ticket to whatever's live and local, and see if you like it. If it's not for you, who cares. But, I think you will enjoy what you see and hear.

Cody Gough:

I'm sold. So, how do you follow that? You're a hard guy to follow, you know that?

Matthan Black:

I'm sorry!

Cody Gough:

You're a tough act to follow.

Matthan Black:

I'll take that as a compliment, Cody.

Cody Gough:

You shouldn't be sorry; that's your job, you're a performer. I mean, do you consider yourself a performer? I would presume ...

Matthan Black:

Absolutely.

Cody Gough:

Well I will let you go shortly after the Curiosity Challenge.

Matthan Black:

Curiosity Challenge!

Cody Gough:

Which I can not wait to challenge you with, and also be challenged. Would you like to go first?

Matthan Black:

I would love to go first.

Cody Gough:

I'll let you go first.

Matthan Black:

I brought this question specifically for you Cody.

Cody Gough:

Uh-oh.

Matthan Black:

What video game has sold the most units of all time?

Cody Gough:

Wow. And if you're a first-time listener, Curiosity Challenge is where our guess asks me a question that has nothing to do with your field of expertise. Yes, the highest selling video game of all time, unless it has something to do with opera, I'm guessing outside of the field we just talked about?

Matthan Black:

Absolutely.

Cody Gough:

So wow, most of all time? Oh. I don't know if this is going to count, but I'm going to say, Wii Sports?

Matthan Black:

Oh man, not even close.

Cody Gough:

Really?

Matthan Black:

I will give you a hint. It was released in 1984.

Cody Gough:

'84?

Matthan Black:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cody Gough:

That's not Super Mario Brothers 3. That was '89 I think. What? That's impossible. I have no idea.

Matthan Black:

Do you want me to give you the answer?

Cody Gough:

I think you have stumped me.

Matthan Black:

Tetris.

Cody Gough:

Tetris! Of course!

Matthan Black:

It has sold over 500 million units since its release.

Cody Gough:

Tetris has sold ... Now we're talking worldwide figures?

Matthan Black:

Worldwide, and on every platform.

Cody Gough:

Wow.

Matthan Black:

You can get it on your cellphone; you can get it on the original Nintendo, on the Famicom, on the Atari. You can buy it on your computer. Five hundred million units.

Cody Gough:

Alright, well Tetris is Russian, and there's a lot of great Russian opera. So I'm going to say that is tangentially related to your expertise!

Matthan Black:

You're going to get me on a technicality?

Cody Gough:

We'll try. Alright, well I have a question for you. You can strengthen your voice and lots of other things. There is a part of the body that you cannot actually strengthen using exercises. What part of the body is that?

Matthan Black:

I'm going to make an educated guess and say your eyeballs.

Cody Gough:

You might be right. But this is not that. This is a different part. I don't know if eyeballs you can strengthen. But that's not the one I was thinking. So I'll give you another guess in the event that, can you? I'm going to google it: "Can you strengthen ..." The eyeball thing is going to throw me off. I know Ashley's going to have something to say about this.

Ashley Hamer:

You know I do. Can you strengthen your eye muscles? Yes and no. For people, especially children, with a lazy eye or crossed eyes, vision specialists will sometimes prescribe eye exercises to correct it. But according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the science is conclusive when it comes to actually improving your vision: eye exercises do nothing.

Cody Gough:

There's a part of the body that you cannot perform exercises to strengthen. What part of the body would that be?

Matthan Black:

Second guess: fingers.

Cody Gough:

You are actually correct.

Matthan Black:

Oh! Really?

Cody Gough:

Yeah. And you can find more information about this on Curiosity.com. But your finger doesn't actually contain any muscles, just tendons.

Matthan Black:

Really?

Cody Gough:

So, the tendons connect to 17 muscles in the palm of your hand and 18 muscles in your forearm which control the minute movements of your fingers remotely. And if you add to other weird facts about muscles, such as how they have memory, you start to get a really bizarre picture about the human body. But you cannot actually make your fingers stronger. You can strengthen your palm and forearm in order to get a better strength there.

This surprises me because rock climbing, I thought the whole thing was increase your grip strength. But really you're strengthening your palm and forearm, not your fingers.

Matthan Black:

Wow. Those poor pianists that can't get stronger fingers.

Cody Gough:

I had friends in college who were piano players, and they hated me. Because I'm 6'4"; have extremely long fingers ...

Matthan Black:

You've got Rachmaninoff range over there.

Cody Gough:

Yeah, I could hit an octave plus a note, so basically I could from C to C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, in case anyone's not musically inclined, but it's a span of eight notes.

Matthan Black:

A ninth.

Cody Gough:

Was it a ninth?

Matthan Black:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cody Gough:

Yeah a ninth. So piano players with smaller hands really disliked me. But that was a great curiosity challenge on your part. I have to thank you again, Matthan Ring Black, people can learn more about you on your website, MatthanRingBlack.com.

Matthan Black:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cody Gough:

And you also do a podcast where you talk to other, well I'll let you say it.

Matthan Black:

Yeah, I have a podcast called Doing the Work with Matthan Black, where we talk to artists and craftspeople about the sort of behind the scenes work that goes on, into creating great art. But also living a happy and fulfilled, productive life, while creating art. You can find those episodes either on iTunes or at www.DoingTheWorkPod.com.

Cody Gough:

Very cool. Thanks again very much for joining me; I really appreciate it.

Matthan Black:

Yeah man, it's so much fun. I listen to the podcast personally; I think what you guys are doing is such cool work. And I'm learning so much by listening to all your new episodes. It's a blast. I'm grateful you do it.

Cody Gough:

I didn't pay him for that. I promise.

Matthan Black:

Because it's the truth.

Cody Gough:

And because I have no money to pay you! Thanks again Matthan, appreciate it.

Now that you know how to change your voice and the way you sing, I've got an extra credit question for you, courtesy of the Curiosity app. Here's this week's question. According to a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Warwick, what is the funniest word in the English language? Here's a hint: it's rated PG.

The answer, after this.

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And we're always working on improving our podcast, so if you have feedback then please email us at podcast@Curiosity.com. I promise, I read every message.

We release a new podcast at least once a week, but you can learn something new every day when you use the Curiosity app for your Android or iOS device. That includes today's extra credit answer. According to research, what is the funniest word in the English language? Try not to laugh at this one, it's "booty." Some of the other PG words on the list include "wattle," "bebop," and "egghead." But for the full list, including the words that I'm too much of a gentleman to say on this podcast, you'll have to read more on the Curiosity app or on Curiosity.com.

You didn't think we'd end this episode without playing an excerpt of Matthan performing opera, did you? We're going to end this week's episode with some Mozart. You can hear the full excerpt of Matthan performing this and other pieces on his website, MatthanRingBlack.com

Matthan Black:

(singing)

Cody Gough:

Thank you to Ashley Hamer for her phenomenal research and Fast Facts this week as always. And thank you for listening. Extra special thanks to you if you've told your friends about our show.

Matthan Black:

(singing)

Cody Gough:

For the Curiosity Podcast, I'm Cody Gough, and this is Matthan Ring Black.

Matthan Black:

(singing)

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Written By
Curiosity Staff
August 29, 2017