Whistle & Fry–How Useful Are Vocal “Special Effects”?

Updated article originally published 24.2.12

Some singers can sing so high they can produce a distinctive upper register called Whistle; Mariah Carey is famous for it:

Mozart’s Queen Of The Night is often said to feature it in the highest notes, and most performers believe it is beyond their reach. 

At the other end of the vocal spectrum is the much more familiar beating pulse of Vocal Fry, the infrared to whistle’s ultraviolet. Fry is the sound we make naturally when we glide down below our lowest notes, a register that is much more accessible than whistle and is apparently gaining popularity in the spoken voice of some young American females:

–perhaps due to its appearance in the performance of singers like Britney Spears.

Here is an example from a different era; Mae West uses several vocal qualities, including speech with fry–in this short selection of some of her most delightful lines it is probably clearest in the very first clip:

When a singer strives to improve her or his vocal range they do not necessarily include these special registers in their thinking, but they are very much part of the repertoire of the human instrument and exploring these remote regions can enhance and enrich the core of our vocal range in unexpected ways.  A jazz-singing friend once shared with me her delight in discovering that whistling (the usual sort) back and forth with a caged bird lead to an appreciable increase in her vocal power. I did hear many years ago that Julee Cruise:

– whose ethereal vocals added so much to the soundtrack of Twin Peaks, experienced an increase in her range from three octaves to four after working on the music for the show. The implication was that it was the extreme breathiness of the performance that led to this unexpected benefit.

Your voice is the product of the interaction of your breath with the muscles of your mouth and throat, and as my Feldenkrais students know, exploring unfamiliar muscular activity can lead to unexpected gains in both mobility and ability. When I first wrote this article the inspiration came after playing with vocal fry for a whole afternoon in preparation for an upcoming workshop, and later discovering a dramatic increase in ease and volume while singing a song I did not usually find easy to perform without a warm-up.

The human instrument is easy to access; even a novice can imitate quite complex vocal sounds using our natural ability to mimic, but mastery requires gaining more sophisticated and consistent control of muscular functions that are naturally automatic and therefore only semi-conscious. It is easy to sense the tip of the tongue, less so the root; easy to move the lips at will, less so the soft palate; easy to siren by gliding up and down in pitch, less easy to allow the larynx to lift and lower independent of the note we are singing. Our ventricular (“false”) vocal folds close tightly in order to protect us from choking as we eat, but that automatic process can become problematic when we sing higher in pitch or strain when sing louder, consequently loud, high singing is more likely to lead to injury than crooning gently into a microphone. Exploring unusual vocal qualities may not translate directly into usable singing or acting skills, but they will expand your understanding and awareness of your instrument both consciously–as you learn to access these difficult registers at will­–and unconsciously, as all your hidden internal vocal structures become more integrated and available to you in performance.

My own trainers suggested that one should avoid using constricted false folds in vocal performance. Since that training a whole musical genre has emerged around these not-usually-vocal structures, known as Death Growl–here is a suitably scary example, even more spectacular for me that the singer is a woman. I always used to say to my young rock singing students that the simplest way to stay healthy was to monitor how their voice was the morning after the gig–if you wake up sore and croaky every time then you need to improve your technique or your vocal career may be short-lived, so it delights me that so many practitioners are teaching these astonishing techniques on YouTube:

The human voice is the most versatile sound-making instrument in nature (with the possible exception of those birds that can imitate chainsaws and camera shutters).

In the original article I did suggest that once you can access all of your voice your performances will become more natural and spontaneous. Now I would like to emphasise that ease in performance usually requires a certain amount of actual experience. The huge rise in community choirs is of benefit to anyone who wishes to gain more performance experience, as are “open mic” nights. In time the unique qualities of your fully-integrated voice will be revealed, and your on-stage presence and charisma will begin to emerge.

Here is one of my favourite examples of a true vocal master at work, Bobby McFerrin with the beautiful but rather unappreciated song  “Smile”:

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