Singing, the use of the human voice to produce music. In singing, the lungs act as an air reservoir and bellows, forcing air between the vocal cords of the larynx and causing them to vibrate, much like the double reed of an oboe. The resulting sound is amplified as it resonates in the cavities of the chest, neck, and head, and it is articulated (given vowels and consonants) by the singer’s lips, teeth, tongue, and palate in the same way as speech. Vocal training allows a singer to develop breath control, to regulate the degree of relaxation or tension in the body, and to resonate and articulate sound. Whether trained or not, singers in every culture exercise choice in their use of the voice. American, Swiss, and African Pygmy yodellers intuitively alternate rapidly between high and low registers, for example, and most men can produce falsetto tones without knowing that these tones depend on the only partial vibration of the vocal cords.


Among the world’s many singing styles, cultural choices are observable in the variations in tone colour, physical tension, and acoustical intensity. Cultural differences also exist in preferences for high- or low-pitched ranges, solo or choral singing, extensive or sparse melodic ornamentation, and the use or avoidance of ululation, yelps, growls, and other colourful voice modifications.

The rich variety of vocal styles found in the West today includes the trained, resonant, well-projected tonne of operatic singers; the relaxed, intimate sound of popular crooners; the tensely sung, high, ornamented melodic style of folk singers; the relaxed, subtly ornamented, rubato singing of jazz and blues musicians, sometimes augmented with rough, guttural effects; and the tense, electronically distorted sound of much rock singing. Where ancient Mediterranean and Asian civilizations once flourished, singing tends to be high-pitched, tense and ornamented, and solo singing predominates; within this broad geographical area, however, sounds vary from the wide-range, highly ornamented style of Indian classical singing to the nasal, extremely high, well-projected tone found in Chinese opera. In sub-Saharan Africa, where an abundance of choral music is found, low voices for women and high, penetrating voices for men are favoured. Many agricultural regions in central Europe also have strong choral traditions, characterized by a straightforward, open vocal tone.


In medieval European church music, high, clear-toned male voices were apparently favoured, resulting in a vocal quality that could help the listener hear the words that were being sung. The highest parts were sung by trebles (boy sopranos) and adult male falsettos, although by the 15th-century composers had begun to explore the bass range. The bel canto (Italian “beautiful song”) style that dominated Western singing from about 1650 to 1850 is thought to have developed in mid-16th century Italy as a result of new musical styles. The madrigals and other secular vocal genres that flowered in Italy required adult female voices to perform expressive, ornamented, often virtuosic melody lines. Inseparable from opera (which developed about 1600, and was based on the musical texture known as monody), the emerging style was also used in church music. Forbidden, however, to use female singers, the Church began to employ eunuchs, or castrati (singular, castrato)—men who could produce full-voiced adult sounds in the soprano and alto ranges. The castrato voice soon entered opera, dominating that form in the 18th century and falling out of use in the 19th.

Singing technique in the bel canto era was grounded in using the breath to regulate the intensity of sound and in the thorough knowledge of the different registers of the voice. In the 19th century larger concert halls and, eventually, new aesthetic goals, led to modifications in bel canto technique. Seeking to produce sounds that would fill large halls and balance the volume of expanded orchestras, teachers such as the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and the Spaniard Manuel García (1805-1906) developed new techniques to increase vocal resonance. In the late 19th century composers such as the German Richard Wagner demanded heavier vocal colours: New vocal categories such as “dramatic soprano” and Heldentenor (German, “heroic tenor”) emerged.


Singers in early 20th-century music-hall revues and operettas drew on operatic singing techniques. The invention of the microphone enabled a soft, intimate vocal tone to be amplified and projected into a large hall, thus making possible the art of crooners such as the American Bing Crosby and torch singers such as Morgana King. By the 1920s and 1930s Afro-American vocal colours had become prominent through blues and jazz singing, but as late as the 1940s and 1950s white popular singers continued to reflect European classical roots. By the 1960s, however, American and British popular singing styles were permeated with Afro-American and Appalachian folk music traits. In concert music, composers experimented with styles such as Sprechstimme (intoned speech with melodic contours), as well as with whispers, shouts, rough sounds, and other vocal colours formerly excluded from Western art singing.



Indo-European Languages


Indo-European Languages, the most widely spoken family of languages in the world (although not the largest language family in the world), containing the following nine subfamilies: Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Italic (including the Romance languages), Slavic; and five extinct subfamilies, Anatolian (including Hittite), Phrygian, Thracian, Tocharian, and an Unclassified group (including Venetic, which some linguists believe to be an Italic language). Indo-European languages were first spoken in Europe and southern Asia and, because of European colonialism, are now widespread throughout the world.


Proof that these highly diverse languages are members of a single family was largely accumulated during a 50-year period around the turn of the 19th century. The extensive Sanskrit and Ancient Greek literature (older than those of any other Indo-European language except the then-undeciphered Hittite) preserved characteristics of the basic Indo-European forms and pointed to the existence of a common parent language. By 1800 the close relationship between Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin had been demonstrated. Hindu grammarians had systematically classified the formative elements of their ancient language. To their studies were added extensive grammatical and phonetic comparisons of European languages. Further studies led to specific conclusions about the sounds and grammar of the assumed parent language (called Proto-Indo-European), the reconstruction of that hypothetical language, and estimates about when it began to break up into separate languages. (By 2000 bc, for example, Greek, Hittite, and Sanskrit were distinct languages, but the differences between them are such that the original tongue must have been fairly unified about a millennium earlier or in about 3000 bc.) The decipherment of Hittite texts (identified as Indo-European in 1915) and the discovery of Tocharian in the 1890s (spoken in medieval Chinese, or Eastern, Turkistan, and identified as Indo-European in 1908) added new insights into the development of the family and the probable character of Proto-Indo-European.

The early Indo-European studies established many principles basic to comparative linguistics. One of the most important of these was that the sounds of related languages correspond to one another in predictable ways under specified conditions (see Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law for examples). According to one such pattern, in some Indo-European subfamilies—Albanian, Armenian, Indo-Iranian, Slavic, and (partially) Baltic—certain presumed k sounds of Proto-Indo-European became sibilants such as s and ś (a sh sound). The common example of this pattern is the Avestan (ancient Iranian) word satem (“100”), as opposed to the Latin word centum (“100”, pronounced “kentum”). Formerly, the Indo-European languages were routinely characterized as belonging either to a Western (centum) or an Eastern (satem) division. Most linguists, however, no longer automatically divide the family in two in this way, partly because they wish to avoid implying that the family underwent an early split into two major branches, and partly because of this trait, although prominent, is only one of several significant patterns that cut across different subfamilies.


In general, the evolution of the Indo-European languages displays a progressive decay of infection. Thus, Proto-Indo-European seems to have been highly inflected, as are ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Avestan, and classical Greek; in contrast, comparatively modern languages, such as English, French, and Persian, have moved towards an analytic system (using prepositional phrases and auxiliary verbs). In large part the decay of infection was a result of the loss of the final syllables of many words over time, so that modern Indo-European words are often much shorter than the ancestral Proto-Indo-European words. Many languages also developed new forms and grammatical distinctions. Changes in the meanings of individual words have been extensive.


The original meanings of only a limited number of hypothetical Proto-Indo-European words can be stated with much certainty; derivatives of these words occur with consistent meanings in most Indo-European languages. This small vocabulary suggests a New Stone Age or perhaps an early metal-using culture with farmers and domestic animals. The identity and location of this culture have been the object of much speculation. Archaeological discoveries in the 1960s, however, suggest the prehistoric Kurgan culture. Located in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains between 5000 and 3000 bc, this culture had diffused as far as Eastern Europe and northern Iran by about 2000 bc.

See also Franz Bopp; Jacob Grimm; Ferdinand de Saussure; Philology.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.