What is a "natural" sound? Part 2: Language and Dialect

What is a singer's natural sound? What makes it natural? Why is it important to know what it is and to seek it out? Over a few posts, I’m covering several things that contribute to a “natural” singing voice.

1. Physiology

2. Native language(s) and regional accent(s)

3. Singing emulated during formative years

4. Emotions

Last week I looked at physiology. Today, let’s talk about language and dialect, which, after your physiology, has a huge influence on your natural sound. 

The first sounds we make are a “blank slate” with no language involved. We instinctively know we should make loud sounds when we are born, but that’s it. The sounds of our first cries are determined only by our instinct and physiology: lung size, breathing muscle strength, vocal fold shape and size, and mouth and throat shape and size. Parents quickly learn to distinguish their child’s cries and sounds from other children’s thanks to the ways their child’s body makes their cries unique. Before speech begins, babies express a variety of emotion in their cries, and parents learn to tell the difference between a tired whine and a cry of fear or panic. We’ll talk about emotion’s influence on the voice later.

Babies start trying to recreate their parents’ language sounds quickly. At first, the movements are uncoordinated and weak, making sounds that are adorable, but don’t quite get the message across. Even in these early stages, though, we can already hear the lilt of a regional accent and the accept pattern of the native language. Children instinctively choose throat and mouth movements that create the sounds they want to make, usually without guidance or awareness of exactly how they’re making the sounds. When you were a kid, you probably didn’t think, “I’m going to press the back of my tongue against the roof of my mouth in order to make this [k] sound.” You just did it. Maybe it took many rounds of trial and error, but you eventually did it. You practiced very specific and difficult patterns of movement for several years, and they eventually became easy and natural. Every child in the world imitates their parents’ language and accent extremely well, even when speech impediments are involved for the child. This is true of children who grow up in homes with more than one language. They perfectly imitate the sounds their family members are making, even when there are multiple sets of sounds alternating in their daily communication. It’s pretty amazing how we each learn such complicated and specific movements. Once the tongue and other mouth and throat muscles are trained to move in a certain way, they move easily and unconsciously. The movements are “natural.” 

The kinds of singing that feel most natural to us are often similar to our language and dialect. If the mouth movements and throat shapes of a singer we want to imitate are close to the ones we’ve been making our whole life, we’ll probably be able to get better at singing their songs faster than those of a singer whose sounds are really different from our speech. This is because our muscles have a head start on making movements that are similar to our language and speech. For instance, even though I don’t consider Bluegrass, Country, and Southern Gospel to be genres that I specialize in, it’s pretty easy for me to imitate and settle into them because they were born and raised in the Appalachian mountains and in the South, just like me. I didn’t really like singing in those genres for a long time, but as I started listening to and imitating them more over the past couple of years, I’ve been astounded by how easily they “sit” in my voice after years of studying classical and jazz music. Even though my speech no longer sounds like that of my hometown friends and family, those formative years were extremely powerful and the sounds will always remain “natural” to my muscles when I want to access them. 

What kinds of music developed in the area were you grew up? What famous singers grew up there? What sounds that other singers make remind you of the language(s) and dialect(s) you speak? These might be good places to start if you want to find music that will feel natural to you and sound natural to others when you’re performing. In addition to the vowels and consonants being made similarly to the ways you learned to speak, chances are good that the words and their content will connect to personal experiences you’ve had, making it easier to communicate those songs in a way that feels natural (genuine, easy) to yourself and your audience. (Side note: This doesn’t mean you should limit your entire music world to these singers and songs. Listening to and imitating music that feels and sounds unnatural is important for many reasons. More on this in another post.) 

So what do you do if you don’t really like music that sounds similar to your speech patterns? What if the words and content that you connect with are in a genre that feels totally different from your speech? Well, thankfully, we can train our muscles to do a lot more than what we learned through talking, so our options for natural-sounding singing can be expanded. It takes time, though. Remember how many years it took you to learn how to speak your native language in the native dialect? Yeah. Change won’t happen overnight. But it is absolutely possible with practice. You'll have to become aware of the movements you've been taking for granted since childhood. You'll learn that your tongue really does touch the roof of your mouth when you say [k] and that it has to sit a little higher or lower during one way of saying "ah" as opposed to another. Things will probably feel funny and difficult and uncoordinated at times, like you're learning to talk all over again. In some ways, you are. Be patient and persistent. Old habits die hard. Some people are faster at learning new throat and mouth movements than others, so they may end up with more natural-sounding possibilities in the long run, but everyone can add to their choices. You may even be one of those people who can completely fool others into thinking you're from a totally different part of the world than where you were born. 

Finally, it's worth saying that in some cases, including mine, the singing voice can be a better indicator of what’s “natural” for a particular body than the speaking voice. Through singing study, I eventually learned that my tongue, jaw, constrictors, and laryngeal elevators were constantly tight while I spoke and even while I was at rest. I'd never noticed it before because it was a pattern I'd had for as long as I could remember. The tension was limiting my singing options, so I used awareness and bodywork to release those areas of tension. My speaking voice deepened and warmed, and my singing pitch and volume range expanded, which told me everything was being used in a way that was more natural for my physiology. If you feel that your speaking voice isn’t a good place to start in terms of finding music that feels good to sing, you may be a good candidate for using singing or bodywork to discover what your throat feels like when everything’s relaxed, aligned, and “happy.” Honoring your physiology is always the most important part of finding your natural sound. 

Next time, we’ll talk about how the kinds of music you grew up listening to can contribute to a “natural” sound.