by Janet Spencer

Where would civilization be if not for the human voice? Come along with Tidbits as we learn to talk!

IT’S A FACT

A baby in the womb can recognize their mother’s voice by 25 weeks of development. Babies prefer their mother’s voice over all others when they’re born.

VOICE FACTS

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The human voice originates from the larynx, a small organ made of cartilage and flesh in our throats. It’s also called the voice box. It sits on top of the windpipe. Inside are two flaps of skin called the vocal cords. To speak, sing, or hum, the vocal cords are stretched taut, vibrating at an incredible speed.

• The sound varies in pitch according to how loose or tight the vocal cords are. The tighter the cords, the less air passes through, and the higher the pitch. The length of the vocal cords also matters: longer vocal cords produce lower sounds (men), and shorter cords produce higher tones (women). Children have high voices because they have short vocal cords.

• Vocal cords are less than a half-inch long at birth and grow to about an inch over time.

• Like fingerprints, each person’s voice is unique, making voice recognition technology possible.

When you’re not speaking, the vocal cords relax and separate, allowing air to pass freely through and regulating airflow to the lungs. They also prevent food from going down the trachea instead of the esophagus.

• To produce a simple phrase, about 100 muscles in the chest, neck, jaw, tongue, and lips must work together.

• In an average conversation, the vocal cords vibrate, closing and opening 100 times per second or more. The rate of vibration increases when singing. It’s easy to feel what’s going on by wrapping your hand around your throat and saying, “ssssssZZZZZZssssssZZZZZZ.”

• Speaking a single word such as “Hello” can relay much information, showing how the speaker feels through tone and intensity.   

• In everyday speech, people speak at an average rate of 60 words per minute (one word per second) or double that if they’re excited.    The world’s fastest talker is Canadian Sean Shannon, who earned the world record in 1995. His feat was reciting Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” soliloquy “To Be, Or Not To Be” in just 23.8 seconds. The speech has 260 words, meaning he spoke at a rate of 655 words per minute, around 11 words per second.

• The average human vocal range spans about three and a third octaves, or about 40 notes. Most songs cover around 1.5 octaves.    Like height or eye color, vocal range is primarily determined by genetics, though it may change during sickness or in old age.

• A man can typically sing a sustained note for about 20 seconds, and a woman can do it for about 15 seconds. The world record for holding a note belongs to Richard Fink, who sang a continuous note at the required decibel level without taking a breath for 2 minutes, 1 second in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2019.

The human voice is sorted into categories based on pitch, ranging from soprano to bass.

• Soprano comes from the Latin “supra,” meaning “above.”

• “Mezzo” is Latin for “middle” for mezzo soprano.

• The Latin “altus” means “high” giving us alto.

• The Italian “contra” means “against or opposite” so a contralto is “the next voice after alto.”

• Countertenor also comes from “contra” meaning “the voice next to tenor.”

• The Latin “teneō” means “I hold” and refers to the one who holds the melody.

• Baritone originates with the Greek “barytonos” meaning “deep-toned.”

• The Latin “bassus” means “short, low” for bass.

• Falsetto is the diminutive form of the Italian “falso” meaning “false” and denotes a “false voice.”

• The baritone range is the most common for men, whether speaking or singing. For women, mezzo-soprano is most common.

• Researcher Sarah Collins from the Dutch University of Leiden had 34 men say various vowels out loud for a study done in 2000, while she recorded them on tape. She played the recordings to a group of women individually, asking them to rate the men according to their weight, height, age, and attractiveness based solely on these recorded vowel sounds.    The women were unable to gauge any of these qualities reliably. However, one thing made clear during this study was that women consistently voted the men with the deepest voices as being the most attractive – whether or not they were in real life.

The “A” note, which is about in the middle of a piano keyboard, resonates at 440 Hertz (Hz). An octave higher and it resonates at 880 Hz. An octave lower and it’s 220 Hz.

• A typical human can hear frequencies from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.   

• The average spoken language is around 250 Hz, up to 300 Hz for a child. A woman’s high-pitched scream can hit 3,000 Hz.

• An average man can sing a low note of about 60 Hertz; an average female soprano can sing a high note up to about 1200 Hz.

• American singer Tim Storms holds the world record for the lowest note ever sung by a human. His lowest recorded note hit an incredible 0.189 Hz. That’s eight octaves below the lowest G on a piano, and is so low that humans can’t hear it, although elephants can. It was recorded and verified on a special low-frequency microphone in 2012. He also holds the record for the largest vocal range of any singer, with a ten-octave reach.

• By contrast, the record for the lowest note sung by a woman is 34.21 Hz, set by Canadian singer Joy Chapman in 2021.

• Singer Georgia Brown of Brazil holds the record for the greatest female vocal range, with an eight-octave reach. Singer Mariah Carey, renowned for her range, reportedly can only sing in five octaves.

• Is it possible to shatter glass with just the voice? To start with, the singer would need to be singing at the exact pitch that matches the glass’s resonant frequency, making it vibrate the most. That’s usually in the range of C above middle C. Then, the singer would need to be extremely loud. During a segment on the TV show “Mythbusters,” one singer hit the right note and sang it at the decibel level of a jackhammer, but only managed to break one out of 12 glasses that he attempted to shatter.