Giacomo Lauri-Volpi: laryngeal and physiological voice

Leer en español

In another chapter of Mysteries of the human voice, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi writes about the composition of the ideal vocal sound and the essential conditions to produce it.


To sing is to exist.

With greater or lesser energy of the expiratory flow comes greater or lesser intensity of the singing expiration, that is a more intense and prolonged sound produced by the automatic adduction of the vocal cords. If this sound responds to certain acoustic laws, a musical note is generated, which is apparently a unique sound but in substance is the result of several simple sounds, called pendular, because their vibration is the same as the undulation of the pendulum, which is the most simple. It reminds us of the corpuscle, considered indivisible (atom), which is a small universe composed of nucleus, electrons, neutrons, etc.: an infinitesimal solar system. The form of the composite sound, or sound monad, derives from a group of pendular vibrations of which the lowest is called fundamental and the other are called harmonics. These are regulated by the former, its starting point, its moderator, the harmonics being constituted by the multiple of the basic and simple sound vibrations. The harmonics are extremely variable and cause the notes they compose to vary. This variety in the composition of the note determines the variety of the vocal timbres or physiognomies, so that it is perceptible the diversity of colors in the same note produced by different instruments. Since the basic sound – the core of the sound – is constant and the harmonics are variable, it has been considered convenient to give, in music, different signs and names to the notes (composed sounds) in relation to the elevation or height with respect to the fundamental. The note, disregarding the mutable, variable timbres and harmonics, expresses the persistence or permanence of the fundamental. By analogy, one might think that the note, the symbol of several sounds, contains a sound essence and a harmonic unfolding. Harmonics multiply the vibrations of the fundamental sound in constant correlation.

The human vocal form assumes its characteristic timbre according to the fundamental tone and the harmonics. The most beautiful voices have the virtue of possessing the greatest number of harmonics, especially the voices of high tessitura. The number and intensity of harmonics vary from individual to individual in the same note and also within the same individual according to the strength and perfection of the vocal emission in relation to the shape of the pharyngeal or oral cavity. In a singer’s vocal range there are notes of different harmonic sonority, so that a section of the same voice can be richer or poorer, lacking in harmonics, that is, more or less beautiful. It is rare for a voice to be equally rich and abundant in harmonics and luminous in colour across its full range. The intensity of the fundamental sound and of a note’s harmonics is related to the intensity of the note’s emission. In the “piano”, the note is reduced to a minimum of harmonics and assumes the form, almost exclusively, of the base sound. By increasing the intensity, the number of harmonics from the lowest to the highest increases in proportion. But the amount that the larynx can produce has a limit, beyond which one cannot legally pass without damaging the integrity of the vocal instrument. In short, one must sing with one’ s natural voice and with the spontaneous force of expansion, subject to the harmony of all subconscious and conscious movements of the living musical instrument. The consonance of the harmonics, between them and the fundamental, results in the musicality of the most expressive and suggestive instrument, as a prerogative of the human creature. Fundamental sound and harmonic sounds are associated as a response to periodic, orderly, constant and uniform musical vibrations.

When there is disorder among the vibrations or dissonances, disharmonies, etc., the rumour is generated. Pythagoras called the number generator of the universe, in the sense that God is harmony, order, equilibrium and moderation. In an unhappy voice there is no number and it resembles the rumour. The verbal rumour reveals a disordered life, an uninhabited consciousness. The vital harmony of body, soul and spirit is a universal value, which manifests in the orderly and luminous singing of the harmonics, in which the fundamental physical tone is a reflection of the fundamental inner tone. In the melodic universe, image of the Pythagorean universe, everything obeys the rules of harmony. The beautiful, sonorous, harmonious voice germinates from capable cords, suited for the maximum intensity of vibrations, rigorously regular and periodic, provided that the whole instrument works in the harmony of opposites, by virtue of a will tuned with a superior intellectual dialogue.

Text excerpted and translated from Misterios de la voz humana, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, 1994.