Laryngeal muscles found to be underdeveloped compared to articulatory muscles, explaining poor human singing

singing
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A trio of researchers, one with Bloorview Research Institute in Canada, the other two with the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands, has found that human laryngeal muscles are less well developed than articulatory muscles. In their paper published in Royal Society Open Science, Michel Belyk, Joseph Johnson and Sonja Kotz suggest that differences in the two muscle groups explains why people are better at whistling than singing.

Humans, it has been noted, are not naturally good singers, though some are noticeably better than others. But humans are pretty good at whistling, the researchers with this effort found, at least when compared with singing ability. This, they suggest, is because the muscles that control the mouth are more developed than those that control the larynx, in an evolutionary context.

The researcher wondered why highly trained singers, such as opera stars, are unable to match the precision of even the most basic of . To find out, they recruited 34 volunteers, some of whom self-reported as able to sing, and some who thought otherwise. Each was asked to sing melodies created by a computer and also to sing a scale of notes that went from the lowest they could utter to the highest. Each was then asked to repeat the experiment, but instead of singing, were asked to whistle the notes. A computer was used to analyze all of the notes to judge how precise the volunteers were.

The researchers report that all of the volunteers were better at staying on key while whistling than when they were singing, though they also noted that those better at singing in key were also better at whistling in key than those who were poor singers. The researchers also found that the volunteers more often went flat when singing and sharp when whistling.

The researchers suggest their results indicate that the muscles that control the larynx are less developed than those that control the lips and jaws, which strongly impacts precision. This, they further suggest, is due to the more recent evolutionary development of the muscles. Our ancient ancestors, they note, were likely whistlers, like modern apes.


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More information: Michel Belyk et al. Poor neuro-motor tuning of the human larynx: a comparison of sung and whistled pitch imitation, Royal Society Open Science (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171544

Abstract
Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human communication that underlies the capacity to learn to speak and sing. Even so, poor vocal imitation abilities are surprisingly common in the general population and even expert vocalists cannot match the precision of a musical instrument. Although humans have evolved a greater degree of control over the laryngeal muscles that govern voice production, this ability may be underdeveloped compared with control over the articulatory muscles, such as the tongue and lips, volitional control of which emerged earlier in primate evolution. Human participants imitated simple melodies by either singing (i.e. producing pitch with the larynx) or whistling (i.e. producing pitch with the lips and tongue). Sung notes were systematically biased towards each individual's habitual pitch, which we hypothesize may act to conserve muscular effort. Furthermore, while participants who sung more precisely also whistled more precisely, sung imitations were less precise than whistled imitations. The laryngeal muscles that control voice production are under less precise control than the oral muscles that are involved in whistling. This imprecision may be due to the relatively recent evolution of volitional laryngeal-motor control in humans, which may be tuned just well enough for the coarse modulation of vocal-pitch in speech.

Journal information: Royal Society Open Science

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Apr 18, 2018
They'd also need to control for the different ways we hear our own voices versus our own whistling. Your voice is inside your throat and sinus cavities, and it vibrates your whole head, so it goes to the ears internally. Whistling is external to your head. Thus, you can hear the true sound of your own whistling much better than your own voice. You receive correct and immediate feedback, so you can correct errors.

Apr 19, 2018
Even complex instruments can't match humans at talking, let alone singing. I guess the human voice is optimised for something else than holding a note. When you say something it is quite irrelevant on what notes you are saying it.

Apr 19, 2018
The researcher wondered why highly trained singers, such as opera stars, are unable to match the precision of even the most basic of musical instruments.


Well duh - even the most basic musical instruments are based on rigid resonators, like strings or tubes with well-defined physical characteristics. They don't produce sounds by flapping a bit of fleshy tissue.

Try playing bass with a common rubber band that stretches and relaxes under tension so you have to keep pulling on it dynamically to keep it in tune. Not so easy.

Apr 19, 2018

Well duh - even the most basic musical instruments are based on rigid resonators, like strings or tubes with well-defined physical characteristics. They don't produce sounds by flapping a bit of fleshy tissue.
Hmm, the pressure-wind instruments are driven by flappers-- the reed instruments driven by flapping cane (soaking wet cane for orchestral winds), and the brass by flapping lip tissue. In those instruments the reed or lips are just a high speed valve that triggers the air inside the rigid bore to oscillate. It's the air that makes the pitch and tone we hear. I think the human vocal cords must be more like harmonica or accordion reeds that create the actual musical tone and depend on the throat muscles to stretch them to exact tension for the note desired. That could be less pitch-precise than shaping a mouth cavity for whistling.

Apr 20, 2018
@isaacebet: Dude, I can take herbs (I do sometimes), but spell casting? Get out.

And herbs are not harmless, medicinal herbs are usually prescribed in a certain quantity; you don't abide to it, you run into wild country and may come back with a bad liver and whatnot. It's the old principle: the difference between medicine and poison is in the quantity you take.

Apr 21, 2018
Hmm, the pressure-wind instruments are driven by flappers-- the reed instruments driven by flapping cane (soaking wet cane for orchestral winds), and the brass by flapping lip tissue.


Those too are physically more predictable than your larynx, because the reed works in concert with the resonating tube which causes it to vibrate at a well-defined frequency.

Take a trumpet for example. The "reed" is your lips, but what sets the frequency is the resonance of the tube. Or the bugle: you can blow notes that hit the harmonic series only, because where the tube doesn't resonate your lips stop flapping.

In a human voice, the tube and the reed are both soft flesh and cartilage. That's like boring a hole through a sausage and trying to play the morning call. That's the reason people invented instruments - they're easier to play.

Apr 23, 2018
Very interesting study, but the authors assume a few unproven things, e.g.
did human lip-tongue-pharynx control evolve earlier than laryngeal control?
Oral food processing in Homo (vs apes) shows a shift from biting-chewing to suction-swallowing:
- closed parabolic tooth-row (incisiform canines),
- round tongue, fitting in smooth & vaulted palate,
- hyoidal descent etc.
Their results can IMO best be explained by coastal dispersal of early-Pleistocene Homo along African & southern Eurasian coasts, where their diet included soft littoral foods (which helps explain also Homo's brain enlargement (seafood=brainfood) etc.
Google e.g.
"Speech originS 2017 Verhaegen"

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