The voice as a multi-use instrument

Here at Spitalfields Music we frequently work with children from Tower Hamlets primary schools in creative workshops, often using singing as a means of music-making. After all, the voice is arguably the most accessible, low-cost (!) instrument you can find, so why not use it?

Yet sometimes when working with the children, we’ve noticed that some boys can be less willing to join in, and when they do, it comes as a great surprise to the other children (see some of the responses from last term’s Trainee Music Leaders performance).

It got us thinking about ways in which we can make the voice appealing to boys. It’s now led to us help set up a boys-only songwriting club at Canon Barnett Primary School, and we’ve invited beatboxer Jason Singh to show the children that singing isn’t the only way to use the voice musically.

In fact, we’ve been looking at ways the voice is used in music around the globe, and here’s a taste of what we’ve found:

Konnakol – found in South Indian music and used to vocalise tala rhythms with mnemonic syllables.

Puirt a beul – used in Scotland and Ireland, often to accompany dancing when there are no instruments available. It produces an effect close to singing yet the rhythmic elements hold more significance than the lyrical content (in a way similar to scat singing).

Beatboxing – from its origins as street subculture of 70s New York, has gained global popularity. This style of vocal percussion usually imitates a combination of drum machines, DJs scratching records and musical instruments. Some link the beatboxing we hear in hip hop to earlier forms of vocal percussion (like Puirt a beul). Check out Nathan Flutebox Lee who beatboxes at the same time as playing the flute.

Tuvan throat-singing – this style of vocal expression produces more than one note simultaneously to create overtones. It’s been suggested that this is a musical response to the spatial Tuvan environment in Siberia; the open landscape allows the sound to travel far and the mimicry of sounds within nature is said to lie at the root of the tradition.  One technique known as Sygyt enables the voice to resemble the sound of birdsong and other high pitched noises, whereas Kargyraa has more similarities with deep Buddhist chant.

In the past, Tuvan women have been discouraged from taking part in throat-singing as it was rumoured to be bad luck for the men in the community. Watch the clip below of the first all female Tuvan vocal group Tyva Kyzy.

Sprechstimmeliterally spoken voice in German, this experimental technique was made famous by the composers of the second Viennese school. One of the most renowned examples can be found in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, although Schoenberg himself did not use the term to describe it. See around 4.43 minutes in the video.

Emceeing – like beatboxing, rapping is ingrained into hip hop culture, but is also found in reggae and dancehall music. Emcees focus on the delivery of lyrics with a strong rhythmic ‘flow’ and complex rhyme schemes. Artists like Akala follow emceeing back to the West African griots and their form of story-telling through spoken word.


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