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Kate Heidemann

Kate Heidemann is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She researches vocal timbre in popular music, and the relationship between musical sound and social categories like gender, race, and class. Her work includes studies of music by Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Björk, and she has publications forthcoming in Music Theory Online and Country Boys and Redneck Women (University Press of Mississippi).

“Nasal, Twangy, Pharyngeal, or Resonant?: Vocal Timbre and Vocal Tract Shape”
Willie Nelson, Chaka Khan, Justin Timberlake, and Kendrick Lamar all use vocal timbres that can be described, somewhat confusingly, as nasal, twangy, or pharyngeal. This presentation explains how these timbre descriptions are used in vocal pedagogy; studies of vocal physiology and musicology; and what they mean in acoustic, physiological, and perceptual terms. Using the aforementioned vocalists as examples, I demonstrate how all of these vocal timbres can be understood according to the shape of the vocal tract associated with their production, primarily, where constriction in the vocal tract occurs. Different types of shaping can occur anywhere from the back of the throat, or the pharynx, to the position of the mouth and lips, where “twang” is expressed in one’s accent as well as vocal timbre. By focusing on the shape of the vocal tract, it is also possible to understand how the vocal timbres of these artists share some commonality with the vocal timbres of Aretha Franklin and Robert Plant; both singers may use similar types of constriction in the pharynx to create so-called “resonant” timbres. Although the shaping of the vocal tract is a crucial contributor to these specific timbre characterizations, timbre in general can also be modified by different types of vocal fold vibration, changes in register, rate of airflow, and system-wide muscular tension. Understanding nasal, twanging, pharyngeal, and resonant vocal timbres in terms of a practiced vocal tract shape subject to these types of modification reveals how these terms refer to overlapping components of a singers’ flexible repertoire of timbres. I close with a summary of some practical and expressive uses of various types of vocal tract constriction; this “family” of vocal tract positioning can be used to alleviate stress on the vocal folds, and is frequently used for sonic signifiers of crying, ordinariness, or uniqueness.

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