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Voice analysis in ethnomusicology:
De-mystifying Bulgarian singing

Introduction: The paradox of timbre

As scholars, indeed as listeners, we have a difficult time describing timbre. Though we can talk about it in large generalities, as though it were a conceptual abstraction ... it is only by deliberate effort that we conceptualize it as a distinctly on-going, dynamic feature of music with the same clarity as pitch or meter.... We have a peculiar amnesia in regard to timbre, but we're not deaf to timbre: we hear it, we use it - no one has much trouble telling instruments apart-but we have no language to describe it.1

Research aims

It is apparent that there is a lack of research into the area of voice production in ethnomusicology. Most ethnomusicological studies tend to dismiss the voice as an instrument, instead going into great detail about songs in terms of pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, structure, form, lyrics, historical origins and the importance and descriptions of any accompanying musical instruments. Cornelia Fales discusses this point in her article "The Paradox of Timbre", where she begins by referring to a particular whispered vocal sound called "whispered inanga" or Inanga Chucotée, sung by the Barundi in Africa, which is accompanied by a type of zither called the inanga. Fales describes how ethnomusicologist Allan Merriam, when recording this music in the field, consistently placed the microphone too close to the inanga, thus only capturing a muffled version of the whispered vocal sound. Fales states:

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Merriam was more interested in virtuosic inanga playing-in the accompaniment that is-than he was in the whispered vocals by which the Barundi defined the genre. In obscuring the central effect of Whispered Inanga, Merriam's recordings of the music betray the subtle bias of what has come to be called "pitch-centrism" or "timbre-deafness", a perceptual proclivity on the part of western listeners, including ethnomusicologists, to focus on melody in music where the dominant parameter is timbre.2

Fales's research shows an interest primarily in the human perception of timbre and also the use of science to demonstrate timbre using a spectral analyser, 'a device that displays the relative amplitudes of all the overtones in the voice in a phonation; vowel definition is shown as spectral peaks, and the singer's formant is displayed as a region of strong acoustic energy'.3 This is a very interesting and useful area of study, but it is also useful and necessary to address what is actually happening in the body to create the sound that is then represented pictorially on the spectrogram. Fales is not so much concerned with voice production, but she attempts to find reasons for why ethnomusicologists don't generally study timbre. This study aims to draw attention to the fact that the timbre of the voice is caused by a series of physical movements in the body, therefore the terms "timbre" and "voice production" go hand in hand.

The research presented here in this thesis stems from the desire to integrate two important fields in the study of music, namely, ethnomusicology and voice, so as to begin to investigate a relatively neglected field. The study of the voice as an instrument is important in the western world of music pedagogy, which means there are numerous texts on the subject of voice production and technique, written primarily to aid the teacher and student in the development of the trained bel canto voice. This literature is widely available and widely recognised as extremely important research in the realms of both music and science. It is now possible to investigate the voice as an instrument due to the nature of modern technology, but still, the voice is often treated differently from other musical instruments. Richard Miller is at the forefront of such research, and is an important theorist to refer to in studies of this kind. Miller states:

Very early in the simultaneous careers of singing and teaching, I tried to sort out the confusing array of technical approaches to singing. It seemed clear that is was essential to find out how the singing voice functions as an instrument. Much of my "free time" over the years has been spent in reading the growing literature on vocal physiology and acoustics...Out of this personal search came the conviction that the best way to maintain "traditional" vocal technique is to use language which communicates concrete concepts regarding efficiency. As in any field, the transfer of information is possible only if a common language exists between writer and reader, teacher and student... Technique represents the stabilization of desirable coordination during singing. Technique can be "computerized" in the brain and the body of the singer...Knowing how the singing instrument the sum of technical knowledge.4

The few texts that are available on Bulgarian music do not address the timbre or production of the voice in great depth, if at all. The aim of this study is not to attempt to fully explain why this research has been neglected, or to attempt to create a new pedagogical framework for Bulgarian or non-western singing, but to just investigate it on its own terms as an element of musical study that should be addressed along with all the other elements. There are of course applications for this research, and there will be a brief discussion of this in the final chapter, but this is not central to the thesis. The aims are as follows: i) To draw attention to the fact that the musical concepts "timbre" and "voice production" are rarely investigated in depth in ethnomusicological research and ii) To investigate how the voice is produced in the Bulgarian style, "de-mystifying" the process and in turn, helping to fill the gap of missing knowledge on Bulgarian voice production in the fields of ethnomusicology and voice.

Primary focus

The primary focus of this research is on Bulgarian folk singing. The term "folk" has proven to be problematic in ethnomusicological studies, so to define what is meant by "folk" music in this study, a quotation from an article by Maud Karpeles is sufficient:

In discussing the problem [of authenticity] we must pre-suppose that there is such a thing as folk music, that it does exist as a specific genre...I will ask you to accept as a working definition...the one that has been so well expounded by Cecil Sharp, Gordon Gerould and many other scholars. That is, "Music that has been submitted through the course of many generations to the process of oral transmission."... I am aware that this definition is not completely cast-iron ... but ... it does allow for the classification of folk music as a specific type and it enables us to draw a distinction between folk music and so-called popular music.5

Thus the style of singing investigated in this study is the one associated with the story-telling of Bulgarian history, whether that may occur in the village as part of daily life, or on the stage as part of the professionalisation of Bulgarian folk-singing in a choral context. The difference between the two vocal styles is minimal, and can be expressed as being simply the non-professional voice, which is untrained, and the professional voice, which is trained to a certain extent within the choral context. Hunter makes an interesting observation on the Bulgarian vocal style in a choral context in his notes to the CD Ritual, recorded by the famous Bulgarian choir Le mystère des voix Bulgares:

Just as the Le mystère des voix bulgares notion cannot accurately be said to be either pure tradition or pure composition, the singers in the Choir are neither trained, in the usual sense, nor untrained. They vary the timbres and split the pitches of their voices with rich abandon, while at the same time exercising strict rhythmic precision ... they emerge as sovereigns of their own particular background and choices, self-invented virtuosos in material both centuries-old and brand new.6

Buchanan refers to Hunter's observation in one of her articles, commenting:

This then is music which is neither European nor Asian, western nor Eastern, ancient nor modern, authentic nor arranged, indigenous village music nor classical art music.... Folk choirs in fact perform songs drawn from the village tradition-often from the personal repertoires of the singers themselves-which are then arranged and harmonised by composers for the group.7

This study also focuses on women's singing in particular because traditionally in Bulgaria, women were the singers and men were the instrumentalists. This is due to two primary factors, firstly, because while men were out tending to the animals and learning to play traditional instruments like the flute (kaval) or bagpipes (gaida), women sang instead, because they were discouraged from learning musical instruments and confined to domestic duties like sewing and cooking where they never had free hands to play an instrument.8 Secondly, an important reason why Bulgarian women sang was because of their desire to express their fears. Rice comments that Bulgarian women's impulse to create and sing songs stems from their fear of their unknown fate with future husbands and with men in general. He finds this to be the case through interviews with Bulgarian singer Todora Varimezova who told Rice that Bulgarian men are not afraid, and this is why they don't sing or create nearly as many songs as women, whereas women sing songs about fearing men.9


Due to the limited research on this particular area, a great deal of the information for this study has been obtained from a variety of sources other than monographs, including journals, the internet, compact disc recordings and accompanying liner notes and through interviews with specialists in the field of Bulgarian singing. Through my initial research and my own knowledge of voice production, I developed a list of twenty-one interview questions, questions one to eighteen of which are referred to specifically in this study, and questions nineteen to twenty-one of which were simply designed to provide me with ideas for potential research material and are not relevant in the discussion of research results (Appendix 1). Five specialists have taken part in this study, four participants undertaking the interview via email, and one participant undertaking the interview in person. The participants are Angela Rodel, a PhD student and ex-conductor and member of the UCLA-based Bulgarian choir SuperDevoiche, Lily Storm, member of the professional Bulgarian choir Kitka, Moya Simpson, singer and conductor of Canberra-based choir Can Belto, Tatiana Sarbinska, Bulgarian singer and teacher, and Tzvetanka Varimezova, Bulgarian voice teacher and singer at UCLA. The interview results are presented in Appendix 2 (which is not presented in this web version of this thesis) and summarised in two tables in chapter three. The listening material listed in the discography is not specifically referred to in the text of the thesis because it is not the songs or performers that are relevant to this study, but simply the vocal quality. I listened to all the recordings mentioned to gain a sense of the Bulgarian voice, other types of "folk voice" and the pop/jazz belting style, in order to be able to imitate it and then articulate the vocal processes of the various styles within the thesis. The specifically Bulgarian recordings are available at the School of Music library (excepting A cathedral concert), and the others (including A cathedral concert) are widely available at record shops in Canberra.

Cultural background

Bulgaria's troubled history has understandably had a serious impact on the development of its culture, and on its music in particular. Ruled by the Turks for five hundred years, Bulgarian traditions were strongly discouraged. Interestingly enough, despite the strict regime of the Turks, Bulgarian folk music still thrived, the unpleasant political environment giving life to new lyrics. At this time folk song was a particularly effective means of communication, as it was seen as a non-threatening art-form, but the lyrics of songs communicated political messages between segregated groups and kept people united.

The singer from the next village who gathers a modest crowd in the village square presents no serious threat to armed guards.... Folk song as communication is an almost unnoticed weapon of a conquered people, because singing and music are invariably are an important part of the daily life of the peasant.10

The tribal nature of humans leads to one of the richest forms of human expression-music. Also integral to this is the concept of working on the land, with the land. Human history is built on solid foundations of creativity inspired by human interaction, caring for the land, and in turn, ritual. Bulgarian folk-song song originates from this rich history and cannot be separated from it. Krustev quotes Slaveikov from The Bulgarian folk-song:

In this simple life, passing in primitive forms...there are few events of anything but an everyday nature.... The only variety in this life are the never-fading memories of past happy days ... legends and tales which have been retained in the memory of this people thanks to their poetic form.... The people not only looked inwards on itself, it also cast its glance on nature surrounding it, watched and listened to the life of nature, felt itself originally linked with its life, and tending to pagan beliefs, embodied it in a naïve and wonderful poetic manner.11

The enforced change of Bulgarian religion to Christianity in the ninth century including the introduction of Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, also affected Bulgarian ceremony and ritual and therefore affected the development of folk music:

For nearly five hundred years, until 1878, the Bulgarians languished under what they call the "Turkish yoke" and Bulgarian historians assert that their culture was preserved primarily in villages. There the influence of the church...was minimal.12

The paganistic elements of Bulgarian folk music were strongly undesirable in the eyes of the new Christian leaders who attempted to censor all traditional music. The Bulgarian clergy, in response to this new religion, began to develop a new Bulgarian liturgy, from which Bulgarian church music stemmed.13 Instruments such as tupan (a type of drum), zurna (a type of oboe), tambura (a type of lute) and kaval (a type of flute) and various musical styles from other cultures were introduced into Bulgaria at this time by gypsies. New aspects of playing styles that were introduced included particular ornaments, the upward glissando, the augmented second and certain microtonal inflections.14 From 1878 central European cultural influence predominated. At this time more modern instruments such as the violin, clarinet and saxophone, were incorporated into Bulgarian musical culture by Czech and Russian music teachers and instrument makers. Also at this time, choral directors began to form Bulgarian choirs who sang in western harmony, but it wasn't until 1944 when dramatic changes in village economy and national ideology were introduced by a Russian-backed Communist revolution resulting in a decline in musical life in the village and a corresponding urbanisation and professionalisation of the tradition,15 that Bulgarian folk-song using primarily traditional harmonies in a choral context became enormously popular.

Traditionally, Bulgarian folk songs were sung in a variety of contexts, mainly by women, solo or in groups16... in 1951, the classically trained composer and conductor Filip Kutev founded the first professional, state-supported Bulgarian folk ensemble.... The ensemble was made up the best folk singers, musicians, and dancers from all over the country, who had been selected through recruitment auditions set up around the country. Unlike the Russian folk choirs, which normally abandoned the folk vocal production style in favor of a West European choral style, Kutev kept the folk vocal style and ornamentation in his arrangements, adding simple western harmonies to the dissonant Bulgarian harmonies and drones.17

Bulgarian songs can be divided into several categories: songs of the past, songs of everyday experience, songs of family life and national customs and songs of the supernatural.18

In song the peasant exposes his innermost feelings of sorrow and exaltation, of reverence and superstition. It is a catharsis for the experiences of a person, a community, a race. It is in the song that we find the spirit of the nation.19

Despite the categories that can be formed to define Bulgarian folk songs, all aspects of Bulgarian culture are inextricably linked and are all based on aspects of real life:

In Bulgarian folklore there are no purely spiritual 'heavenly' songs, intended solely for edification. Whether the people praise the Virgin Mary or a pretty village girl - the song is taken from the people's life and refers back to it.20

Webster Stech's paper "American Woman and the Mysterious Voice" addresses aspects of identity, Bulgarian culture, classical voice technique versus Bulgarian folk singing technique, gender issues, and the phenomenon of women singing in the Bulgarian-style in America. Particularly of interest in this study is Webster Stech's discussion of the sexist oppression of Bulgarian women seen through the eyes of Americans:

The extent to which women are truly oppressed in Bulgaria is not necessarily important in this phenomenon, as much as the perception by Americans that Bulgarian women are oppressed.... Balkan specialist, Mark Forry writes, "Many individual (Balkan) women, in some communities, might see their position as particularly hard or disadvantage. But I sense that village women often see that life is hard, and that each family member experiences oppressive conditions in carrying out familial roles, not just them . They do often feel that they are subordinate: to husbands, to older adults. But often, they do not question that subordination, for reasons that are very complicated."21

Stech expands on this, referring to a posting to the East European Folklife Center email list by an American woman that was prompted by a reading of Rice's May it fill your soul:

"Their lives seem to have been very bleak as they had to leave their homes when they married, and work very hard in their husband's homes. Their music centered around singing so that their hands could be kept free to work - men could play the instruments because they didn't have to do so much housework." Here, she clearly interjects an American viewpoint of feminine oppression ...." I've been doing a lot of Bulgarian singing recently.... When I sing, I try to put myself in the place of Bulgarian women.... I think about how oppressed and tired they must have felt "... Bulgarian women recorded in song were more likely oppressed by wage-labor from their socialist government than by their families back in the village.22

Webster Stech's opinion of the existence of the oppression of women differs from Rice's. His interviews with Todora Varimezova suggest that there was most definitely sexual oppression placed on women:

Many of Todora's songs portray girls as helpless victims of those around them, rather than complain about the singers' personal condition.... According to the songs, a girl was potentially the victim of her parents, who might marry her to a boy she did not love; of her in-laws, who might mistreat her; and of her husband or an unwanted suitor, who might beat, 'steal', or even rape her.23

However, the fact remains that women sang primarily due to certain factors including sexual oppression, but also other factors that stemmed from the patriarchal society of Bulgaria. It seems that both stereotyped gender-roles and political struggle has a great deal to do with the background of women's singing in Bulgaria, and has an impact on not only the subject of Bulgarian women's songs, but also on the way in which they sing:

Singing was a therapeutic act especially for young girls and brides in rather hopeless situations. When they could not control the situation, when they were forced to work hard or were mistreated in some other way, they could either cry or sing. The appropriate, "disciplined" public response was to sing.24

It is only logical that the way in which Bulgarian women sing would be indicative of how they felt, as the human voice is so interconnected with human emotions. This study does not attempt to find out whether the Bulgarian voice sounds the way it does due to certain cultural influences, but this would certainly be an area of interest for future research, as it is an enormous and fascinating topic. Instead, the aim is to investigate the timbre and production of the Bulgarian voice, so as to add information to a neglected field of research.

In the following chapter, literature on the topic of voice analysis in ethnomusicology in non-Bulgarian and Bulgarian cultures will be discussed in an attempt to show the lack of detailed research in this area, and to discuss the potential to improve and expand the existing body of knowledge. In the third chapter, the basics of voice production will be explained, some vocal terminology will be defined, the interview results will be presented and discussed, and the relevance of the western vocal style "belting" to the study of Bulgarian singing will be discussed. In the fourth and final chapter, a summary of the research will be presented, and a discussion will follow on the potential for future research in this area and on the benefits of having such knowledge in the fields of ethnomusicology and voice.


(Links open in new window)

  1. C. Fales. 2002. "The paradox of timbre." Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 57.
  2. Fales, 2002. p. 56.
  3. R. Miller. 1996b. The structure of singing: System and art in vocal technique. New York: Schirmer Books, p. 308.
  4. Miller, 1996b. pp. xv-xvi.
  5. M. Karpeles. 1951. "Some reflections on authenticity in folk music." Journal of the International Folk Music Council. 3: 11.
  6. J. Hunter. 1994. Liner notes to: Le mystère des voix Bulgares Ritual. [compact disc]. USA: Elektra/Nonesuch 79349-2.
  7. D. Buchanan. 1997. "Bulgaria's magical mystère tour: Post-modernism, world music marketing and political change in Eastern Europe." Ethnomusicology 41 (1): 139.
  8. T. Rice. 1994. May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 43.
  9. Rice, 1994. p. 123.
  10. B. Kremenliev. 1952. Bulgarian-Macedonian folk music. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 5.
  11. V. Krustev. 1978. Bulgarian music. Sofia: Sofia-Press, p. 31.
  12. T. Rice. 1994. May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 22.
  13. B. Kremenliev. 1952. span class="worktitle">Bulgarian-Macedonian folk music. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 11.
  14. T. Rice. 1994. May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.22-3.
  15. Rice, 1994. pp. 22-3.
  16. SuperDevoiche. "Folk music in Bulgaria." (Tuesday November 4, 2003, 6:15pm), p. 1.
  17. SuperDevoiche. "The Bulgarian folk choir tradition." (Tuesday November 4, 2003, 6:17pm), p. 1.
  18. B. Kremenliev. 1952. Bulgarian-Macedonian folk music. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 109-34.
  19. Kremenliev, 1952. p. 14.
  20. V. Krustev. 1978. Bulgarian music. Sofia: Sofia-Press, p. 36.
  21. J. Webster Stech. 2002. "American woman and the mysterious voice: American women performing gender through singing Bulgarian songs." (10 April 2003, 2:50pm), pp. 7-8.
  22. Webster Stech, 2002. p. 8.
  23. T. Rice. 1994. May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 118.
  24. Rice, 1994. p. 119.
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