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Voice analysis in ethnomusicology:
De-mystifying Bulgarian singing

Literature review: Voice analysis in ethnomusicology

`A well-trained sailor boy can both tie complex knots and discern whether someone else is tying them up correctly or incorrectly, deftly or clumsily. But he is probably incapable of the difficult task of describing in words how the knots should be tied.' Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of the Mind.1

Bulgarian music

It is unfortunate that the limited ethnomusicological studies on Bulgarian music do not address the issue of vocal timbre or production. For example, the three detailed, comprehensive monographs, referred to in the previous chapter, Krustev's Bulgarian music, Kremenliev's Bulgarian-Macedonian folk music and Rice's May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music, go to great lengths to discuss the fascinating origins of Bulgarian songs, the meaning of the lyrics, song structure, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic aspects but there are no detailed discussions in any of the texts on the timbre of the voice, or on the sound production. Rice is the only author of the three that briefly discusses the issue of vocal timbre or production. He addresses differences in singing ability through interviewing Bulgarian singer Todora Varimezova, commenting:

[S]inging ability and knowledge of songs were not distributed equally among the girls, and Todora rated only one or two in each generation as outstanding, herself among them. "Tim, do you know what kind of voice I had.... It was so strong, it was heard everywhere. It was if it sprang out of me. And so melodious." To illustrate differential singing ability, Todora mentioned a wedding song with a narrow range...." Some girls just couldn't sing this," and she imitated them by singing on just one tone, sliding into and out of it grossly and failing to discriminate pitches clearly.2

Rice then makes a comment based on interviews with Todora that is pertinent to this study, and perhaps explains why he has not addressed the topic of voice timbre or production in his research:

No attempt was made to enforce or teach the details of voice production, tone quality or ornamental style; this was left to each individual to learn by imitation and practice as best she could.3

It appears that Rice has chosen not to investigate this area based on the above information that he was given by Todora on the traditional Bulgarian method of voice teaching. This indicates that research into the area of voice timbre and production in Bulgarian singing has been neglected because the singers themselves do not teach in such a way, and it is entirely likely that they find it very difficult to actually verbalise the way in which they produce their vocal sound. Because of the difficulty in articulating the vocal process, it would appear to be extremely difficult to investigate the Bulgarian vocal sound, and would therefore explain the distinct lack of research in the area. However, it doesn't mean that it is an impossible task, simply one involving the incorporation of a different discipline - the study of the voice as an instrument. This will become apparent in the discussion in chapter three.

Non-Bulgarian music

Similarly to the above discussion of specifically Bulgarian singing, there are few ethnomusicological studies that address singing in cultures other than Bulgarian. Most of the studies that do exist tend to focus on every aspect of song but the mechanics of singing. There are some exceptions to the rule however, as will be discussed in the following section. However, these exceptions still do not address the voice as an instrument in depth, instead touching on the subject briefly, leaving the reader with a sense of missing knowledge on the subject. All of these studies have the potential to be greatly improved with the inclusion of vocal analysis describing how each particular vocalisation is made.

Fales's research, referred to in chapter one, demonstrates an awareness of the importance of timbre. Her research into "whispered Inanga" is important in the development of voice theory in ethnomusicology, showing that within the Burundi community in Africa, singing with the "correct" timbre is of utmost importance to the performance:

Because a whisper is acoustically pitchless, the vocal component of whispered inanga is limited in two ways: it cannot produce a melody, and it cannot produce the linguistic tones that distinguish grammatical or lexical features. Nevertheless, Barundi listeners claim with absolute conviction that the musician "sings" to the melody of the inanga ... listeners point out that if the voice failed to go up and down with the inanga, the singer would be "mispronouncing" or "speaking wrong" the text.4

It is evident that the Burundi themselves are aware of vocal timbre as a concept, which suggests that most, if not all cultures, would be aware of their own vocal timbre/s and the importance of timbre in their style of music. It seems that it would be possible to include research into timbre in ethnomusicological studies, just by asking the subjects the right questions and being able to interpret the answers into language that can be easily understood by the reader.

Seeger's Why Suyá Sing is a book dedicated to song and singing, and his writing expresses a great interest in all aspects of singing, including timbre. In the preface to his book, Seeger outlines:

This is a book about singing in a native South American community; it is also a book about the study of music and the role of music in social processes. It addresses a number of deceptively simple questions about musical events in a small Brazilian Indian community, such as Why do members of a particular group value song so much? Why do performances of songs have certain structures, timbres and styles? Why do certain members of the community sing those particular things in those particular ways for that particular audience in that particular place and time? The answers are to be found both in the people's ideas about sound and song, and also in the relationship of singing with other verbal forms and social processes in their society.5

It appears that Seeger has also noticed these aspects of music have been overlooked in ethnomusicology perhaps because they do seem simple. In the chapter "From speech to song", Seeger compares two types of Suyá songs-"shout songs" and "unison songs". He mentions the type of vocal styles necessary to achieve the correct vocal timbre for both styles of song:

Shout songs were sung in a high, forced voice. They usually began on the highest note, or its leading tone.... Unison songs were usually performed in a low register and revealed a fairly level melody contour-although the pitch might gradually rise during a performance.... In spite of their similarity, each shout song had to be different from every other shout song. Each singer wanted to be heard as an individual, and it was very important that each song be different enough to be distinguished from the rest. Differences were most easily heard in the rhythm, melody, text, and voice quality.6

Seeger does not go into great detail about timbre elsewhere in the book, but does at least briefly recognise its existence and importance, and the fact that the singers themselves are aware of timbre and its role in their musical culture.

Sugarman addresses timbre and voice production in a study on singing and gender among Prespa Albanians:

[T]he repertoires of Prespa women and men, and the manners in which they sing, are markedly different. Both women and men sing in their chest register, but with somewhat different vocal placement. Women are commonly said to speak and sing in a "thin voice" (zë të ollë). Those who fit this description sing in a high tessitura, with a muted, nasal placement. Today the relatively subdued quality of women's singing contrasts strikingly with their more animated conversational style.7

Sugarman's observation of the mechanics of the voice in the singing of the Prespa Albanians is very astute, as her description shows knowledge of the voice as an instrument, and an awareness of the importance of timbre in the role of song. It is precisely this type of research that is pertinent to this study, and the type of research that is currently under-investigated and needs to be addressed in order for ethnomusicology to advance beyond the realms of the limitations of human language and to recognise the importance of the value of voice production analysis for the sake of the knowledge alone, as well as the importance of its role in pedagogy.

In "Mamaindé vocal music", Avery investigates what he finds to be the most important purely vocal forms of Mamaindé music. His discussion consists primarily of the relationship between culture and song and some analysis of song form and melody. He briefly refers to some form of vocal styles, firstly addressing two forms of intoned prose:


The i ka naut sa txu (technical term, no gloss) is a form of intoned prose.... Two singers are involved: one man who intones a paragraph of prose which is basically repeated by the second man. Each paragraph is bracketed by a set melodic formula that is hummed and provides the transition from one singer to the next.... The Mamaindé also use a less formal type of intoned prose that involves only one singer and for which they have no special term but would just say ("he is speaking out").8

He also refers to a vocal phenomenon called "crying":

Crying, nan sa txu ("crying") is a formalized vocal phenomenon that is used to mourn the death of a relative but may be sung even before he actually dies.... Although this stylized crying is not a strictly musical phenomenon, certain songs associated with either healing or killing are said to be crying songs because they are associated with death. One individual characterized a "crying" song as one having "oh, oh, oh" at the end.9

Avery's article would benefit greatly from the inclusion of a discussion of vocal timbre and production because the brief descriptions above leave the reader unsatisfied with the depth of the vocal analysis and wanting to know more about the timbre of these styles.

Scott discusses vocal timbre in Exploring the World of Music, referring to the Ganga singing of the Bosnian Highlands:

Vocal timbre is affected, not only by the shaping of internal space within a singer's mouth, throat and chest, but by the external space of the environment in which the individual sings...Before the breakup of Yugoslavia and the violent destruction of many villages in the Bosnian highlands during the early 1990s, Bosnian villagers ... tended their livestock in the wide-open spaces of a mountainous terrain. Their vocal style reflects both the broad, outdoor character of the highland landscape and the intimate nature of village society. The influence of the landscape is perceptible in the sheer volume and penetrating timbre of their singing, a full-throated, somewhat nasal production that seems designed to be audible across valleys and in neighbouring hills.10 Scott raises a few points in this description about the vocal quality of the singing, using such terms as "full-throated" and "somewhat nasal" that show an awareness of the importance of timbre, and also the process behind the vocal timbre, but it is apparent that he does not have a firm grasp of the actual vocal function that creates this style of singing. It is interesting that Scott relates the Bosnian style of singing to the culture in which it developed, as this is most certainly a factor in voice production and timbre.

Bulgarian voice

The following brief quotations obtained from a journal article, CD cover notes and websites describe the Bulgarian singing voice:

The music is described as born of the pain and suffering experienced by Bulgarians while under Ottoman Turkish rule but as symbolizing the preservation of their culture in the face of such adversity; as an ancient or primeval tradition bequested by the Thracian minstrel Orpheus, who supposedly lived in southern Bulgaria, but presented in a newly authentic fashion; and as springing forth organically from the throats of all Bulgarian women.11

The voices themselves-like the women who possess them-are similarly described as "sweet" but "powerful" and "restrained" but "aggressive", "eerily beautiful" and "holy", but manifesting a "carnal texture", "worldly" yet "spiritual", and as "at home with the earth as the heavens.12

One vital component of the 'mystery' of the Bulgarian voice lies in the nature of the vocal production, which is characterized by a projective, open-throated, vibratoless resonance enhanced by a variety of distinctive embellishment techniques, such as vocal trills, shakes, and glottal ornamentation.13

The secret of the music is a solid method and technique of voice production and tone shaping. While the Europeans form the voice at the front, the Bulgarians produce their tone in the throat and nose, supported by use of overtone resonances.14

The voices merge to create a forceful timbre.... (Given that much of this music springs from the harvest and other outdoor situations, the need for carrying power is apparent.) ...western voices, with their built-in vibratos, would muddy this music. Here, the pitches are crystal clear. The tone has both nasal and chest qualities (for richness and projection, respectively). Vibrato, when it is used, is a local expressive device....15
The Bulgarian women's piercing, vibrato-less sound and exotic language creates music that inspires awe. The loud, belting chest voice that is used, stemming from the music's outdoor origins, resonates with western ears used to the pop singing styles of female rockers. 16
Kitka is most influenced by ... the Bulgarian choir. Both employ a folk, rather than classical, style of singing unfamiliar to western ears. Like a hot spa or crème brûlée, the flat tones, dissonance, abrupt ends and "yips" common to this style take some getting used to...." It's a very natural kind of vocal production that's different from the western style of bel canto," [Kitka director] Cion says. "It's a technique we call 'open voice,' which is a lot closer to speaking than what you'd think of as vocal music."17

The above quotations all touch on similar points in describing the Bulgarian voice. Terms like "open-throated", "vibratoless", "chest", "overtone resonances", "belting", and references to the tone being produced in the "throat" and "nose" all create a sense of the Bulgarian sound, and all attempt to draw attention to the importance of the unique timbre and how the timbre is technically produced. All of the descriptions, with the exception of the quotations from the journal article, descriptions of the Bulgarian voice found in non-academic texts. Finding descriptions like these in academic texts is near impossible, and one questions why this is the case, as according to the above quotations, it is relatively easy to describe the Bulgarian vocal sound with fairly correct terminology.

Webster Stech's research certainly helps the de-mystification process of the Bulgarian voice, as she discusses the technical similarities and differences between Bulgarian folk singing and western classical singing. In her introduction she outlines the purpose of her study:

Most often, women singers of Balkan music have been subjected to the incomplete opinions of "western" classical singers who profess that Bulgarian singing is both crude and damaging to the voice. Bulgarian singers defend in return that village style singing is more "natural" (than "western" classical) and not constrained to male dominated notions of the passive, high pitched "head" voice represented by the "western" classical tradition. Through interviews, texts, and e-mails, I will argue that both sides are working with significantly incomplete information about the other, and that by working within such a binary structure, American singers of Bulgarian music are limiting their knowledge and abilities to fully explore their "Bulgarian" voice, their own voice, and their true voice.18

Stech interviewed Bulgarian-style vocalists and found very similar results to the results in this study that will be discussed in chapter three, namely that the Bulgarian sound isn't nasal, although the tone produces strong overtones so the sound is often perceived as nasal, the vocal folds are very tight, the sound is un-breathy so breath flow is efficient and the sound is primarily "chest-based", although she questions the term "chest voice". Stech has not delved into details about the laryngeal and tongue position, but she does raise the issue of "belting" in regards to Bulgarian singing, which is a term that will be addressed in chapter three.

All the above descriptions conjure up an idea of the Bulgarian voice, and some parts of the descriptions are correct, but there are several terms that are used imprecisely that need to be clarified and defined so the de-mystification process of the Bulgarian vocal style can begin. Studies into vocal timbre in different cultures show an interest in the area of timbre, but there has been such a minimal amount of research into voice production in ethnomusicology, that terms used to describe the timbre of a particular voice are often incorrect, or badly worded. If one is to maintain a thorough, scholarly approach to ethnomusicological research, then surely one must attempt to investigate the correct scientific and vocal terms so they can be used in an intelligent manner in order to further the research in this area. In the following chapter, the mechanics of the Bulgarian singing voice will be discussed, through literature on western voice analysis and referral to the interview results, in an attempt to shed some light on the technical vocal process in Bulgarian singing that causes such a unique and beautiful timbre.


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  1. R. Miller. 1996a. On the art of singing. New York: Oxford University Press, p. xv.
  2. T. Rice. 1994. May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 60.
  3. Rice, 1994. p. 60.
  4. C. Fales. 2002. "The paradox of timbre." Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 79.
  5. A. Seeger. 1987. Why Suyá sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian people. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, p. xiii.
  6. Seeger, 1987. pp. 40-1.
  7. J. Sugarman. 1989. "The nightingale and the partridge: Singing and gender among Prespa Albanians." Ethnomusicology 33 (2): 199.
  8. T. Avery. 1977. "Mamaindé vocal music." Ethnomusicology 21 (3): 363-64.
  9. Avery, 1977. 364.
  10. Hast, D, Cowdery, J & Scott, S. 1999. Exploring the world of music: An introduction to music from a world music perspective. Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, p. 146.
  11. D. Buchanan. 1997. "Bulgaria's magical mystère tour: Post-modernism, world music marketing and political change in Eastern Europe." Ethnomusicology 41 (1): 138.
  12. Buchanan, 1997. 138-39.
  13. Buchanan, 1997. 139.
  14. Liner notes. 1988. Liner notes to: Le mystère des voix Bulgares A cathedral concert. [compact disc]. New York: Polygram Classics and Jazz 314 510 794-92.
  15. I. Marshall. 1987. Liner notes to: Le mystère des voix Bulgares Le mystère des voix Bulgares. [compact disc]. USA : Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch 79165-2.
  16. J. Baily. 2002. "'Astonishing' Bulgarian women's choir to perform Oct. 6 at UCSD." (21 May 2003, 12:58pm), p. 1.
  17. K. Fiore. 2001. "Choir masters." OC Weekly. (Friday 7 March 2003, 12:09am), p. 1.
  18. J. Webster Stech. 2002. "American woman and the mysterious voice: American women performing gender through singing Bulgarian songs." (10 April 2003, 2:50pm), p. 2.
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