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Voice analysis in ethnomusicology:
De-mystifying Bulgarian singing

Conclusion: Towards an understanding of the relevance of voice analysis in ethnomusicology

Timbre is a slippery concept and a slippery percept, perceptually malleable and difficult to define in precisely arranged units...To the general listener, pitch and loudness are variable characteristics of sound, timbre is a condition; pitch and loudness are things a sound does, timbre is what a sound is. Given that timbre is critical to human contact with the environment and a sonic dimension we track with particular sensitivity, given that timbre is routinely cited as one of the four parameters of sound, the fact that it attracts so little attention becomes part of the mystery.1


This thesis has two primary aims, namely: 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. In the previous three chapters, various issues have been discussed, resulting in the presentation of information necessary for the further advancement of the integration of the fields of ethnomusicology and voice. A summary of the thesis is presented below, re-stating the content, method, argument, main points, and results.

This study came about based on a desire to integrate two important fields in the study of music so as to begin to investigate a relatively neglected field. The thesis has focused specifically on Bulgarian women's folk singing and one of the major issues discussed throughout the thesis is the fact that there is a lack of research into the area of voice production in ethnomusicology. It is evident that 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 information for this study has been obtained from a variety of sources other than monographs, due to the lack of comprehensive literature on the topic, such as journals, the internet, compact disc recordings, accompanying liner notes and through interviews with specialists in the field of Bulgarian singing. Bulgaria's political history has obviously had a serious impact on the development of Bulgarian music, which is evident in songs, and particularly in women's music, as Bulgarian women have always had the role of singers and songwriters. It is likely that the existence of sexual oppression has affected Bulgarian women's vocal style and the content of their songs.

Literature on Bulgarian music does not address the issue of vocal timbre or production in depth, if at all. A possible reason for this is that Bulgarian singing was traditionally learnt by imitation, and not taught as such, resulting in missing knowledge on the articulation of voice production. The discussion of several different literary works in this thesis that address vocal production and/or timbre in non-Bulgarian cultures shows that although these studies have a partial interest in timbre and voice production, the analysis undertaken is not thorough, and needs further clarification and investigation. The quotations found in sources other than monographs describing the Bulgarian folk voice all refer to particular vocal terms that depict the Bulgarian sound in an attempt to draw attention to the importance of how the timbre is technically produced, but the terms need to be defined to be understood easily. If one is to maintain a thorough, scholarly approach to ethnomusicological research, then 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.

A basic understanding of voice production is necessary when researching this area, which is why the research into physiology presented here is essential. It is important that it becomes obvious to researchers and vocalists that the voice is not actually such a mysterious instrument so they can understand vocal terminology and know how to apply it when referring to Bulgarian singing. The discussion of "belting", with reference to research into the vocal technique including voice production analysis and comparison to the classical vocal style leads to the conclusion that Bulgarian singing is a type of belting, although there are some differences between the Bulgarian belt and other types of belting due to the absence of particular vocal qualities in the Bulgarian belt that is evident in other types of belting. The presentation and discussion of interview results show that many of the interviewee's answers are similar, but the main point of contention is in relation to the use of the term "open-throated" in Bulgarian singing. A combination of the research into belting and the interviewee's answers confirm that Bulgarian singing is not "open-throated", but employs a tightened, narrow pharyngeal position, a high laryngeal position and tight vocal folds. It is evident that the Bulgarian sound is not nasal because the velopharyngeal port is closed during phonation. Perceived nasality in Bulgarian singing must occur due to intense vibration in the buccopharyngeal resonator creating a timbre similar to nasality, which is further intensified by the distribution of harmonic partials (overtones) in the voice, causing a "ringing" sound.

Considerations for future research

Some examples of areas of research that should be undertaken in the future in the study of ethnomusicology, and in particular, Bulgarian singing, include:

  1. The investigation of why research into voice production in ethnomusicology has been neglected.
  2. The development of a new pedagogical framework for Bulgarian and other styles of non-western singing.
  3. The investigation of the effect of cultural influences on the Bulgarian vocal timbre and method of voice production.

The information presented here has merely begun the process of de-mystification of the voice as an instrument, recognising the importance and relevance of the research, but not applying the results in order to further pedagogical development or cultural analysis, as this would be an enormous undertaking, involving a great deal of time to study the human body and undertake thorough field and lab work.

The voice has always been considered to be a mysterious, hidden instrument, and is often dismissed as not being an instrument at all, but as is evident that the voice is indeed a very complex instrument. Mastering the voice involves practice, training, refining technique, and developing. Just because the primary parts of the vocal instrument cannot be seen doesn't mean that the voice isn't worthy of being studied as an instrument. Because the voice is hidden, it is difficult for non-vocalists, and even vocalists to know what's going on in the body while vocalising, but it is possible to find out through simple subjective observation, study of physiology and some more hands-on scientific processes that can measure vocal activity.

In general, what cannot be seen is not easily understood...How hidden, actually, is the vocal instrument? Unless subjected to mechanical examination such as that provided by laryngoscopic,2 fiberoptic,3 and stroboscopic means,4 the vocal folds cannot be directly viewed. Nevertheless, a great deal of information about laryngeal function in response to total body co-ordination is available through surface observation ... coupled with information about physical function and a knowledge of vocal acoustics. 5

In Miller's video Voice registration: a pictorial and performance tutorial,6 his associates describe and demonstrate the basics of laryngeal and vocal function using models and audiovisual examples of the inside of subject's throats. Several volunteer singing students from the Oberlin Conservatory are shown singing various phrases with an endoscope inserted into their noses so the audience has a camera-view of the vocal instrument and can see what goes on in the throat during singing. This is a most useful video, as the vocal instrument is easily seen and understood, and the sounds that are made are then translated into sound waves and harmonic partials on computer screens so as to scientifically illustrate vocal timbre. Miller and his students use these devices to improve their singing, and Miller emphasises the importance of the singer knowing how their instrument works and being able to diagnose their own vocal problems in combination with their ear, and Miller's expertise. This type of study could be undertaken in an ethnomusicological setting, but would need the co-operation of doctors, scientists, ethnomusicologists and willing participants.

If the fields of ethnomusicology and voice embrace this new style of "field-work", surely we will uncover more and more about the mystery of the voice, adding much needed knowledge to the fields of ethnomusicology and voice. In the western world of vocal pedagogy, this equipment is used to assist both the singer and their teacher in producing a more efficient, beautiful sound. In an ethnomusicological setting, this equipment could be used to analyse the workings, production and timbre of the vocal instrument just as you would analyse any other instrument. It could also be used for pedagogical purposes in Bulgaria and in other countries like America where Bulgarian singing is very popular and many semi-professional and professional choirs that specialise in Bulgarian music are thriving. Bulgarian singing is taught at the University of California - Los Angeles, and there is also a Bulgarian choir made up of primarily student members called SuperDevoiche. Webster Stech's research describes the passion American women have for Bulgarian singing since the rise of the American women's civil rights movement in the 1960s:

American women have been seeking a new voice in society with which to deconstruct previous (and current) Puritanical and patriarchal notions of femininity in order to create a decontextualized modern identity. Perhaps due to worldly conceptions of Western "maleness," and Eastern "femaleness", many women have explored and appropriated "non-western," "primitive," or more "earthly" traditions as a means of reconnecting with "true" or "natural" femininity, and redefining self by seeking personal spiritual connection and awareness.7

In Bulgaria there are many musical institutions, including the Filip Kutev secondary music school, established in 1967 during the time that the state was making a conscious effort to preserve Bulgaria's cultural heritage. The school's course runs for five years, training students in kaval (flute), gaida (bagpipe), tambura (mandolin), gudulka (rebek), folk singing, dancing, and folk instrument making. The students are between the ages of fourteen and nineteen and live at the school. They study both general and musical subjects. They have daily individual lessons in folk music and piano, taught by highly qualified teachers.8 When Rice visited the high school in 1988, there were one hundred and eighty-five pupils specialising in all the various instruments, including fifty-eight singers. Rice comments that the original model for the structure of education was based on the western conservatory, but modified to include and emphasise the study of Bulgarian folk music.9 Another famous Bulgarian music institution is the Academy of Music and Dance in Plovdiv where folk singing is taught. Many now famous Bulgarian musicians attended the Academy, including one of the interviewees, Tzvetanka Varimezova. In 1972 the Academy became an independent higher-education institution with three faculties: Music pedagogy, music folklore and choreography, and postgraduate studies. Some of the courses taught are unique not only in Bulgaria, but in the world. Many foreign students study at the Academy. The BA and MA degrees are officially recognised by all European states and the USA.10

Scientific research results from the study of the vocal instrument would most certainly aid teachers and students of Bulgarian folk singing in developing their technique and understanding their instrument. The results would also be extremely useful in describing the Bulgarian timbre accurately to Bulgarians and people of other cultures in order to share the knowledge of the unique Bulgarian voice so others can apply the techniques themselves so as to create a similar sound while not damaging the voice. However, in essence, the mere unapplied knowledge of the mechanics of the unique Bulgarian instrument is an essential part of helping to integrate the fields of ethnomusicology and voice, and furthering the body of knowledge in these fields for specialists and non-specialists. In conclusion, Miller's opinion on the subject is relevant to the case at hand:

Another area of vocal performance is of considerable interest to persons who are drawn to the study of World Music. With the burgeoning western world interest in non-western cultures comes the question of how ethnomusicological sounds are produced...Because the subject is vast and involves many disparate sources and diverse cultures, and because as of this moment there exists insufficient research into the vocal health aspects of such phonations, raising the question may seem purely academic. Nonetheless, for those teachers of "classical" singing who have been long convinced that there is a relationship between vocal efficiency and vocal aesthetics, the question is intriguing.... It is a subject that will offer interesting research rewards in the future.11

Miller's exciting vision is certainly one that should be shared by ethnomusicologists and vocalists in order to be able to further develop ethnomusicological theory through new and innovative research, resulting in a more holistic study of the vocal instrument.


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  1. C. Fales. 2002. "The paradox of timbre." Ethnomusicology 46 (1): 58.
  2. A laryngoscope is a tubular endoscope that is inserted into the larynx through the mouth used for observing the interior of the larynx. Definition obtained from (18 November, 2003, 10:00am).
  3. A fiberoptic endoscope is a flexible scope that is used to directly visualise the internal anatomy of the larynx. Fibreoptics technology uses thin strands of glass or plastic to transmit light (along their length through internal reflection) for imaging. Definition obtained from (18 November 2003, 11:00am).
  4. A stroboendescope is an image-conveying tube that can be inserted into the body to view the larynx using a light that is timed with the cycling of the vibrating vocal folds. G. Nair. 1999. Voice-tradition and technology, a state-of-the-art studio. California: Singular Publishing Group Inc., p. 41.
  5. R. Miller. 1996a. On the art of singing. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 224.
  6. Voice registration: a pictorial and performance tutorial. 1999. [video recording]. Ohio: Otto B. Schoepfle Vocal Arts Center, Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Edited by R. Miller.
  7. J. Webster Stech. 2002. "American woman and the mysterious voice: American women performing gender through singing Bulgarian songs." (10 April 2003, 2:50pm), p. 1.
  8. MS Music Agency. "Welcome to the Filip Kutev music school". (Tuesday 18 November 2003, 11:34am), p. 1.
  9. T. Rice. 1994. May it fill your soul: Experiencing Bulgarian music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 225-226.
  10. Anon. "National Academy of Music and Dance". (Wednesday 19 November, 10:51am), p. 1.
  11. Miller, 1996a. p. 119.
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