physics: opera singers really are hard to understand

Do you find opera perplexing? Grossly overweight consumptives notwithstanding, many people have trouble figuring out what the performers are actually singing, even when the opera is in their native language, hence the ubiquity of electronic subtitling in opera houses today. Australian physicists report in the Jan. 8 Nature that they’ve figured out why opera singers are hard to understand, at least for sopranos singing at the high end of their range. Singers wishing to be heard in a large auditorium against a loud orchestral accompaniment do so at the expense of vowel clarity, making their words unintelligible. Researchers from The University of New South Wales studied eight sopranos, measuring the resonance and pitch frequencies as they sang ascending scales. To produce the loudest and highest notes, singers adjust their vocal tracts, usually dropping their lower jaws and opening their mouths wide, making them distort their pronunciation. The distinction between words such as hard, heard, hoard and who’d, for example, can be easily lost. It appears that hitting high C’s also means losing your A, E, I, O, and U’s.

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 1/13/2004.
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