Tag Archives: voice

What puts the “wah” in the wah-wah?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is really an introduction to acoustic phonetics. But it’s catchier to approach it from the Jimi Hendrix angle…

The science of making a guitar sound like a human voice


I always enjoy the beginning of a word tasting course. All those new faces – some eager, some dragged there by their girlfriends or significant others – ready for what they hope will be an enjoyable experience but, at the very least, will leave them somehow more cultured.

Of course you get all sorts. People who have retired and now have the time to enjoy words. Young couples, the guy nearly always trying to impress the girl with what he knows about words, even if he seems only to know things that aren’t so (“Oh, no, no one likes adverbs anymore…” “There was a fashion for Scandinavian loans a while ago, but it’s East Asian ones that are pretty much where it’s at now…” “Yes, you see, you know it’s voiceless because it’s spelled with an s. A z means it’s voiced.”). Businessmen who get exposed to some pretty expensive words while out with clients but who never really get to appreciate them, now wanting to learn how to really enjoy them. Groups of women who couldn’t persuade their associated males to come – or didn’t want them to anyway.

I like to start them off with a few words right off the bat, just to have a sense of what level they’re all at and to give them a starting point. I’ll give them words they probably haven’t heard before and ask them to write down what the words make them think of, what they feel like to say. I insist that they write down the first ten things they think of. Of course the results often begin to sound a bit like a psychotherapy session.

Then, having made words a little strange, I give them some words they know quite well. I like the reactions to dog and then hound. Eyes begin to open: what different tastes, feelings, and images for words with pretty much the same objects. I used to use cat and pussy, but some of the responses were sometimes a bit much for some of those present to take graciously.

Then we dive into the exploration of the basic sound-generating organism of the body. I usually start with the voiced/voiceless distinction. This can sometimes be surprisingly unfamiliar. It can also be an occasion for some good partner work for those who have come with others, as in the case of one young lady who was in the class with her boyfriend and didn’t quite cotton to it.

“I don’t get what you mean,” she protested. “Every time I speak I’m using my voice.”

“Every time you speak you’re using your vocal tract, but your voice turns on and off.”

“If my voice was off you couldn’t hear me.”

“Say your name,” I said.


“Or anything. Just say a word.”

“Malcolm.” She made a sideways glance at her boyfriend.

“Now whisper it.”

She leaned up to him, cupped her hands around his ear, and whispered it into his ear. I think she licked his ear slightly, too, but her hands were in the way.

“Whisper it in this direction, loudly enough that I can hear it,” I suggested.

“Malcolm,” she obligingly whispered, reasonably loudly.

“OK, great. You whispered it. You weren’t using your voice, but I could hear it.”

“Of course I was using my voice! I was using my whispering voice!” she insisted.

“Which isn’t actually voice, because your vocal cords don’t vibrate.”

“Well, I know what my English teacher, Ms. Van Tilt, said. ‘Use your whispering voice.’”

I sighed. There are a lot of unfortunate things that get said in English classes.

“She should have been… more careful in her choice of words. If you have laryngitis, you lose your voice, right?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s just a figure of speech.”

“Actually, it’s the same use of the word voice. The technical use.” Technical usually seals it. And of course her boyfriend was forced to nod sagely. Guys always want to seem like they know something if it’s technical. “If your vocal cords are vibrating – your voice box – then a sound is voiced. If they’re not, it’s unvoiced. Put your hand on your neck and say missing slowly.” I demonstrated.

She tried. “Mmmiiiiisssssssiiiiinnnggg.”

“You feel how it’s not vibrating during the s, the ‘ssss’?” I turned to the rest of the class. “Everybody try this. Try a few words. Try some of the ones we started with.” They obliged. The air was filled with slowly echoing words, people speaking slowly with their hands on their throats – like a scene from some sci-fi movie (“Time… warp… losing… air…”).

The girl’s boyfriend, Malcolm, took this occasion to improve their partner work. “You can also feel it in the chest,” he said, putting his hand on her chest. She said “Shampoo.”

“Wait,” he said, “your shirt is damping the vibration.” He worked his hand underneath it.

“Thixotropic,” she said, and smiled. “Woo!”

I tried not to roll my eyes. “Yes, quite a lot of your body resonates with sound. That’s what helps produce the sound quality. You’ll feel it on the top of your head, too.”

Malcolm grabbed her butt. “Say it now.”

“Hey,” she said, smiling, and smacked his hand.

“It doesn’t usually make it all the way down there,” I said. “Unless you’re an opera singer.”

I moved on to the shape of the vocal tract. I showed the class the diagram of the mouth and started talking about the parts. I always encourage people to explore the insides of their mouths with their tongues.

I hadn’t really thought of this part as so much of an occasion for partner work.

But as I had the class making as many different variants of /l/ as I could, sweeping their tongues back and forth over their palates, I turned and saw Malcolm and the girl playing championship tonsil hockey.

“Now, I know that words are stimulating and can be romantic…” I said.

“Oh,” she said, pulling away, “sorry, we were just curious whether we could make sounds with each other’s tongues. Like, my tongue in his mouth. And vice versa.”

She was looking like an altogether more promising student than I had first anticipated. I glanced around the class. “Try it at home,” I said. “And report back.”