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Just One Falsetto

July 23, 2008

For putting people in the mood, there's nothing quite like hearing a man sing really, really high. Chloe Veltman finds out why we love wailing and warbling

In the 1994 film Farinelli, a pretty countess with a discourteous habit of reading books during opera performances, suddenly finds herself distracted from her latest volume. Agitated, she looks up to discover the source of the disruption, which turns out to be none other than Farinelli (aka Carlo Broschi), one of the most famous castrati of the 18th century opera stage. Belting out a florid aria in a register normally associated with collatura sopranos, burglar alarms and the dawn chorus, Farinelli instantly forces the bookish beauty to submit body and soul to the potent splendor of his voice. The next day, the countess is still reeling from the experience. “What I felt yesterday evening when I heard you sing is beyond my understanding,” she confesses. “I believe you were responsible for my first musical orgasm.”

When it comes to putting the female of the species (and in some instances, the male) in the mood, there’s nothing quite like hearing a man singing really, really high. Just as ladies swooned at the vocal pyrotechnics of the finest Italian castrati 250 years ago, so they have continued, over the generations, to scream on cue at The Beach Boys’ peppy refrains, gyrate to Michael Jackson’s banshee whoops and melt at the fragile sweetness of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin’s maudlin sighs. Vintage video clips depicting teenyboppers screeching at the falsetto bits in Beatles or Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons concerts provides a clue to the visceral impact of the high male voice on the pop music listener. But even staid classical music audiences can’t help but display their feelings when a great male singer soars into the stratosphere. The young Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, sent opera-goers at La Scala and The Met into orbit recently with a row of nine perfectly-pinged high C’s in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, breaking long-standing embargoes on encores at both opera houses.

The primordial nature of listeners’ responses to men singing up high doesn’t make much sense from an evolutionary standpoint. At least as far as speaking voices go, scientific studies have shown that females tend to favor partners of the opposite sex with sonorous, James Earl Jones-esque timbres over effete squeakers like comedian Gilbert Gottfried. (There are always exceptions to the rule: David Beckham maintains his sex appeal in spite of his squeakiness.) Results from a 2006 Scottish study show that women generally prefer low, masculine male voices over high, feminized male voices. Meanwhile, findings released last autumn from an American-Canadian investigation indicate that men with deep voices tend to have more children than those who speak at a higher pitch. The research suggests that females might associate low tones with increased testosterone levels, leading them to think of men with low voices as being better hunters and providers.

Yet the pelvis-tingling burr of “Walrus of Love” Barry White and Tom Waits’ whiskey-laced rasp evidently aren’t the only voices capable of tickling listeners’ g-spots. At the most basic level, strong high-pitched sounds cause excitement in listeners’ brains. “When singers sing high and loud, the brain releases the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine causing a general increase in physiological arousal -- higher heart rate, faster respiration, increased perspiration and greater attentiveness,” says David Huron, professor of music and cognitive science at Ohio State University. Then there’s the fact that high male singing, like most great music, plays with our expectations. As the American neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin notes in his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, “music is organised sound, but the organisation has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic.”

When male vocalists, generally regarded as singing low-pitched notes, go up high, the thrill of these high-pitched notes is compounded by the fact that the sounds are so unanticipated. As such, the intoxicating power of the high male voice stems in large part from the tension between the “femininity” of the singer’s vocal range and the “masculinity” of its timbre (or quality.) “There’s a sort of ‘gentle giant’ idea at work in the combination of the normally aggressive male voice and the feminized high pitch,” says Huron. “High male voices appeal because they are assertive without being threatening.” For gospel music producer and author Anthony Heilbut, it is the gender-bending quality of the high male voice that renders it so powerful. “Both sexes are stimulated by androgynous sounds,” he says. “Something wild happens in the listener’s ear because the voice she’s hearing goes against nature.” Both theories extend to singers’ physical appearance. Part of the appeal of a hairy hard-rock frontman like Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler is the combination of the vocalist’s Viking warrior looks and bell-like falsetto. Meanwhile the androgynous appearance of such vocalists as A-Ha’s Morten Harket and the French operatic sopranist Philippe Jaroussky underscores the ethereal quality of their voices.

When the best high-voiced male singers sing in falsetto or what’s called the “head voice” (as opposed to the lower “chest voice” where most normal speech sits in both men and women) they fluidly reach the same notes as female vocalists without sounding remotely girly. There’s nothing feminine about Jimmy Somerville’s voice despite the singer’s waif-like appearance; its intense operatics suggest nothing if not wounded male pride. When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke curls his lips around the sky-scraping passages of songs like “High & Dry” and “Nude,” vulnerability bleeds into strength. Geddy Lee of Rush blasts out his high notes like he’s in free-fall, and Marvin Gaye’s seductive feline purr oozes testosterone. The same can be said of classically-trained singers. There’s a virile edge to the German countertenor Andreas Scholl’s sweet, warm voice. Meanwhile, when the sopranists of the famous, all-male American choral ensemble Chanticleer break into ecstatic descants during the group’s trademark gospel settings, it’s as if the voices of Mahalia Jackson, Prince and Farinelli had fused into one.

The second quality shared by the greatest high-voiced men (a rule which applies to great singers across the board in fact) is the intention behind every blood-curdling shriek or ethereal scat sequence. Singers across many different genres reach for the high notes to convey a particular feeling or create a special effect. When Bono of U2 yelps “please get off your knees” in the song “Please,” the words sound pitiful and pleading. The affectation in the refrain of Morrissey’s “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” thickens his lyrics with irony. As the American classical countertenor David Daniels puts it of the art of singing up high: “If you design your ornamentation or high notes to do nothing but thrill, you don’t end up giving the most organic performance of the story. It becomes all about histrionics and self-adoration rather than about the art itself.”

Not all high-voiced men understand this. Justin Timberlake’s bird-like vocal flights in songs like “My Love,” and “What Goes Around” sound canned. The singer possesses a classic soul vocalist’s range, but clearly lacks the emotional range to back up his forays into falsetto. When Mike Patton of Faith No More hits the high notes, he sounds like he’s being disemboweled with a blunt teaspoon. The nasal quality of Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose makes the singer sound like he’s been snorting helium. The only existing recording of an operatic castrato singing, which dates back to 1902, doesn’t exactly fill the listener with lust. Alessandro Moreschi’s gurgling-swooping voice sounds like a tipsy drag queen desperate to get out of her stilettos at the end of a long night. Meanwhile, the Australian singer Adam Lopez may be the holder of the world record for highest note sung by a male. But judging by the cringing facial expressions of the female audience members watching the singer attempt the feat on the Guinness World Records television show, Lopez’s ear-splitting, off-the-end-of-the-piano C-sharp broke more windows than hearts.

Of course, musical taste is highly subjective. What turns one listener on, sends another scurrying for cover. But beyond the peccadilloes of personal preferences, evolving attitudes towards gender roles coupled with growing musical cross-pollination and dissemination has led to the widespread acceptance of bearded warblers in recent decades. Until the British singer Alfred Deller kick-started the countertenor renaissance in second half of the 20th century, the high male voice was largely considered to be a freakish aberration of nature. “Now for a novelty!” reads the title card introducing a 1932 performance by British male soprano Frank Ivallo. “The man with a woman’s voice!” Even in the pop world, where falsetto singing has long been a staple, high male voices have occasionally inspired more ridicule than respect. During a guest appearance on the American television comedy series Friends, for instance, the singer Chris Isaak (best known for his heartfelt yodeling on the song, “Wicked Game”) swoops into falsetto mode in a moment of passion, only to be interrupted by Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe: “I think you might want to pick a more masculine note,” she says, with an alarmed look on her face.

It’s just as well that music history has generally ignored this kind of advice. Imagine how classic Bee Gees numbers like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” would sound if the Gibb brothers had sung them an octave lower? The disco hits certainly wouldn’t possess anything near the same spine-tingling sex appeal. Or what about Al Green’s voice devoid of its trademark cries, hums and yelps? In spite of his religious awakening, Green thankfully still understands the orgasmic power wielded by a man singing up high. "Baby, there's love in it, out it, on the side of it, on top of it, on the bottom of it," Green recently said of his new album Lay It Down in a radio interview. "It's basically to evoke emotion — and love, love, love.”


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