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Concept: Vocal music


Choir singing is known to promote wellbeing. One reason for this may be that singing demands a slower than normal respiration, which may in turn affect heart activity. Coupling of heart rate variability (HRV) to respiration is called Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). This coupling has a subjective as well as a biologically soothing effect, and it is beneficial for cardiovascular function. RSA is seen to be more marked during slow-paced breathing and at lower respiration rates (0.1 Hz and below). In this study, we investigate how singing, which is a form of guided breathing, affects HRV and RSA. The study comprises a group of healthy 18 year olds of mixed gender. The subjects are asked to; (1) hum a single tone and breathe whenever they need to; (2) sing a hymn with free, unguided breathing; and (3) sing a slow mantra and breathe solely between phrases. Heart rate (HR) is measured continuously during the study. The study design makes it possible to compare above three levels of song structure. In a separate case study, we examine five individuals performing singing tasks (1-3). We collect data with more advanced equipment, simultaneously recording HR, respiration, skin conductance and finger temperature. We show how song structure, respiration and HR are connected. Unison singing of regular song structures makes the hearts of the singers accelerate and decelerate simultaneously. Implications concerning the effect on wellbeing and health are discussed as well as the question how this inner entrainment may affect perception and behavior.

Concepts: Medical statistics, Effect, Vocal music, Vocal range, Affect, Heart, Scientific method, Singing


Humans use music for a variety of social functions: we sing to accompany dance, to soothe babies, to heal illness, to communicate love, and so on. Across animal taxa, vocalization forms are shaped by their functions, including in humans. Here, we show that vocal music exhibits recurrent, distinct, and cross-culturally robust form-function relations that are detectable by listeners across the globe. In Experiment 1, internet users (n = 750) in 60 countries listened to brief excerpts of songs, rating each song’s function on six dimensions (e.g., “used to soothe a baby”). Excerpts were drawn from a geographically stratified pseudorandom sample of dance songs, lullabies, healing songs, and love songs recorded in 86 mostly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Experiment 1 and its analysis plan were pre-registered. Despite participants' unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration (14 s), and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone. In Experiment 2, internet users (n = 1,000) in the United States and India rated three contextual features (e.g., gender of singer) and seven musical features (e.g., melodic complexity) of each excerpt. The songs' contextual features were predictive of Experiment 1 function ratings, but musical features and the songs' actual functions explained unique variance in function ratings. These findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music.

Concepts: Sampling, Sample size, Randomness, Human voice, Agriculture, Song, Singing, Vocal music


Quantitative biomechanical models can identify control parameters that are used during movements, and movement parameters that are encoded by premotor neurons. We fit a mathematical dynamical systems model including subsyringeal pressure, syringeal biomechanics and upper-vocal-tract filtering to the songs of zebra finches. This reduces the dimensionality of singing dynamics, described as trajectories (motor ‘gestures’) in a space of syringeal pressure and tension. Here we assess model performance by characterizing the auditory response ‘replay’ of song premotor HVC neurons to the presentation of song variants in sleeping birds, and by examining HVC activity in singing birds. HVC projection neurons were excited and interneurons were suppressed within a few milliseconds of the extreme time points of the gesture trajectories. Thus, the HVC precisely encodes vocal motor output through activity at the times of extreme points of movement trajectories. We propose that the sequential activity of HVC neurons is used as a ‘forward’ model, representing the sequence of gestures in song to make predictions on expected behaviour and evaluate feedback.

Concepts: Dynamical system, Song, Time, Force, Vocal music, Biomechanics, Cerebral cortex, Mathematics


OBJECTIVE: Vocal accuracy of a sung performance can be evaluated by two methods: acoustic analyses and subjective judgments. Acoustic analyses have been presented as a more reliable solution but both methods are still used for the evaluation of singing voice accuracy. This article presents a first time direct comparison of these methods. METHODS: One hundred sixty-six untrained singers were asked to sing the popular song “Happy Birthday.” These recordings constituted the database analyzed. Acoustic analyses were performed to quantify the pitch interval deviation, number of contour errors, and number of tonality modulations for each recording. Additionally, 18 experts in singing voice or music rated the global pitch accuracy of these performances. RESULTS: A high correlation occurred between acoustic measurements and subjective rating. The total model of acoustic analyses explained 81% of the variance of the judges' scores. Their rating was influenced by both tonality modulations and pitch interval deviation. CONCLUSIONS: This study highlights the congruence between objective and subjective measurements of vocal accuracy within this first time comparison. Our results confirm the relevance of the pitch interval deviation criterion in vocal accuracy assessment. Furthermore, the number of tonality modulations is also a salient criterion in perceptive rating and should be taken into account in studies using acoustic analyses.

Concepts: Critical thinking, Vocal music, Vocal weight, Opera, Voice type, Human voice, Vocal range, Singing


Although dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been trained to match numbers and durations of human vocal bursts [1] and reported to spontaneously match computer-generated whistles [2], spontaneous human voice mimicry has not previously been demonstrated. The first to study white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) sounds in the wild, Schevill and Lawrence [3] wrote that “occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance”. Fish and Mowbary [4] described sound types and reviewed past descriptions of sounds from this vociferous species. At Vancouver Aquarium, Canada, keepers suggested that a white whale about 15 years of age, uttered his name “Lagosi”. Other utterances were not perceptible, being described as “garbled human voice, or Russian, or similar to Chinese” by R.L. Eaton in a self-published account in 1979. However, hitherto no acoustic recordings have shown how such sounds emulate speech and deviate from the usual calls of the species. We report here sound recordings and analysis which demonstrate spontaneous mimicry of the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning [5], by a white whale.

Concepts: Narwhal, Megafauna, Vocal music, Vocology, Acoustics, Human voice, Singing, Oral communication


Music and dance are two remarkable human characteristics that are closely related. Communication through integrated vocal and motional signals is also common in the courtship displays of birds. The contribution of songbird studies to our understanding of vocal learning has already shed some light on the cognitive underpinnings of musical ability. Moreover, recent pioneering research has begun to show how animals can synchronize their behaviors with external stimuli, like metronome beats. However, few studies have applied such perspectives to unraveling how animals can integrate multimodal communicative signals that have natural functions. Additionally, studies have rarely asked how well these behaviors are learned. With this in mind, here we cast a spotlight on an unusual animal behavior: non-vocal sound production associated with singing in the Java sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora), a songbird. We show that male Java sparrows coordinate their bill-click sounds with the syntax of their song-note sequences, similar to percussionists. Analysis showed that they produced clicks frequently toward the beginning of songs and before/after specific song notes. We also show that bill-clicking patterns are similar between social fathers and their sons, suggesting that these behaviors might be learned from models or linked to learning-based vocalizations. Individuals untutored by conspecifics also exhibited stereotypical bill-clicking patterns in relation to song-note sequence, indicating that while the production of bill clicking itself is intrinsic, its syncopation appears to develop with songs. This paints an intriguing picture in which non-vocal sounds are integrated with vocal courtship signals in a songbird, a model that we expect will contribute to the further understanding of multimodal communication.

Concepts: Vocal music, Song, Syntax, Communication, Music, Bird, Psychology, Sound


Human speech is one of the few examples of vocal learning among mammals yet ~half of avian species exhibit this ability. Its neurogenetic basis is largely unknown beyond a shared requirement for FoxP2 in both humans and zebra finches. We manipulated FoxP2 isoforms in Area X, a song-specific region of the avian striatopallidum analogous to human anterior striatum, during a critical period for song development. We delineate, for the first time, unique contributions of each isoform to vocal learning. Weighted gene coexpression network analysis of RNA-seq data revealed gene modules correlated to singing, learning, or vocal variability. Coexpression related to singing was found in juvenile and adult Area X whereas coexpression correlated to learning was unique to juveniles. The confluence of learning and singing coexpression in juvenile Area X may underscore molecular processes that drive vocal learning in young zebra finches and, by analogy, humans.

Concepts: Chaffinch, Gene expression, Vocal music, Mammal, Singing, Developmental psychology, Species, Molecular biology


Infants prefer speech to non-vocal sounds and to non-human vocalizations, and they prefer happy-sounding speech to neutral speech. They also exhibit an interest in singing, but there is little knowledge of their relative interest in speech and singing. The present study explored infants' attention to unfamiliar audio samples of speech and singing. In Experiment 1, infants 4-13 months of age were exposed to happy-sounding infant-directed speech vs. hummed lullabies by the same woman. They listened significantly longer to the speech, which had considerably greater acoustic variability and expressiveness, than to the lullabies. In Experiment 2, infants of comparable age who heard the lyrics of a Turkish children’s song spoken vs. sung in a joyful/happy manner did not exhibit differential listening. Infants in Experiment 3 heard the happily sung lyrics of the Turkish children’s song vs. a version that was spoken in an adult-directed or affectively neutral manner. They listened significantly longer to the sung version. Overall, happy voice quality rather than vocal mode (speech or singing) was the principal contributor to infant attention, regardless of age.

Concepts: Childbirth, Epistemology, Vocal range, Song, Vocal music, Acoustics, Singing, Human voice


What is the social function of babbling? An important function of prelinguistic vocalizing may be to elicit parental behavior in ways that facilitate the infant’s own learning about speech and language. Infants use parental feedback to their babbling to learn new vocal forms, but the microstructure of parental responses to babbling has not been studied. To enable precise manipulation of the proximal infant cues that may influence maternal behavior, we used a playback paradigm to assess mothers' responsiveness to prerecorded audiovisual clips of unfamiliar infants' noncry prelinguistic vocalizations and actions. Acoustic characteristics and directedness of vocalizations were manipulated to test their efficacy in structuring social interactions. We also compared maternal responsiveness in the playback paradigm and in free play with their own infants. Maternal patterns of reactions to babbling were stable across both tasks. In the playback task, we found specific vocal cues, such as the degree of resonance and the transition timing of consonant-vowel syllables, predicted contingent maternal responding. Vocalizations directed at objects also facilitated increased responsiveness. The responses mothers exhibited, such as sensitive speech and vocal imitation, are known to facilitate vocal learning and development. Infants, by influencing the behavior of their caregivers with their babbling, create social interactions that facilitate their own communicative development.

Concepts: Infancy, Breastfeeding, Mother, Vocal music, Infant, Learning, Maternal bond, Sociology


Due to a lack of empirical data, the current understanding of the laryngeal mechanics in the passaggio regions (i.e., the fundamental frequency ranges where vocal registration events usually occur) of the female singing voice is still limited.

Concepts: Profession, Chest voice, Vocal music, Human voice, Head voice, Voice type, Vocal range, Singing