A voice sounds like a violin?

Edited: May 2, 2021, 4:02 PM · We all seem to accept the sound of the violin as a musically artistic form of the human voice. But is it possible that some
human music (and voices) are musically artistic forms of the sound of the violin?

Here's one example: Cecilia Bartoli sings Porpora


Replies (25)

May 2, 2021, 4:08 PM · Ms Bartoli is amazing!

But even the most brilliant coloratura soprano never has the same precision of intonation in the fast passages as a violinist.
And a singer's vibrato would be intolerable on the violin.
But the warmth and colour of the human voice allows a greater tolerance!
For our delight..

Edited: May 2, 2021, 6:04 PM · Certainly no human can have the same speed and precision of fingers upon violin, nor the same kind of vibrato. Perhaps I should have added the word "inspired." Are some pieces of music and/or singers "inspired" by the sound of the violin?
May 2, 2021, 9:43 PM · Frank Sinatra listened to Heifetz to get ideas about his phrasing.
Edited: May 3, 2021, 4:52 AM · Folks have said that the tenor Jonas Kaufmann reminds them of the 'cello
May 3, 2021, 1:16 PM · This whole conceit about "sounding like the human voice", and all its variants is not only not true but I think it's potentially a distraction.

One doesn't need to be persuaded that one can emulate the tone of the human voice to be open to getting musical ideas from other musical voices. More importantly, the tonal possibilities of each instrument are unique and one should seek to make the most of the instrument, not get tangled up in some poetic metaphor which sends one sideways from the reality.

May 3, 2021, 3:37 PM · Sometimes what inspires us surpasses reality...
May 3, 2021, 4:18 PM · Greetings?
Andres, I feel the same way as you. Listening to great singers influences my ideas on phrasing, concept of beauty and so on. Singing is a vital tool for articulating or discovering how you as a unique individual wants to shape a passage on the violin (The violin is , after all, just a lot of bits of wood stuck together) . But, in the end, every violinist is creating a unique work of art through that medium and I remain utterly unable to merge the two into both sides of some ephemeral ‘Bitcoin.’
(Nod to Christian)
May 3, 2021, 7:33 PM · The sound of the violin and the sound of the human voice are certainly not the same exact thing. Violin is not the same thing as voice. Any great art form incorporates many, many things, and certainly one of the two we are talking about is very likely to incorporate aspects of the other. And, yes, of course, when all is said and done, each is a unique art form. It just seems to me that voice may incorporate some aspects of violin, and vice-versa. It doesn't mean they're identical. Is that so terrible?

Tchaikovsky said, "Music is not illusion. It is rather revelation. It's triumphant power lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties we find nowhere else, and that the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement of life."

And one of the revelations we can be open to is to recognize and appreciate subtleties and possible connections that may not have occurred to us before. I do fervently hope that I remain open to thus expanding my appreciation of this great art form.

May 3, 2021, 8:16 PM · Greetings,
I think the link is closer to speaking in the Galamian sense of articulating vowels and consonants. I just don’t think the sounds correlate directly and one should not attempt to do so. I do strongly believe singing informs violin playing but at one step removed. That is, from listening to many singers we can contunually intensify our sense of and feeling for beauty. This abstract collection of beauty should then directly inform our playing experience. There are other lessons to be learnt too. For example, a singer is always responsible for modeling the interpretation around language as well as the music per se. This is a no brainer although there are classic examples of hapless students interpreting bitte mutter as ‘bite him mother.’ (A Fischer Dieskau master class, apparently). We violinists have a paucity of clues relative to singers as to what mood the composer intended. Indeed, we often find entirely appropriate ways of doing things that the composer did not remotely envisage when writing the work. Unfortunately, the demands of the sheer process of playing are so high that actually thinking about what message is intended becomes a minimalist item at the bottom of the agenda. The singing process drags us back to the remembrance that on the violin we are trying to express the same things on the violin that a singer is.
One difference I find is that singers can have a quite noticeable vibrato and be applauded for it whereas, for me anyway, a vibrato that actually attracts attention is too much or inappropriate.
Anyway, the original topic is certainly one that merits reflection.
May 3, 2021, 11:36 PM · Maybe Caruso and Elman have the answer:
May 4, 2021, 5:18 AM · Whether singing or playing, our style, tone, accentuation etc can come from a common source, rather than one inspiring the other.

I took up the viola when my decent treble voice turned into a ghastly teenage tenor, so my efforts were song-inspired.

But now, when rehearsing the tenor section for our local choir, I derive some of my "technique" from the viola: C & G strings are the "chest" register, the D string is the "mixed" voice, and the A string is the head voice (synthetic A) or falsetto (steel A). An uncultured voice has only C & A strings, and has to force the medium notes before "yodelling" into the high ones.

May 4, 2021, 6:14 AM · Greetings,
Adrian, I think your use of ‘common source’ hits the nail on the head very nicely.
Edited: May 4, 2021, 7:12 AM · Excellent articulation about what I think we would all agree is a genuine and significant aesthetic subtlety, no matter what our final conclusions about it.

Which has caused me to think of the downsides of being a critic. I would define a critic as someone whose opinions are so perfect that they leave no room for acceptance of any alternative ideas or subtleties, and therefore deprive the critic of expanding his or her experience, understandings, or appreciation.

Edited: May 4, 2021, 7:45 AM · It's natural that we look to the human voice as "the" instrument to be modeled by various contraptions such as violins. In my opinion the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice is the cello, although I think a case can be made for the erhu.*

I think one reason we cling to this association is because there has been a lot of music written with lyrics in every genre, and as violinists we try to establish the most secure musical context for what we are doing. We frequently use the term "lyrical" to describe what we are striving for.

As for Bartoli, I'm turning the tables. Can she sing what the top violinists can play? I've not heard her do "Introduction and Rondo Cappuccino" yet. Which means she's not even ready for the Tchaik if you follow the Dorothy DeLay repertoire taxonomy.

Which brings me to Wynton Marsalis:

*I said "a case can be made for the erhu" which got me wondering whether Mr. Musafia has ever had inquiries about that.

Edited: May 4, 2021, 8:15 AM · Bobby McFerrin Bach A minor (1st movement)

May 4, 2021, 10:56 AM · Love that McFerrin video!
May 4, 2021, 11:00 AM · Yeah, McFerrin is great. I have a singer friend who does that kind of stuff. Not as well as McFerrin, but he does pretty darned well for an amateur.
Edited: May 4, 2021, 12:06 PM · Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a mezzo whose singing was influenced by her previous career as a violist.
May 4, 2021, 1:02 PM · There’s a scene in “From Mao to Mozart” where a young girl plays for Isaac Stern. Her playing is technically proficient but very mechanical and lifeless. Stern stops her and asks her to sing the melody she’s playing. Understandably, she feels awkward suddenly being asked to sing in front of an audience, yet once she starts to sing, the melody immediately begins to have the character that was missing from her playing. Stern points this out to her and gets her to play again with that idea in mind, and the playing improves right away.

I don’t think the violin must always imitate the human voice, as it can evoke such a wide range of sounds, yet I believe it’s a good idea to think about melody in relation to the human voice.

It seems me that the OP’s question is not so much about the violin imitating the voice as it is about the voice imitating the violin. The latter subject is discussed far less frequently than the former. There are some examples. Sinatra’s approach was to study the phrasing, whereas McFerrin’s approach was closer to imitation.

Edited: May 4, 2021, 1:41 PM · McFerrin's dad was an opera singer.

I'm a little dubious about the claim that every instrument is the voice, but the voice is a natural point of comparison since it's everyone's first foray into music, and it is quite flexible in ways that most monophonic instruments are not.

I think it can make sense to think of our phrasing in very vocal terms, whether it's trying to have a sort of declamatory quality, or whatever, since we tend to think of music as embedding emotion and trying to communicate other qualities. I don't think you can abstractify the music into some kind of purely zen appreciation of vibration for vibration (in a Cageian sense) or you would be moving into some realm of total postmodern insistence on the experience of the listener in a really solipsistic way - You can make music that is based on timbres, but you probably have to arrange those timbres in some kind of discernable pattern (maybe being high could break that need down). When I hear the playing of Marc-Andre Hamelin, I hear more of the abstraction and less of the narrative, which I don't think suits a lot of music, but I quite liked hearing him play some pieces by Debussy that I think of as having a very painterly quality rather than a more narrative thrust. Hamelin is beast on the piano, but he more often than not leaves me cold.

What is it about Zoria Shikhmurzaeva's recordings that I find to have a particularly vocal and singing quality that I don't find in almost any other recordings? Is it the breathiness, the phrasing, some other quality?

I'm not sure that it's a "vocal quality" that I respond to in the playing of Aldo Ciccolini, but I can't help but think how I'd like to play more like him on violin as well. I think it's that his phrasing seems to always be expressing a particular idea or emotion.

Do we just default to the term "vocal" when we encounter a musician who can evoke a feeling with subtlety and directness? Is it all in the phrasing?

We're all out here just trying to get through our performances, one vibratory non-fungible token at a time.

Edited: May 5, 2021, 12:24 AM · And of course in India there's a movement to oust Western instruments - the harmonium has disappeared from many places as a result - but the violin is so good at imitating the human vice that it is unlikely ever to go.
Edited: May 4, 2021, 4:23 PM · Fortunately, unlike the human voice, the violin is incapable of giving political speeches. This should insure its popularity for years to come.
May 5, 2021, 8:42 AM · One important distinction between the human voice and the violin (or the cello/viola) that has not been mentioned is breath. The violin is independent of breathing*; the melody can go on ad infinitum without the fiddler dying from lack of oxygen.

On the one hand this makes wind instruments** those that are closest to the voice. They are limited in their phrasing the same way that singers are.

On the other hand: I have been warned by teachers that "breath pauses" are nonetheless essential. Endless melodies are not engaging audiences. We have to phrase as if we needed the "pauses" to breathe for the music to "make sense".

* The violin is independent of breathing. Obviously the violinist is not but breathing can occur while tone is produced (though there are things to be learned about breathing while playing for violinists too).

** It seems that the oboe is an exception; oboists seem to have a trick to use the amount of air in their mouth while breathing in the background.

Edited: May 5, 2021, 8:47 AM · Circular breathing is possible on the oboe (it is standard technique on the didgeridoo), but it is only ever used in ultramodern pieces by people such as Berio.
May 5, 2021, 1:21 PM · I think that an equal or better case can be made that the singer's voice is like a double-reed instrument: oboe, bassoon. It takes a minimum amount of force to start the two closed reeds, two vocal chords, vibrating. After that, it takes very little air flow to hold a note, unlike the clarinet, or violin, just constant "support". If they try to play/sing too soft, the sound can cut out.

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