Monthly Archives: November 2004

Why cannot I sing?


Curious Friends,


        I have always loved listening to songs sung by legends. But I have never been able to sing properly.No matter how much effort I put in, the voice is just not right. If only God could let me sing just that one song, I would not complain anymore and treasure the gift forever. Just that one song:


                “Aye Gulbadan, Aye Gulbadan

                 Phoolon ki mehak, kaaton ki chubhan,

                 Tujhe dekh ke kehta hai mera mann,

                 Kahin aaj kisi se mohabbat na ho jaaye”


        Today, in VERITAS we will try to understand why some people cannot sing properly. Is it a biological thing or can training improve it? Is it that their brains are out of tune? And what is it that good singers have?

        Most of the information that appears in this VERITAS is due to my father who is an ENT surgeon and has been taken from the book “Diseases of the Throat” ( Ballantyne and Groves) which my father gave me to read.

        First, note that a bad singer like me can “sing” any song perfectly in the head. So if I dont open my mouth and try to remember the tune and the highs and lows of the song, I can do it perfectly. So the problem is not in the brain( and thank God for that!). The problem lies in the translation of what the brain wants to sing and what the throat actually sings.

        Second, note that by hearing two people speak you will never be able to judge which one is a capable singer and which one is not. So singing seems to be a much more specialized and involved affair tha speech even though speech and singing come from the same organs.

      The human singing voice has three important parts:

1) The role of bellows played by lungs: The lungs pump air much like bellows in a mechanical musical instrument. The loudness of a person’s voice depends on how much power the lungs have and how well the air is pumped. A good singer usually has a good lung power and is able to inhale air rapidly and release it in a very controlled manner. A bad singer does not have the power in his lungs and is not able to control the exhalation while singing.

2) The role of reeds played by vocal cords: The lungs pump air into the throat where the vocal cords vibrate to create sound. The frequency of a person’s voice depends on the thickness of his vocal cords. The vocal cords can be streched and loosened by the muscles that are attached to these cords. When the vocal cords are stretched they become thinner and produce a higher frequency sound. When loosened they become thick and produce a lower frequency sound. So the pitch of the human voice depends on the vocal cords and their thickness. Imagine a violin. If its strings are tight they may be able to produce a higher pitch sound.

But if we make the string really loose the sound is pretty dull. A good singer is able to tighten his vocal cords to make higher frequency sounds.

So a good singer is subconciously able to alter the thickness of his cords to suite the voice that he tries to create. A bad singer does not have this control over his muscles and in turn the cords.

        The range of a person’s voice is decided by the difference between the maximum frequency that he can attain by stretching his cords the maximum and the lowest frequency that he can attain by loosening them the most. Women usually have thinner cords and thus operate at a higher pitch(!). Men have thicker voices because of thicker vocal cords.

At puberty the voice of males becomes thicker than their voices in childhood. The higher pitch may fall as much as 1/6th of its previous value.

The lower pitch may fall by 1/8th of its earlier value. That is why some male singers have a loss in range after their voice thickens.

3) The role of resonators played by cavities of the throat and the mouth: We have seen how the loudness(power) and the frequency(pitch) of the singing voice is decided. But that is not all. We can differentiate between the sound produced by a violin from a sound produced by a guitar even when the sounds have the same loudness and frequency. This is because the instruments have a different timbre(or quality or color) in their sound. This needs some more explanation: A musical instrument string or button never vibrates at a single pure frequency. There is always a mixture of sounds. So if you pluck a string to try to produce a 125 Hz sound then what will actually happen is that the 125 Hz sound will be produced and also several other frequency sounds will be produced in a lesser measure. Some of these lesser sounds would be magnified(resonance) by the shape of the instrument( the air cavities etc) and some will be suppressed. So the shape of the instrument is important to create the proper shape of the music wave( or proper timbre of the sound). Only a tuning fork can produce a pure sound of a single frequency. It produces a pure sine wave. Every other instrument produces a mixture of sounds which combine to form a unique sound.

            Similarly the human vocal cords cannot produce a single frequency pure sound. When the air is pumped from the lungs the cords vibrate as a whole and also in parts in a very complicated way to produce a mixture of various frequencies. Some of these frequencies are magnified( resonance) and some are suppressed as the voice passes into the throat and mouth cavities whose shapes also changes by the placement of the tongue and its thickness. This property of sound lets us differentiate between say Rafi’s voice and Talat’s voice even if they sing the same song.

              In short the resonators in the human body add to the beauty and texture of the voice. The shape and size of mouth, tongue and throat matter. Good singers have the shape that adds beauty and richness, bad singers just dont.

   Friends, we have seen that making the right sound is a very complicated thing and depends on a lot of different organs and their ability to work properly together. Training cannot achieve much, it can improve a person’s breathing so that he does not loose breath before the words that require power. The rest of the factors are natural gifts. In fact trying too hard can be dangerous. Singers who try too hard to create higher frequencies than they naturally can may end up with diseases like Singer’s nodules and non-infective laryngitis.

   I realize that I am not a gifted singer. But no one, NO ONE can stop me from admiring that great singer when he sings those lines:

            ” Kya haseen mod pe aa gayi zindagani

                  ke hakeekat na ban jaaye meri kahaani.

                  Jab aahein bhare yeh thandi pawan,

                  Seene mein sulag uth-ti hai agan.

                  Tujhe dekh ke kehta hai mera mann

                  kaheen aaj kisi se mohabbat na ho jaaye”






  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 

  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 

  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          

  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;