Updated: Jan 23
Neuroscientist Sophie Scott of University College in London studies laughter. I listened to a podcast – the Hidden Brain episode called The Best Medicine – that explored laughter, as well as Dr. Scott’s Ted talk. It got me thinkin’.
Laughter is a way to signal social cues. We’re social apes. We evolved to survive as groups, not as individuals. Everything we do as we interact with one another is about social cues.
Laughter is very seldom about responding to what’s funny, it’s about communicating. When we laugh we often do so involuntarily. Laughter is on the list of involuntary, animal noises that we humans make. There are other animal vocalizations we still make, such as yelping with pain, gasping with surprise, or crying out in fear.
It seems that other animals that are social in nature (that we know of) have a way of laughing, or something like laughing that creates those same sorts of social cues.
Dr. Scott talked about how rats have a form of laughter, in a frequency above our hearing, that indicates playfulness. They laughed when they were tickled by researchers, and once they identified the researchers as a source of tickling, they would laugh in order to incite the researchers to tickle them. The rats who had their vocal cords removed for this study were treated differently in play. Rats who could laugh would play together normally, but those without the ability to laugh would find their play often escalated to fighting. Based on the example in this research, I would imagine that every social animal would have to have some form of laughter.
Laughter would literally be a life or death issue.
Research by Daniel Levitin of McGill University, Steven Mithen of University of Reading, and Ani Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego all suggest the probability that hominids, homo sapiens in particular, sang (or did something a lot like singing) before they spoke. The genome for language processing, as we know it today, is only about 100,000 years old. Since all hominids were communal animals before and at that time, communication was likely a series of visual cues and signing along with pitched vowel sounds (not unlike the communications of chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest relatives). Again, the ability to make the correct sounds – the pitch, vowel, timing, rhythm – were a matter of life or death.
If all that’s the case, then people would have, most likely, been singing before they spoke, not the other way around as has been commonly portrayed in popular media. Early speech, then, would fall into the “animal sounds” category of phonation.
Neuro-Vocal Method, the neurology-based method of voice instruction I’ve developed, has a strong emphasis on the singer utilizing awareness of their facial resonant capacity to measure laryngeal efficiency.
Most singers have a natural air flow that is too passive to accomplish this in singing. One tool that helps them is a breathing technique which mimics laughter. The singer measures certain behaviors of specific abdominal muscles – the same behaviors found in laughter – in order to create a more energized air flow. This energized air flow, along with an awareness of internal resonance, gives the singer access to an ease and efficiency of phonation which could not be achieved without it.
Once the singer is using this awareness of their resonant capacity along with the breathing which is the same as laughter, their ability to phonate is enhanced at every level. They can sing higher and louder, and can sing for very long periods without fatigue or risk of vocal damage.
In my experience, this method of phonation can actually allow for healing of damaged vocal folds.
If singing comes from laughter, why do so few people associate this kind of breathing with singing? Why is singing not an “animal noise”? Or, at what point does it lose that status?
I’ve heard great opera singers sing without accessing the nasopharynx, and have read vocal pedagogues who claim that either there is no resonance in the nasopharynx when singing, or that it should not be used.
Maybe it’s a classical thing. Classical singing, when done well, is a superbly free sound, but it takes a while to get there and many singers never achieve that freedom. Popular singing, on the other hand, is not looking for a particular sound but seeks a manner of making sound that is free from the beginning. There is no pressure to be beautiful, just to be natural.
Since I teach only popular styles, I have the luxury of starting each student directly on the path of achieving the ability to make animal sounds. Animal sounds require animal sound production: exhalation akin to laughter, and resonance (via the nasopharynx) akin to shouting or calling.
I wish I could wrap up all these thoughts. Right now. Today.
But I haven’t concluded anything.
I think there’s a lot to this. I think there’s probably more to exploiting the peripheral nervous system, in the way I do with Neuro-Vocal Method, than I had heretofore put together. I wonder if I could get Sophie Scott interested in this...