Skip to content

You are reading 1 of 2 free-access articles allowed for 30 days

The voice

“Waaaaaarrgggghhhhh!” seems an inappropriate response to a paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2015, 1337: 212−222). But in Vuilleumieri and Trost’s “Music and emotions: from enchantment to entrainment” they write: “[M]usic often elicits feelings of wonder, nostalgia, or tenderness, which do not correspond to emotion categories typically studied in neuroscience and whose neural substrates remain largely unknown.”

This is where “Waaaaaarrgggghhhhh!” comes in. On Saturday 3 December 1994 I happily exposed my largely unknown neural substrates to popular music’s best known scream when I saw Joe Cocker (1944−2014) in concert. Vuilleumieri and Trost state that pleasurable music activates brain regions usually responding to other pleasures and rewards “… such as the ventral striatum but also the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula, together with frequent effects in parietal and somatosensory areas”.

So when the pivotal moment of With A Little Help From My Friends (1967) arrived, and Cocker unleashed his emotion-laden cry, my ventral striatum, orbitofrontal cortex  and anterior insula were buzzing like chainsaws.

After the concert I reflected on the power of Cocker’s iron-plated larynx. Why didn’t he lose his voice? The nearest explanation Joe offered is in JP Bean’s biography Joe Cocker: With A Little Help From My Friends (1990). Losing one’s voice, he said, “… is a pain to any singer but it doesn’t happen to me too often … you get over-enthused and tend to blow out too much energy”.

One might expect soul and blues vocalists to be less attentive to their throats compared to, say, classically trained singers. But this wasn’t borne out by Kwak et al, when they investigated, “Knowledge, Experience and Anxieties of Young Classical Singers in Training.” Writing in the Journal of Voice (2014, 28: 191−195), they reported that advanced singers were no more educated about vocal pathology and treatment options than their younger counterparts. However, the authors acknowledged that asking elite singers to answer questions on vocal anatomy and function was perhaps no more fair than expecting otolaryngologists to be familiar with musical theory.

Did Joe’s vocal cords ever play host to nodules? These are benign callous-like growths that one study found affected 25 per cent of hoarse singers. The study was cited by Pedersen and McGlashan in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2012, Issue 6, Art. No. CD001934), where they considered, “Surgical versus non-surgical interventions for vocal cord nodules”. Non-surgical interventions include voice re-training, rest or “hygiene advice”, but the review concluded that “… there was not enough evidence to compare surgery to other treatment options”.

Joe Cocker probably never had vocal cord surgery, but Elton John did. And in 2005 Justin Timberlake – alleged by many to be a singer – also had vocal nodules removed.

And the singing voice harbours considerable therapeutic potential. Thus, writing in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (2013, 94: 426−434), Tamplin et al considered the ‘Effect of Singing on Respiratory Function, Voice, and Mood After Quadriplegia: A Randomised Controlled Trial’, and concluded: “Group music therapy can have a positive effect on not only physical outcomes, but also can improve mood, energy, social participation, and quality-of-life for an at-risk population, such as those with quadriplegia.”

But while singing mediates emotion, “speech alone awakens slumbering reason”. That was according to 18th century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. But, to be fair, Johann had successfully avoided Ian Paisley by 200 years when he made that remark. I had no such luck. During a local Northern Ireland election in the early 1970s, I witnessed at first-hand how a speech delivered by the thunderously voiced cleric did not so much awaken slumbering reason as rampant bigotry. A din of rapturous acclaim brought me to the window of our North Belfast home, 30 yards away from which Paisley stood on a flat-bed lorry trailer … sans microphone. Yet his booming message of venomous drivel was delivered with unwelcome clarity directly into our front room. And I’ve no idea what was happening to my ventral striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior insula when that was going on.

Yet on reflection, Herder was right; speech alone does awaken slumbering reason. There was something about Paisley’s virtuosity as a political agitator that exposed at least one listener to the fact that fine oratory can be a great vehicle for bearing wickedness through the air, like a toxic zephyr. Now, where had I seen that arrogant jut of the jaw; that fist thumping into the open palm; that errant strand of hair falling across a forehead slick with sweat? A newsreel from the 1930s, perhaps?

In heart-warming contrast, some speeches are soul-enriching gems, replete with eternal truths and moral rigour. Take, for example, that delivered by former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel when he made a broadcast to the people of Czechoslovakia on 1 January 1990. It opened with: “We live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought.”

Whether a Cocker scream, a Paisley rant or a Havel speech; as Jonathan Rée noted in I See A Voice: A Philosophical History (1999): “The voice, it seems, is not only the centre of the world of sound, but also the expressive secret of the soul.”

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Scroll To Top