Singing Science: How High and Low Can Your Voice Go?
Do you enjoy getting together with family and friends to sing familiar holiday songs? It can be fun to do this time of year, gathered around a piano with a warm fireplace nearby, or bundled up together outside. Have you ever wondered what the highest note is that you can sing? How about the lowest? Or what about other people – do you think males and females can reach the same notes? How about children and adults? In this “note”-worth science activity, you’ll get to answer some of these questions!
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
Have you ever started singing a song, and then realized a little way into the melody that the notes were too high or too low for you to sing? If so, the song was outside of your vocal range. A person’s vocal range is the lowest and highest notes (along with all notes in between) that a person can comfortably sing.
To understand what might determine a person’s vocal range, it is important to first understand what is happening when a person sings. When air is expelled from a person’s lungs, it’s carried out of the body through a tube called the trachea (or windpipe) in the throat. In the trachea, the air passes through the larynx (or voice box), which contains folds of tissue, called the vocal cords. The vocal cords vibrate as air passes through them, and this vibration creates sound. If you place your fingers at the base of your throat and sing or talk, you might be able to faintly feel these vibrations.
The pitch of the sound a person makes is determined by several factors, including the size and tension of their vocal cords. By changing some factors, people can produce different pitches, or notes.
Extra: You could do this activity again but this time use at least 20 volunteers as follows: 10 adults (age 21 or older, including 5 males and 5 females) and 10 children (age 9 or younger, including 5 males and 5 females). How does age and gender appear to affect a person’s vocal range?
Extra: Investigate several different musical instruments and their musical ranges. How does the human vocal range, which you explored in this activity, compare to the musical range of other instruments?
Extra: Do some research into the classification of vocal ranges for choirs (e.g., soprano, alto, baritone, etc.). You can use the resources in the “More to explore” section to help you do this. What ranges do your volunteers belong to? Which basic choral ranges are easiest to fill? Which are the hardest to fill?
Observations and Results
Did you find that children typically have the highest vocal ranges (regardless of gender), and adult men typically have the lowest?
One thing a person cannot control is the length of his or her vocal cords, which affects the pitch of sound a person makes when singing. Vocal cord size is similar in young males and females, which is why children – boys and girls – have a similar vocal range. (This is from about A3 to G5.) But as children go through puberty, their vocal cords grow longer, giving adults typically lower vocal ranges than children. By the time they’re adults, most females have vocal cords that are between 12.5 millimeters (mm) and 17.5 mm long; adult males usually have longer vocal cords, between 17 mm and 25 mm in length. Consequently, singing voices for women are usually a little higher than for men, with the highest female voice (soprano) reaching C6 and the lowest one (contralto) going down to E3, while the highest male voice (countertenor, typically in falsetto) may hit E5, and the lowest one (bass) can drop down to E2.
More to Explore
Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
Science Buddies |
Singing, pitch, age, gender
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