The Science of Singing: How Helga Rietz Connected Two Passions

Nkongho Beteck

What makes a good singing voice? Matthias Echternach, singer and medical doctor at the Institute for Musicians’ Medicine in Freiburg, Germany, says science may have the answer. An otorhinolaryngologist, Echternach specializes in organs of the voice and measures the distinctive characteristics of soprano and bravado through high-speed cameras and custom-made masks. Connecting her passion of singing with her work as a science reporter, Helga Rietz of Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung shares what she learned after a full day in Echternach’s lab. Her resulting story won the Silver Award in the small newspaper category for the 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Joournalism Awards. She was interviewed by Nkongho Beteck.


What is your history with singing? Have you ever sung professionally?


I’ve been singing since my teenage years. I started off singing at different choirs and did that throughout my life from then on. I think there was hardly ever a time where I was not involved in any choir. Lately, for the last few years I have taken some singing lessons and joined smaller groups of singers. For the moment I am singing in a small a cappella group that is composed of eight singers...It’s a little bit going into a direction where the individual voices are more important or have more impact than in a huge choir.


Had you ever covered singing in the past?


This is the first time where a story was centered around singing and the singing voice. On rare occasions I have written on instruments and acoustics of concert halls and how they influence the impact of music.


How did you meet your main source, Matthias Echternach?


It was really interesting. I joined a singer’s summer camp in Tuscany, in Italy, a region around Florence, with about 15 other singers who want to improve their voice. The teachers are professionally performing opera singers who work more on the aspect of singing together with others in a cappella groups. You have alternating classes where you train your own voice mixed up with classes where you train to listen very carefully to what the other singers do. One of the singing teachers, who is a professional opera singer located in Germany, was one of the first test subjects of Matthias Echternach. He learned about the studies of Mr. Echternach and there was a discussion going on over dinner on how the men’s voices extend their range to (a) really high pitch. This is a special kind of singing which is called falsetto. This singing teacher was explaining how the falsetto works technically and what science knows about falsetto. He was telling us the studies of Matthias Echternach and how he is really trying to find out what’s really going on in the vocal tract during singing. I thought, wow, that’s really interesting and I’m going to give this guy a call when I’m back to the office and just see whether he lets me visit him while he’s running a series of his tests on a test subject.


What was it like when you went to visit Echternach at his lab in Germany?


In the beginning he was hesitant because it was a medical exam and there are issues if there is press present during a medical examination. I had a pretty long phone call with him and tried to convince him that we are going to treat this alright and we are not going to give out information that is critical medical information. Then after some time he was convinced and began asking the new test subjects whether they would be willing to have me around during the examination. There was a male singer who had to cancel last minute in the first run, but for the second run there was Renate Behle, an opera singer in her sixties who was alright with me being present. I said “Great! We’ll join you and see how things go about.”


What was the interaction like between Echternach and Behle?


They were funny together, the researcher and his test subject, because Echsternach had been a fan of Behle for such a long time and he had met her when he was a boy singer. There were these nice small “extras” that you could see in the interactions between the two.


Did he share anything that helped you understand more about singing?

I was impressed by the amount of quantitative work done on the voice because if you start taking singing lessons, you eventually cross several different singing teachers and they will all tell you something different about how the voice works. I had that experience and it was confusing because it’s like working with different pictures to get a sound correct.

I was also very much impressed by the amount of research that has been going on with the voice and the quantitative methods that are employed and the amount of studies done early on. The field started 200 years back. It’s still a young field of research but 200 years is a lot, after all. It’s a difficult field because no voice is like the other. No singer is trained like the other, so the test subjects are very different from each other. It’s hard to come to conclusions in that sort of data. It’s a little bit messy.


What methods were we using 200 years ago to study the voice?

That would be like putting a mirror in the back of someone’s throat and using the mirror to look at the vibrations of the vocal chords. In 90 percent of cases, you can’t really see the movement with the naked eye, you’d need a slow motion camera or something like that, but that was how it started. There were a few basic things that they got right even back then, so it was not that bad after all. And of course with the advent of cameras you can do stroboscopic photography and little by little resolve the time structure.


Describe some of the tools Echternach used, what were they like?


With Magnetic Resonance Imaging, you directly see on the screen how the vocal tract is moving. The ultrafast camera is impressive because they have to feed the camera through the nose into the throat of the test subject and then he sings for only like a minute and 30 seconds then you take out the camera. It is just transferring the picture from the camera to the computer and takes 10 minutes. The instrument is a bit uncomfortable, just a high speed camera using an endoscope, a thin wire that transports the picture information from the end of the wire into the camera, it’s like a flexible extension of the eye of the camera. The electroglottograph is a band put around your throat and it has electrodes on it and records the electrical resistance between the vocal cords from outside the throat.


Did anything you learn impact the way you will use your singing voice in the future?


Echternach has been doing this research for more than 10 years and he has adopted some of his singing techniques to what he learned from the many voices of opera singers he has analyzed. It doesn’t change anything in my singing technique but it changes a little bit on what I think about during singing, what I think about my own voice and about the organ. It’s a different level of fascination. It’s like learning the sky is blue because of the ray-like scattering on diatomic molecules. It doesn’t change your enjoyment with the blue sky but it kind of gives you a different level of appreciation.


Any advice for novice science reporters?


There was a lot of luck involved in finding the story, stumbling upon it and getting it to work. It was an unusual subject for me. As I normally cover technology, physics and astronomy I’m rarely looking into the physiology of things. Finding this story was an awesome experience and having your hobby and lifelong passion connect with the job. I think that it’s always a good idea to look for stories in places where you wouldn’t expect them. If we hadn’t talked to the singer in Tuscany about what he knows about voice, I would have never written that story. Start talking to people and start asking what kind of scientific questions they are interested in.