#517: Science!

Getting More Tale #517:  Science!

Never underestimate the power of science.  Without science, we would not have the electric guitar.  Science allows us to analyse wavelengths and wires and figure out why a piano sounds so good.  With the tools of science, we can examine how music effects the human brain.  With science, we can battle ignorance!

That in mind, here are some interesting science facts that we gleaned from the September 2015 issue of Discover magazine, in an article by Jim Sullivan.

You might wonder how singers like Paul Stanley or Freddie Mercury managed to sound as incredible as they did.  It was the result of many factors, but both Paul and Freddie had strong vocal cords.  The muscles in the vocal tissues do the work.  Great singers have incredible control over these muscles, and take good care of them.  They work by increasing and decreasing air resistance, by opening and closing.  The compression and decompression of air creates waves…sound waves!  Now think about the range of sound that the human voice can produce.  It’s a very wide spectrum of sounds.  Think about the complexity of those muscles and the nerves that control them!  Get this — there are a few throat singers who are able to create up to four notes simultaneously!

Freddie Mercury was also probably dominated by the right side of his brain.  Current theories state that singing is mostly controlled by the right, while language is in the left.  Possible evidence of this can be found in some stroke victims.  Some cannot speak, but can still sing.  Another example that I remember from my childhood is country singer Mel Tillis.  He was in a Burt Reynolds comedy, Cannonball Run.  A young 10 year old me liked his character because he talked funny:  he had a stutter.  My dad told me, “He has that stutter in real life.  He has a really hard time speaking, but he can sing like a bird.”  I couldn’t believe it.  My dad told me an old story, that Mel Tillis was talking on the phone with somebody and just couldn’t speak.  His stutter was so bad that he couldn’t finish a sentence.  So instead he began singing.  Isn’t that a fascinating story?

How about volume?  Well, it turns out that the average human speaking voice is about 60 decibels.  According to the Guinness Book, there’s a lady in England named Jill Drake who can scream at 129 decibels.  That’s about the same levels measured at an AC/DC concert.  Perhaps Jill Drake should consider auditioning for the lead singer job in that band!

Singing is a special talent, and I’m not very good.  I have poor control and I’m constantly flat or sharp.  Why is this?  Is it my vocal cords?  According to another Discover article by James Dziezynski from July 2014, not really.  A study showed that it’s probably the brain.  The condition is called imitative deficit, and if you’re a bad singer like me, you probably have it. Essentially, our brains can hear and identify a note correctly. When we try to move our vocal cords to hit that same note, we can’t. The brain’s signals get scrambled. It consistently commands the vocal cords to hit a different note, no matter how hard we struggle with it. However, all is not lost. Like anything else, you can re-wire your brain with practice. Lots of practice, preferably with guidance.

This is heartening to know. There is hope, even for a talentless schmuck like me! Thank you, science.

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62 comments

      1. Shit man, another great answer. I was discussing this with HMO earlier this week — I’m currently listening to Rainbow On Stage in the car. The 2 disc version. And let me tell you, I am a believer. Dio would be my #2 on the list. But JLT, he woos the ladies….

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  1. My memory of Mel Tillis is about the same as yours. I just could not figure out how he did it.
    Apparently Elvis, Ann Wilson, BB King, Marc Anthony, Noel Gallagher, John Lee Hooker, Ed Sheeran, and Carly Simon all stuttered as well.
    Thanks for the science lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I did not know of him. I will check him out.
        On a side note, and not really stuttering, but there was an American Idol contestent named James Durbin who has Tourette Syndrome and Asperger Syndrome, has difficulty speaking and facial tics among other issues, but sings great.

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        1. I’m just kidding – suggesting that the most important of the stutterers was missing. He’s a pretty shocking Pop Idol winner. He murdered Suspicious Minds. Truly.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. I win today? Awesome! A winner is me!

        Yes to more science. I grew up with a science teacher Dad. He never forced it on us, but we have a healthy appreciation for it! :) You should ask him about science on our Taranna trip. He could tell you lots!

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        1. I will, I would love to do that actually. We have probably discussed this before but it was my dad with me too. He loved watching science documentaries on TV and I watched with him. Carl Sagan was a gateway drug!

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        2. Sure, get him started talking. His conversations can cover a lot of science-y ground! One of my Dad’s favourites is Star Trek (the old series, as he was a kid when they started).

          Oh man, Carl Sagan. Me too! Cosmos, Contact, Broca’s Brain… man I watched and read it all. Mind blowing stuff as a kid.

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        3. Not like you can go wrong with any of these guys. Heinlein. But yeah Ellison is very special and of course he wrote one of the greatest Star Trek episodes ever! The one where Kirk goes back in time and changes history and the Nazis win WWII!

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        4. I know, right? SO much great stuff. Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson. I love Spider Robinson for all the puns. Bradbury. And of course Heinlein. I think that dude ought to be in his own category.

          I have a book (by Ellison) about the writing of that Trek episode, all about his experience of it.

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