Which Comes First:

the Voice or the Ear?

By on 7-20-2005 in Music Lecture & Seminar Topics

by Gary Powell

“We were taught to sing before we were taught to listen.” – Gary Powell

“Oh you have such a beautiful voice”, says your Aunt Jessie and Uncle Max Funny Fishing Photo after your first home-produced talent show. Years later, you hear it from an anonymous blue-haired lady at church, then next, from your dentist whose daughter sings in choir with you and even sometimes in the same key.

“What a wonderful voice!” they all say. Even your parents, who have never sung a note in tune in their lives say, “Oh honey, you have such a lovely voice”. You see, Aunt Jessie and Uncle Max were our first press agents. Maybe they were right, but…maybe they only knew how to catch fish! There is a bigger problem however and it is this: We were taught to sing before we were taught to listen.

Enraptured in our own vocal magnificence, it is difficult to go backward towards listening again. It is a step, however, that must not be skipped if a singer wants to progress as …an instrument. It’s an instrument capable of expressing the full experience of life like no other. Here’s where you start to appreciate its full breadth of expression.

Lecture Level and Requirements
Based on years of teaching, coaching and producing recording studio vocals. Vocal exercises for ensembles of all sizes. Asks for individual participation by soloists. Can be adapted for any level of singer secondary and above.

All Content of Gary Powell’s Site is Licensed Under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License



  1. I like the comparison of a singer to an instrument. Very well
    expressed and I think insightful.

  2. I think it’s interesting that even those who are seemingly tone deaf, such as myself, do have the ability to sing in tune with proper music education.

  3. I found an interesting article on music and wasn’t sure where to post it, so I chose here.

    Why does music move us? Science gets closer to the intersection of biology and creativity.

    Researchers are only now beginning to unlock the secrets of the brain. It seems like every month some new study or another comes along to explain why we get addicted to nicotine, or how our neural pathways were changed because we studied piano as
    children, or how meditation alters our brainwave patterns.

    Isolating which part of the brain is responsible for moving your big toe is a neat trick. But what about “softer” functions like figuring out how judgment is formed or music is made? “Why Music Moves us: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music,” a
    conference in Swedish Medical Center in Seattle last month, tried to apply some scientific paint stripper, to ask some basic questions about how the brain “hears”
    and translates sound into music.

    We know how the ear catches sound, and that sound waves are translated into neurons that travel to the brain through some 30,000 auditory nerves from each ear. But how is is it that the brain translates those neurons into something we recognize as music?
    Scans show that the brain is much more actively engaged with music than with speech.
    But there is no actual physical sound in your brain. No notes. No music. Only

    The idea of pitch is a mental phenomenon, says Robert Zatorre, professor of neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal. Only the way sounds are organized
    makes them interesting. Brain scans show that different parts of the brain register activity depending on the kind of music played. Dissonance, for example, is
    generally perceived as unpleasant, and it provokes reactions in a different region of the brain than consonant harmonies do.

    Music is a basic human condition. We’re born primed to pick up on beat regularities and able to put sound in some sort of coherent order. All cultures have music, and
    the ability to recognize music comes before speech. The brain is wired with reward
    and avoidance circuitry, and music, like sex or cocaine, rates high in the reward region.

    There is strong evidence that our attraction to music isn’t just for enjoyment.
    Music helps build community. And patients who have suffered strokes or other brain injuries often show dramatic imporvement in their recovery if music or rhythm is
    played during therapy, reported Michael Thaut, professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University.

    Our understanding of how the brain perceives music is still rudimentary, and researchers haven’t even developed reliable tests to measure what we want to know
    about some of the most basic brain functions. Trying to measure, for example, if the brain has a different electrical reacction to music it likes than to music it doesn’t is quite difficult because “like” and “dislike” are subjective terms that are hard to quantify scientifically.

    Still, it’s clear that our perceptions of the world have physical roots in the brain, and those perceptions can be altered. Studies have shown, for example, that the recognition of pitch can be altered by as much as 1 1/2 tones with medication.

    Mark Tramo, director of the Institute for Music & Brain Science at Harvard Medical School, told the conference that while the field of studying the neuroscience of how
    we perceive music is still young, some day we’ll know enough to be able to plant tiny neurobionic chips in the brain to alter perceptions and “fix” problems. It doesn’t take much imagination to project a little further out and imagine a day when we start to understand how the brain processes ideas or “produces” creativity.

    What if it turns out that art and creativity are meerely the product of a series of switches in the brain firing off in the right sequence?

    What a downer. Artists have always occupied a spacial place in society in part
    because no one – even artists themselves – has been able to pin down the essential
    act of making art and explain how inspiration and creativity work. Without a
    rational explanation for the profess of creating art, it’s much easier to romanticize the artist and attribute quasi-mystical or religious qualities to artistic ideals.

    But what if we are able to eventually reduce creativity to biochemical formulas? Surely that would change the way we look at artists, maybe take the mystery out of their art. If we could create neuro-bionic chips to cure brain disorders, why not pills that induce creativity on demand? If you created under the influence, would
    that seem like cheating, somehow? Surely some might claim that neuro-induced art
    would give some artists unfair advantage over others. Should we care? After all, if good art is really the thing, then who cares how it was created?

    Of course alcohol and drugs are already part of artistic lore, and rather than
    devalue art, they tend to add to the legend of the artist. And art is so much a product of experience that even if one was able to unlock biologically enhanced creativity, it’s doubtful that it would result in a surge of “super-art”.

    Still, as science gets closer to the intersection of biology and creativity, and the mystery of the artistic impulse is graphed and charted, it’s worth pondering what we consider to be the essential qualities that make art unique.

    Douglas McLennan, Wall Street Journal, Deccember 4.

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