If you’ve been around musicians, you may have witnessed the argument between instrumentalists and singers regarding the classification of the voice as a musical instrument. While one group may just be arguing to claim superiority over the other, the argument does deserve some attention and maybe clarification.
In this article, we’ll take a look at verifiable facts that will provide a final answer to this question so that we can all focus on making great music rather than the less important things. A person could probably make a legitimate case for one side or the other, but I’m going to take a stance and put it in simple terms for you.
Vocals are considered musical instruments because they possess the two basic features required for this classification. One is that it must contain a sound source or a vibrating part, in addition to an amplification system, also known as the resonating part. Vocal cords have both of these features.
With the presence of the vocal cords as the sound source or vibrating part and the vocal tract acting as the amplification system or resonating part, we can classify the voice as an instrument. There’s more to this though. We’ll take a close look at some of the facts and opposing views later in the article.
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Why Are Vocals Considered A Musical Instrument?
If we want to provide an acceptable answer to this question, we have to take a step back and find out exactly what a musical instrument is. Doing this will help us understand exactly what we’re comparing vocals to.
What is a Musical Instrument?
According to Britannica, a musical instrument is anything that creates a sound for the purpose of making music. But what is a musical sound and how do we differentiate it from just a regular sound?
QS Study says that a musical sound is just a tone with certain elements like quality, pitch, and resonance. A musical sound usually has to be put into a larger context as well for it to be considered music.
For instance, one single note can hardly be considered music, but as part of a larger whole, then it is music. So with these definitions in mind, let’s apply them to the voice box as a musical instrument.
1) Vocals Can Be Used to Make Music Like Any Other Instrument
The voice can produce musical sounds if used well – (the singing program Singorama is probably the best way to learn if you’re interested) – just the same way the guitar can produce musical sounds when played properly. Play the C note on any instrument and the voice can replicate that same note.
Not only that but you can use vibrato as well as if your voice is a vibrating string (because that’s actually what a voice is). When the voice sings, it is “playing” specific musical notes in specific sequences just as musical instruments do. This combination of pitch and timing is what music is created of.
Actually, the voice does all of the above and then adds words and expressions, something that is unique to the human voice alone. Something worth mentioning too is that we often apply the same dynamics processing techniques and effects on vocals as we do with other instruments too (how to mix vocals in my guide).
2) A Choir of Singers Can Make Music Just Like An Orchestra
An orchestra is made up of different instruments with different tones, timbre, range, etc. A mix of these different characteristics complementing each other is what produces the orchestral effect. The voice can replicate this in different ways.
A group of singers can reproduce any harmonies, tonal movements, time signatures, and even mood that any orchestra can create. Just as we have the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, so we also have vocals.
In fact, vocal classifications are even more as they include: soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto, countertenor, tenor, baritone, bass, and basso profundo.
We’ve just seen 10 vocal classifications, all of which are based on specific ranges in pitch. Add the varying timbres and expressions and you get enough building blocks to create any type of orchestra you can think of.
3) The Voice Can Also Do Percussion Sounds or Imitate Other Instruments
Have you seen folks called “human beat boxes?” Seeing what these folks can do with their voices, it is immediately clear that the voice is indeed a musical instrument. While this is mainly mimicking drum sounds, with practice and some creative “miking” and engineering, we can produce very realistic beats.
There are some limitations to what the voice box can do, but for the most part, imitating a basic rhythm section isn’t out of one’s reach. Moreover, many beat-boxers can get really, really good at their craft.
Some people can even imitate entire EDM songs including the bass and melody like Tom Thum in this TedTalk. As a matter of fact, I would take a look at that video if you haven’t already seen it. This video alone should be enough to convince anyone that the voice is an instrument.
4) The Voice is Actually One of the Most Complex Instruments
Everything we’ve looked at up to this point supports the fact that the voice is a musical instrument and more. Other sites like this one claim that the human voice is perhaps one of the best instruments for making music there is.
Like the electronic keyboard, which no one questions whether or not it is a musical instrument, the voice can reproduce what you hear. Now, let’s look at why the voice is a more complex instrument than most others:
The Vocal Cords
This is the vibrating part we mentioned at the beginning. We however did not say how special it is. While the vibrating part of a guitar (the strings) is fixed in shape and size, the vocal cords are not. They can be thickened, thinned out, and stretched all very quickly and with great ease.
This means that the same vibrating part that produced a high pitch can in an instant produce a low one. To achieve this on a guitar, you will have to move from the thin strings to the thicker ones.
The Vocal Tract
Still using the guitar as our comparison tool, the vocal tract is to the voice what the guitar box or body is to the guitar. Now get this, the guitar box can’t change its shape as it is not malleable.
What this means is that the tone you can get from a particular guitar cannot change (without external help) because its vibrating part is fixed. This is totally different from the vocal tract which can change, giving it the ability to change the tone and timbre of the sound from the vocal cords.
At this point and after all the points we’ve made above, we’d like to think that the question of whether or not vocals can be considered instruments has been put to rest. Your voice is a great musical instrument.
As this site points out, one of the more interesting things about the human voice is that it can be more complex and sophisticated than any musical instrument ever created by man. Not only does it give a singer many options, but it also makes it difficult to “master,” if there is such a thing.