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Acoustics of the Vowel


Dieter Maurer

It seems as if the fundamentals of how we produce vowels and how they are acoustically represented have been clarified: we phonate and articulate. Using our vocal chords, we produce a vocal sound or noise which is then shaped into a specific vowel sound by the resonances of the pharyngeal, oral, and nasal cavities, that is, the vocal tract. Accordingly, the acoustic description of vowels relates to vowelspecific patterns of relative energy maxima in the sound spectra, known as patterns of formants.
The intellectual and empirical reasoning presented in this treatise, however, gives rise to scepticism with respect to this understanding of the sound of the vowel. The reflections and materials presented provide reason to argue that, up to now, a comprehensible theory of the acoustics of the voice and of voiced speech sounds is lacking, and consequently, no satisfying understanding of vowels as an achievement and particular formal accomplishment of the voice exists. Thus, the question of the acoustics of the vowel – and with it the question of the acoustics of the voice itself – proves to be an unresolved fundamental problem.
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We thank the many children, women and men—untrained speakers and professional singers, actresses and actors—who participated in our studies and who lent us their voices for an understanding of what we are questioning.

We thank Anton Rey, Head of the Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, Zurich University of Zurich, Switzerland, for his unswerving support of our research, and we are very happy to have this text published within the publication series subTexte of the Institute.

We thank Volker Dellwo, Head of the Phonetics Laboratory at the Department of Comparative Linguistics, University of Zurich, Switzerland, and Daniel Friedrichs, participating in some of the ongoing studies, for all the long discussions of many of the aspects considered in this treatise. These discussions were a strong help with regard to the development of an appropriate concept for the line of argument and the form of presentation.

We owe Heidy Suter, both a linguist and a professional singer, much for here exceptional ability to intellectually re-enact matters of our ­research and to relate them to voice production, both when speaking and singing herself as a subject of research as well as when advising professional and non-professional singers during recording sessions as a research associate. Moreover, we thank her for her extraordinary effort in editing and proofreading the text.

The strongest influence on the present text exerted Christian d’Heureuse. More than two decades ago, when we first discussed the present ­matt­er, he immediately and fully understood the core problem described here, his criticism was always persistent, precise and challenging, and he may become one of the scholars which will provide promising new approaches. Additionally, his conception and implementation of the database software “Media Archive Tool” was and is irreplaceable for the investigation of our large sound corpus.

We thank David Michael for his thoroughly elaborated proofreading and his prudent advices for the improvement of the text and its structure.

We thank Jacques Borel for his talent, taste and expertise in giving the text, tables and figures a fluid, readable and elegant look. We are aware of the many details of the layout structure and the typography he had to consider and of the very time consuming work he was confronted with during the realisation of the book. ← v | vi →

We thank the publisher Peter Lang Publishing Group in general, and Adrian Stähli in particular, for accepting to publish this treatise and for the very attentive and proficient support during the editing and production processes.

Funding by the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF

This publication relates to an ongoing research on voice and vowel qualities by comparing trained and untrained speakers of the three speaker groups of children, women and men (Maurer, Suter, Friedrichs, & Dellwo, 2015, Maurer, n.d.), supported by two grants of the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF (grant no. 100016_143943 and no. 100016_159350). Within their efforts to fund open-access publications (pilot project OAPEN-CH), the Swiss National Science Foundation has selected this treatise and has also covered the entire financial needs for this publication (grant no. B-OA10_163510.)

The subTexte series

As mentioned, this book is published as volume 12 of the series subTexte, edited by Anton Rey, Institute for the Performing Arts and Film, University of the Arts, Zurich. The subTexte series is dedicated to presenting original research within two fields of inquiry: Performative Practice and Film. The series offers a platform for the publication of texts, images, or digital media emerging from research on, for, or through the performative arts or film. The series contributes to promoting art based research beyond the ephemeral event and the isolated monograph, to reporting intermediate research findings, and to opening up comparative perspectives. From conference proceedings to collections of materials, subTexte gathers a diverse and manifold reflections on, and approaches to, the performative arts and film.—For further information and a list of all volumes, please refer to: ← vi | vii →