We are fascinated by someone who can do something that most people cannot do. One area in which people can surpass their peers is in setting records for something that is the highest ever.
Evan Ungar holds the record for the highest standing jump. In 2016, from a standing position, Ungar jumped 5.3 feet into the air. In 2014, Alan Eustace rode a gas balloon to 135,890 feet over Earth’s surface before jumping out. From that height, Eustace fell for 14 minutes until he landed safely on Earth by using a parachute. Eustace currently holds the record for the highest-ever skydive.
Recently, opera singer Audrey Luna set a height record of her own, although her feet never left the ground. Luna portrays an opera singer named Leticia in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of the opera The Exterminating Angel. At one point in the action, her character is required to hit the A note above a high C note. This note is so high in pitch that most professional singers cannot sing it. Luna, however, was successful. She now has the honor of having sung the highest note by anyone in the Metropolitan Opera’s 137-year history.
Reaching the Highest Note
When people sing, the sounds travel through the air as invisible waves. Once these waves reach our ears, our brains can interpret them as musical notes. As a sound wave travels, tiny particles in the air vibrate back and forth. How often these particles vibrate is called a note’s frequency. Physicists measure a note’s frequency in units called hertz, abbreviated Hz.
If a wave vibrates the air particles 98 times per second, the wave vibrates at 98 Hz. We hear it as the note G. Any note with a frequency higher than 98 Hz is higher than this G note. For example, if someone sings a note that vibrates at 110 Hz, the resulting note is called A. It is higher than G. When the frequency of a sound wave increases, so does its pitch, or how high or low the sound is.
Thousands of singers have managed to hit high C. Fewer have managed to hit the higher pitches D, E, or F. Those who have the skill to hit G or A-flat are rare. To hit a high A, however, reported the New York Times, it takes “a combination of genetic gifts, rigorous training and psychological discipline over two fragile vocal cords.” The higher the note, the faster the vocal cords must vibrate.
Luna says she has actually sung notes that are at a higher frequency than A. However, those notes have only been in practice, not in a live performance. “I’ve practiced up to a C above high C in the past, so I know it’s in me,” she said. “But it’s just nothing I’ve performed on any stage before.”
The opera’s composer, Thomas Adès, admitted that he likes to challenge a singer’s limits. “When I hear the conventional high C of a soprano, I want to say, ‘Show us what else you’ve got.’”
Adès says that Luna’s note isn’t included simply to break records. “The note, the range, the tessitura,” he explained, “is a metaphor for the ability to transcend these psychological and invisible boundaries that have grown up around them.”
Luna said that she always enjoyed singing especially high notes while growing up in Oregon. While still in high school, she played the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. This role is known for its difficult singing range. She explained, “I liked the sensation it made in my bones, in my head, in my sinuses. It just gave me a high. It still gives me a high.”
“When I am singing that high, it is the sensation that I feel all through my body,” Luna described. “I mean, I’ve gone skydiving before. I think this is a better rush.”
How We Sing
Singing is when someone uses his or her voice to produce a musical note. Several parts of the body work together whenever someone sings. Notes begin when air passes from the lungs through the larynx. The larynx, also called the voice box, is a hollow tube that is connected to the top of the body’s windpipe. Along with singing, the larynx also makes our speaking voices seem higher or lower. The larynx serves another important function, too: it prevents food or other small particles from entering the lungs.
When air travels from the lungs and strikes the larynx, it can cause the vocal cords to vibrate. When people sing, the vocal cords within the larynx vibrate at a certain frequency. If people didn’t have a larynx, they would still be able to speak. However, they would not be able to change the pitch or volume of what they say.
The group of notes that a singer is the most comfortable singing is called a range. When singing notes within his or her range, a singer’s larynx moves very little. However, as a singer reaches higher notes at the top of his or her range, the larynx starts to physically move higher. If the larynx becomes too strained, a singer’s voice will crack. Professional singers are different from amateur singers because they are better trained to hit notes that lie outside of their range.
Once the air from the lungs causes the larynx to vibrate, a note will not sound very loud. However, the volume of a note increases when a singer’s head and chest vibrate, too. The head and chest act as amplifiers, making the note louder. Finally, the tongue, palate, teeth, and lips work together to form these vibrations into familiar words.
What makes singing different from speaking is the way the body uses air to vibrate the vocal cords. If someone wants to sing louder or higher, they need more breath. In order to sustain a note at a certain pitch, a singer must be able to control the way his or her breath is emitted.
Voices in Harmony
A group of people who all sing together by themselves, or with a piano or orchestra, is called a chorus. Within a chorus that includes both men and women, there are essentially four types of singers, each with different general vocal ranges. In descending range from highest to lowest, these are soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Since most choral compositions use these four voices, musicians use the initialism SATB to refer to choral music written for such a group. There are other subgroups, but these four are the main voice parts.
The people within a chorus who sing the highest notes, or parts, are called the soprano and alto. The soprano is higher than the alto. Both parts are typically sung by women. The two lowest SATB parts are called the tenor and bass. The tenor is higher than the bass. Tenor and bass parts are typically sung by men.
The four vocal ranges are also used to describe the ranges of musical instruments. For example, a string quartet is a group of four musicians that includes two violins, a viola, and a cello. The violins, which can play notes higher than a viola or cello, play either soprano or alto parts. The next highest notes are played by the viola, which performs tenor parts. The lowest notes are played by the cello, which plays the bass parts.
Images and Sources
Chorus photo: Katryn Conlin
Chorus photo license: public domain