The Affective Voice: Song (Part 1)

Farinelli and the Snow Queen

King of Masked Singer is a South Korean singing competition between celebrities, whose main profession is not necessarily in singing (e.g. comedian, weather reporter, football player). Their identities are anonymized to prevent a certain degree of bias, and caricatured by specially designed masks that ‘fit’ (or decorate) the demeanors of their voices (see my previous post on the voice’s biological and cultural identity).

Singing is an action that signifies emotions – i.e. an ‘action sign system’ (Farnell 1999). I intentionally chose Korean media without English subtitles to showcase the importance of recognizing such subjectively emotive signs without the need of objective language. Although foreign spoken languages need to be translated for general communication, action sign systems do not have the same requirement. After the duet by Farinelli and the Snow Queen, the panelists commented on how they were touched by their performance. Even without seeing their facial expressions, the audience could hear the sentiments in the breaths they took, as well as the tension in their vibrato. The aesthetics of the voice already carries substantial information and the ability to transform the listener without the structure of linguistic (Farnell 1999) or visual queues.

“Music amplifies the dramaturgy of sound.” – Ihde 2007

Affect and Phenomenology in Music

What I have discussed here is affect. Although it is debatable, the term may have originated from our ability to recognise mental states and intentions in body movement (Blacking 1983). This phenomenological aspect of affect can be perceived in singing, as music amplifies sensuality in the bodily participation (Ihde 2007) of the voice. In contrast to Western distinctions between emotion and cognition, affect showcases the importance to treat feeling as a function that is just as rational as thinking. It is a state embedded with purpose and creativity that is transformative and symbolic (Blacking 1983).

Affect is often seen as the production of emotion through action, such as singing. The musical voice still affectively shines through language barriers. Whilst we see successful communications through such action sign systems, it also raises a concern of when body technique fails to convey the intended emotional message to the audience. I will explore this issue in my next blog post. Meanwhile, if you were affectively touched by Farinelli and the Snow Queen, you can listen to their full performance here.


Blacking, J. (1983) Movement and Meaning: Dance in Social Anthropological Perspective. Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 1(1): 89-99.

Farnell, B. (1999) Moving Bodies, Acting Selves. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 341-373.

Ihde, D. (2007). Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, Second Edition. New York: SUNY Press.


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