The Affective Voice: Song (Part 2)

‘Unsuccessful’ Affect

Although Ciaran O’Driscoll gave an impressive vocal performance in the auditions, the coaches decided not to choose him. The changes in vocal registers and style within 90 seconds was too frequent and ‘too confusing’. In artistry, there is a popular emphasis on the vitality of bringing unique style to the artist’s own work. Still, there is an audience, a collective, to conform to. In order to ‘successfully’ communicate songs, singers are advised to get the right balance between technique and emotion (Larrouy-Maestri 2013).

“Culture is not a template that controls people’s thoughts and patterns of action, it is rather available knowledge that is invoked and constantly re-invented in the course of social interaction.” – Blacking 1983

Body Technique and Emotional Expression

Western society is a playground abundant with thoughts and actions based upon Cartesian dualisms (e.g. subject and object; mind and body). Virtuosity is an area where such dualisms are explicitly blurred. Technical skill and depth of expression are not incompatible, but rather complementary in the right context. Art forms expressed through the body are social institutions. No matter how individualistic the artist’s style is, feelings are culturally encoded as soon as they are brought into action. In other words, feelings which are expressed or received through a medium of singing (and other bodily art forms) come from a repertoire of collective emotional experiences. People learn ways of talking about and ways of acting them out through phenomenology (Blacking 1983). This phenomenological and synergetic cycle of learning and conveying emotion through body technique is saturated with affect, which becomes culturally specific in itself. In the case of Ciaran O’Driscoll, his affect was ‘wrong’ (or unsuccessful) in the cultural context shared by the coaches (and with the audience to some extent).

Balancing Act

We must recognize the ambiguity in the intentionality of the voice: the ability to vocalize what one means. There is always a conscious difficulty in producing an adequate representation of what singers wish to convey, conceptually and emotionally (Pecora 1985).

“Like riding a bike, making a vocal sound may partly depend on the fact that it happens largely without conscious control. So subtle and complex are the muscular adjustments required that, as with riding a bike, you are liable to fall off if you think too hard about what you are doing…But this does not make the voice any less of a production; it just points to the many different pressures, conscious and unconscious, voluntary and habitual, that are always acting on the raw material of the voice to shape and style it.” – Connor 2011

Singing requires a balance between raw emotion and acquired technique that is extremely delicate, and often at a different locus for each individual. Most vocalists spend many years of training to get that desired balance, and further practice to habitualize it via muscle memory.


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.

Connor, S. (2016) Introduction: Vocus Pocus. Pp. 6-17 in Fisher, J., Kayes, G., Matthews, C. (eds.) This is a Voice: 99 exercises to train, project and harness the power of your voice. London: Wellcome Collection.

Larrouy-Maestri, P., Lévêque, Y., Schön, D., Giovanni, A., Morsomme, D. (2013) The Evaluation of Singing Voice Accuracy: A Comparison Between Subjective and Objective Methods. Journal of Voice 27(2): 259.e1-259.e5.

Pecora, V. (1985) Heart of Darkness and the Phenomenology of Voice. ELH 52(4): 993-1015.


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