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Chen-Gia Tsai, Yio-Wha Shau, and Tzu-Yu Hsiao : False vocal fold surface waves during Sygyt singing: A hypothesis, TAIWAN


False vocal fold surface waves during Sygyt singing: A hypothesis

Chen-Gia Tsai, Yio-Wha Shau, and Tzu-Yu Hsiao


Overtone singing is a vocal technique found in Central Asian cultures, by which one singer produces a high pitch of nF0 along with a low drone pitch of F0. The pitch of nF0 arises from a very sharp formant. Current physical modelling of overtone singing asserts that the harmonic at nF0 is emphasized by a resonance of the vocal tract. However, this approach could not explain the extraordinarily small bandwidth of this formant.

This paper offers a hypothesis that surface waves (Rayleigh waves) of the false vocal folds might actively amplify the harmonic at nF0 in a specific technique of overtone singing: Sygyt. We propose a loop for harmonic amplification, which is composed of (1) the vocal tract with resonance nF0, (2) surface waves of the false vocal folds, and (3) a varicose jet separating from the false folds. This model receives indirect support from an experimental study on a novel human vocalization, which is characterized by a prominent component at 4 kHz. During this pure tonal vocalization, false fold surface vibrations were detected by ultrasound colour Doppler imaging. High-frequency false fold surface waves may also occur during Sygyt singing.

1. Introduction

Overtone singing (or throat singing, biphonic singing) is a vocal technique found in Central Asian cultures such as Tuva and Mongolia, by which one singer produces a high pitch of nF0 along with a low drone pitch of F0 (F0 is the fundamental frequency, n = 6, 7, …13 in typical performances). The voice of overtone singing is characterized by a sharp formant centered at nF0, as can be seen in Figs. 1 and 2. Traditional techniques of overtonesinging include Khoomei, Sygyt, Kargyraa and others.

There are two approaches of physical modelling of overtone singing: (1) the double-source theory [1], which asserts the existence of a second sound source that is responsible for the melody pitch; and (2) the resonance theory, which asserts that a harmonic is emphasized by a extreme resonance of the vocal tract. The fact that the melody pitches producible by the singer are limited to the harmonic series of the drone was regarded as robust support of the resonance theory [2].Image

Recent attempts of physical modleling of Sygyt were concerned with calculation of the transfer function of the vocal tract using one-dimensional models, successfully predicting the formant frequency [2,3]. From a theoretical standpoint, however, this approach may not be suitable for the tract with a rapidly flaring bell section. A Sygyt singer raises the tongue so that the tract shape changes abruptly at the narrowing of the tongue (marked with a red dot in Fig. 1b), where the assumption of planar wave fronts breaks down, and evanescent cross-modes can be excited in this flaring section even at low frequencies [4]. This may leads to errors in transfer function calculation using one-dimensional models. An alternative approach of Matched Asymptotic Expansions for modelling a Sygyt singer’s vocal tract was proposed in [5].

In a two-resonator theory, a Sygyt singer’s vocal tract was modelled as a coupled system of a longitudinal resonator that was from the glottis to the narrowing of the tongue, and a Helmholtz resonator that was from the articulation by the tongue to the mouth exit. Experiments showed that for some Sygyt voices with a sharp formant two resonances were matched, while a melody pitch can be perceived even in the case of not exactly matched resonances [6]. Although the formant magnitude was shown to be increased by resonance matching [3], it is unclear whether resonance-matching will reduce the formant bandwidth.

From a psychoacoustic point of view, a small bandwidth of the prominent formant is critical to a clear melody in Sygyt singing. A preliminary study using an autocorrelation model for pitch extraction suggested that the pitch strength of nF0 increased along with the Q value of this formant, with the formant magnitude playing a secondary role [5]. The spectrum of the Sygyt voice shown in Fig. 1a has the 12th harmonic approximately 15 dB stronger than its flanking components. If the amplification of this harmonic cannot be explained in terms of vocal tract impedance, it should be attributed to the source signal.Image

The insufficiency of the resonance theory is even more notable in another technique of overtone singing: Kargyraa. A

Kargyraa singer uses his false vocal folds to produce low pitched drone, manipulating his mouth opening to change the vocal tract resonance. Spectra in Fig. 2 show that the centre frequencies of the first and second formants of Kargyraa voices always stand in the ratio of 1:2. This strange phenomenon suggests an unknown glottal source that produces the outstanding component at F1, and its second harmonic.

The goal of this study is to offer a physical model based on a nonlinear loop that explains the harmonic amplification in

Sygyt. This model asserts that surface waves (Rayleigh waves) of the adducted false vocal folds can actively amplify a harmonic. We first discuss the interactions between the false vocal fold surface waves (FVFSWs), the glottal flow and acoustic waves. A preliminary experiment that provided indirect evidence of this model is then addressed.

2. Theory

2.1. Rayleigh surface waves

The Rayleigh surface wave is a specific superposition of a transverse wave and a longitudinal wave of an elastic solid (see, e.g. [7]). Its amplitude is significant only near the surface and attenuates exponentially with the depth. The trajectories of material particles are ellipses. At the surface the normal displacement is about 1.5 times the tangential displacement. The velocity of Rayleigh waves, independent on the wavelength, is about 0.9 times the transverse wave velocity. Rayleigh’s theory of surface waves has been generalized to viscoelastic solids (see, e.g. [8]).

The assumption of Rayleigh surface wave on the false vocal folds is supported, although indirectly, by recent measurements of the medial surface dynamics of the vocal folds [9]. The trajectories of fleshpoints were approximately ellipses, with the length ratio of the two axes varying in the range of 1.5-2.0. This value is in remarkable agreement with Rayleigh’s theory of surface waves.

2.2. Physical modelling of Sygyt

Here we propose a physical model that describes how FVFSWs absorb the energy of the glottal flow and acoustic waves.


The false folds are significantly adducted during Sygyt singing. Hence, the volume flow through them (UF) is sensitive to FVFSWs. FVFSWs are supposed to be triggered by the acoustic pressure, which is predominated by the resonance of the vocal tract nF0. So we assume a FVFSW with the frequency of nF0.

Based on the assumption of elliptic movements of fleshpoints on the false folds, snapshots of this wave can be obtained. The ellipses in Figs. 3b and 3c represent the trajectory of fleshpoints. We estimate the energy exchange between the flow and the tissue occurs at one point. In Fig. 3b the work done by the viscous flow at this point is positive. In Fig. 3c the flow separates upstream, performing no work (or positive work, if back-flow appears) at this point. It can easily be seen that over a period the FVFSW absorbs energy from the flow in the vicinity of the flow separation point, which moves back and forth at a crest of the FVFSW, modulating the flow through the false folds at frequency of nF0. This induces varicose oscillations of UF, which produce the harmonic at nF0 in the source signal. This harmonic is in turn reinforced by the strong vocal tract resonance at nF0.

The net work done by the sinusoidal acoustic wave with frequency nF0 at a point on the false fold over a period can be positive or negative, depending on the phase relationship between the FVFSW and the acoustic pressure. We suppose that within a half wavelength of the FVFSW in the vicinity of the flow separation point, the FVFSW absorbs the acoustic energy of the harmonic at nF0. Away from this flow separation point, the FVFSW is expected to decay rapidly because of large viscous losses in the tissue during high frequency vibrations. We thus conclude that the total work done by the acoustic wave on the FVFSW is positive.

To sum up, a loop for Sygyt is established in terms of (1) linear resonator: the vocal tract with resonance at nF0, (2) energy source: pressure difference across the false glottis, and (3) nonlinear amplifier: a flow separating from curved walls with mucosal layers receiving acoustic feedback. This self sustained oscillator differs from the true vocal folds in that the false fold mucosa does not vibrate at any intrinsic resonance, but rather respond to the acoustic pressure.

2.3. Discussion

The present model explains the crucial role of the adduction of the false folds in Sygyt technique. Because of this adduction the flow velocity over their mucosal layers is high enough to   supply the energy for sustaining FVFSWs. It is interesting to note that FVFSWs have been observed in patients suffering from ventricular dysphonia [10], although their frequencies appeared to be much lower than those during Sygyt singing.

From an empirical standpoint, learning Sygyt is much more difficult than it is implicated by the resonance theory. In workshops of overtone singing, it has been repeatedly observed that only very few people are able to produce voices with a clear melody pitch. The present model predicts that one cannot sing Sygyt well even when manipulating the tract shape perfectly, because his false folds are not correctly adducted, or their mucosal layers do not have a proper shape, thickness, and viscoelastic properties.

The loop described in our model tends to “unify” the double-source theory and the resonance theory of overtone singing. Whereas the true vocal folds and the vocal tract are, as usual, viewed as the independent source and filter, the false fold mucosa plays a key role in introducing acoustic feedback into the loop for harmonic amplification.

The present model for Sygyt might also shed new light on the production of high-frequency, whistle-like voice type of birds, dolphins, whales, and groaning dogs. In this regard, our model is an updated version of the double-source theory [1], which already drew parallels between the sounding mechanisms of overtone singing and the whistle-like voice type, which is produced with the false folds adducted.

It is interesting to compare the harmonic-amplification loop with the sounding mechanism of flute-type instruments, which is based on a loop composed of a vibrating jet and acoustic waves filtered by a resonator. In the case of flutes the jet separates from the musician’s lips, travelling along the mouth of the resonator towards a sharp edge. When the instrument produces a tone, the jet oscillates at one of the resonances of the pipe. The acoustic flow field near the flow separation point excites sinuous oscillations of the jet. At the sharp edge, the jet is directed alternately toward the inside and the outside of the resonator. This pulsing injection induces an equivalent pressure difference across the mouth that excites and maintains acoustic waves in the pipe [11]. The jet, like the false fold mucosa, does not vibrate at any intrinsic resonance. It should be noted that the acoustic flow induces sinuous oscillations of the jet at the mouth hole of a flute, whereas the acoustic pressure excites FVFSWs that induce varicose oscillations of the glottal flow.

While a varicose jet is essential for whistle-like sound production, the role of wall vibration is not fully understood. It has been suggested that the sounding mechanism of human whistling is a loop composed of the jet and the oral cavity with a prominent resonance. The pressure fluctuations due to the acoustic wave at the flow separation point could induce varicose oscillations of the jet without any wall vibration. This model is in an interesting contrast to our model of Sygyt, which assumes vibrations of the compliant walls. To examine the assumption of FVFSWs in our model of Sygyt, we measure surface vibrations during whistle-like singing in vivo.

3. Experimental Study

3.1. Whistle-like voice type


The present model of “varicose jet oscillations induced by surface waves of curved walls in the vicinity of the flow separation point” may provide insight into the production of the whistle-like voice type in birds and mammals. It has been suggested that the production mechanism of bird whistled song might be related to a retraction of the syringeal membranes while in oscillation so that they no longer completely close, leading to a great reduction in the harmonic content of the flow. An alternative explanation of whistled song is that it is produced by pure aerodynamic means without any vibrating surfaces [12]. However, recent experimental studies favour the sounding mechanism of vibrating surface [13,14].

After some practice, human can imitate dog’s groaning to produce high-frequency whistle-like voices, which have a prominent component approximately at 4 kHz, as shown in Fig. 4c. We hypothesize that the mechanism underlying this vocalization is a varicose jet induced by FVFSWs.

Medical ultrasound (US) provides an ideal non-invasive method for observing high-frequency surface vibrations with small amplitude, because the vibratory artefact of colour Doppler imaging (CDI) detects surface velocity rather than displacement. In previous studies, the CDI was used to measure the frequency and the length of the vocal folds during normal phonation [15,16]. In the present experiment we employ this technique to detect FVFSWs during whistle like singing.

3.2. Methods

A commercially available, high resolution US scanner (HDI-5000, ATL, Bothell, WA) with a 5- to 12-MHz linear-array transducer (L12 to 5 38 mm, ATL) was used in this study. The frame rate in B-mode was about 25 Hz. In the colour mode, the pulse-repetition rate was 10,000 Hz and th measuring velocity range was set at 0 to 128.3 cm/s with baseline offset, which resulted in a frame rate of about 7 Hz. TheUS scan head was placed horizontally at the midline of the thyroid cartilage lamina on one side (Fig. 4a). The subject is the first author of this paper, who is a healthy man aged 33 with normal vocal function. For this experiment he had practiced the whistle-like vocalization for a week.

3.3. Results

CDI colour artefacts detected surface vibrations of the right false vocal fold during pure tonal singing (Fig. 4d). During warming up of this vocalization, surface vibrations of the right vocal fold and the false fold were observed (Fig. 4b).

The frequency of pure tonal singing was found to range from 3.7 kHz to 4.6 kHz. Out of this range the voice lose the pure tonal characteristic, with breathy noises accumulating at the prominent resonance.

4. Concluding Remarks

The observation of false fold surface vibrations during pure tonal singing provides indirect support of our model for Sygyt. As FVFSWs may generate 4 kHz pure tonal voices with the second harmonic 30 dB (or more) weaker than the fundamental, it should be possible that a Sygyt singer amplifies a selected harmonic of the voice produced by the true vocal folds through FVFSWs.

The role of acoustic feedback in FVFSW generation is not fully understood. When the acoustic wave filtered by the resonator is strong enough to trigger FVFSWs, a loop for pure tonal vocalization may be established. If not, periodic FVFSWs may not occur. The laryngeal ventricle may be the Helmholtz resonator that is responsible for the prominent resonance at 3.7-4.6 kHz. However, this “resonance” model appears against experimental results about bird’s pure tonal vocalization [13,14]. If the frequency of surface waves is not determined by the tract resonance, it should be determined by the tissue curvature, elastic properties, and the flow speed. In the case of Sygyt singing, however, it has not been reported that a singer manipulates the false folds to change the melody pitch. Further research is needed to compare the sounding mechanisms of Sygyt singing and the pure tonal vocalization.

One implication of our surface wave model is that the vertical motion of fleshpoints on the true/false vocal folds may be critical to their self-sustained oscillation. The two-mass and three-mass models of the vocal folds [17,18] do not take into account the ellipse-like motion of vocal fold fleshpoints, which is consistent with Rayleigh’s theory of surface waves and has been demonstrated in excised canine larynx experiments [9]. We suggest that the vertical motion of fleshpoints near the flow separation point can absorb the kinetic energy of the glottal flow through viscous shear force.

The effect of surface viscous shear stress exerted by a flow also plays a central role in the system of a pair of fluttering flags in wind. This system shows some notable similarities of the glottis. When the inter-flag distance lies in a definite range the flags flutter in an out-of-phase state and generate a pulsating flow, with striking similarities of the vocal fold vibration in the chest register. Flow visualizations showed significant shear stress on the flags exerted by the flow [19]. This finding suggests that viscous shear stress on the vocal fold mucosa should not be ignored, especially in the vocalizations with a large open quotient.

Next to the viscosity effect, the surface shear stress may be attributed to the carrying-along of the varicose flow. It was observed in a pair of flags that the flag wave propagates along with the flow, while the wave of an isolated flag propagates in the direction opposite to the flow. Note that the surface shear stress dominates the system of a pair of flags but not an isolated flag [19]. It is likely that the surface shear stress is due to the effect that a varicose or sinuous flow carries along the flag wave. This approach may shed new light on the mechanism of the self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds.

5. References

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