Poor neuro-motor tuning of the human larynx: a comparison of sung and whistled pitch imitation

Michel Belyk*, Joseph F. Johnson, Sonja A. Kotz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Web of Science)

Abstract

Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human communication that underlies the capacity to learn to speak and sing. Even so, poor vocal imitation abilities are surprisingly common in the general population and even expert vocalists cannot match the precision of a musical instrument. Although humans have evolved a greater degree of control over the laryngeal muscles that govern voice production, this ability may be underdeveloped compared with control over the articulatory muscles, such as the tongue and lips, volitional control of which emerged earlier in primate evolution. Human participants imitated simplemelodies by either singing (i.e. producing pitch with the larynx) or whistling (i.e. producing pitch with the lips and tongue). Sung notes were systematically biased towards each individual's habitual pitch, which we hypothesize may act to conserve muscular effort. Furthermore, while participants who sung more precisely also whistled more precisely, sung imitations were less precise than whistled imitations. The laryngeal muscles that control voice production are under less precise control than the oral muscles that are involved in whistling. This imprecision may be due to the relatively recent evolution of volitional laryngeal-motor control in humans, whichmay be tuned justwell enough for the coarse modulation of vocal-pitch in speech.

Original languageEnglish
Article number171544
Pages (from-to)171544
Number of pages14
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Volume5
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018

Keywords

  • imitation
  • voice
  • larynx
  • articulation
  • motor control
  • evolution
  • LOWER BRAIN-STEM
  • VOCAL COMMUNICATION
  • ELECTRICAL-STIMULATION
  • FUNDAMENTAL-FREQUENCY
  • SENSORIMOTOR CORTEX
  • PREFRONTAL CORTEX
  • CEREBRAL-CORTEX
  • CROSS-LANGUAGE
  • SPEECH RHYTHM
  • LIP-SMACKING

Cite this