Dear Straight Dope:
I have a question that, well, is weird, but I don't know where else to find an answer. Recently a friend who is a music fan told me that the reason Barbra Streisand sings as well as she does is because of her larger-than-usual nose and because of the fact that she has a deviated septum. He said that because her nose is larger, she gets more resonance than others, and this is the reason that she can hit so many high notes. I thought this was ridiculous, but I don't really know anything about music or singing, so I couldn't really point to anything other than common sense. I told him that such people as the late Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, Whitney Houston, etc., sing/sang quite well and none of them has/had a larger-than-usual nose. Is there any truth to what he says? And if my friend's theory is true, does that mean that all people with larger-than-usual noses can sing well?
SDStaff TubaDiva replies:
There are no weird questions, only weird people.
Certain country singers to the contrary, humans do not sing with their noses. In fact, what most people refer to as a “nasal” tone has nothing whatsoever to do with the size or condition of the schnozz; in this situation, usually the position of the larynx is too high, crimping a portion of the vocal cord. This closes the back of the throat, directing too much air into the nasal cavity. The result: another graduate of the Jerry Lewis “Hey Ladeeeeee” school of vocal expression.
How do people learn to sound like that? Bad habit mostly; for the most part no one teaches us how to use our vocal cords properly from the start and we talk and sing as we hear sounds, imitatively. Imitation does not always beget good vocal technique.
Vocal teachers work with their students to get them to sing from a position of “low larynx.” The vocal cord resonates without being constricted and the throat is open, resulting in pure vocal tone without the nasal whine.
However luscious Barbra’s tone might be, it does not resonate through her nose; if it did, you’d be too busy laughing to pay attention to what she was singing. The real glory in her voice comes from the innate beauty of the total sound (lush and full and gorgeous), her ability to smoothly transition from low “chest voice” to high “head voice” (so smoothly you’re not even aware she’s doing it) and her preternatural breath control. My guess is that she has larger lung capacity than most women, another natural gift.
As for a deviated septum making a difference, well, no. The septum is the cartilage dividing the nasal cavity; a “deviated” septum is one that is improperly formed. It doesn’t hurt (except when you sneeze, perhaps). Many people have deviated or abnormal septums and don’t suffer any negative effects or even know there’s a problem. It only becomes an issue when the deviation impedes breathing, most often through injury or chronic low-grade sinus infection. Neither of those conditions make you a better singer — just the opposite, if anything.
So no, your friend’s theory is not true, though you gotta give him points for creativity. If bigger noses automatically made better singers you’d have seen Jimmy Durante and the Big Nose Singers on tour.
A tip of the hat to Tammy, our SDSAB Songbird, for her assistance on this subject and special thanks to Dr. David Smiley, M.D., doctor and musician, for his consultation.
SDStaff TubaDiva, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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