Singer's Voice and Expression – A Bodily Approach to Listening to a Singer, Using Björk as an Example (2012, in Finnish)

What is singer’s expression and how can it be approached? How does a listener understand a singer’s expression through his/her own body? What is the relationship between the singer’s expression and the singer’s voice? These were the primary questions of this research.

The researcher examined the phenomenon in her own bodily experience using different methods of listening. The main aim of this research was to develop a new kind of body-based method for listening to and analyzing a singer’s performance.


The other important aim was to analyze the singer’s expression and voice without losing the connection to the bodily experience and to the “moving” and “touching” aspects of the singer’s performance. Another aim was to find ways to describe the singer’s expression in greater detail.

The basic theoretical field of this study was the phenomenological ethnomusicology, the phenomenology of movement and the psychoanalytic research. The focus was on the vocal expression of a human being – and how another human being can understand this expression.

This study was based on the two following ontological starting points: (1) A listener can sense the singer’s expression with his own body and understand another bodily being through the proprioceptive, inner sensitivity of his own body. The listener need not always be aware of this bodily process of understanding although he may become more aware of it. (2) The singer’s expression can “move” or “touch” the listener. This “being moved” can actually be felt as a sensation of movement or change in the proprioception of the body.

The first methodological listening position in this study was empathetic listening that refers to listening with the whole body. The focus was on the listener’s own proprioception, “the inner sense of the body”. In empathetic listening, the main aim was to sense the vitality affective movement qualities in the singer’s performance. This is a kind of affect attunement, where present moments may arise (cf. Daniel N. Stern).

The next phase of the listening process was analytic listening, a method where musicological (rhythm, melody), phonetic (articulation) and vocological (voice quality) aspects were considered. The singer’s voice was listened to on the micro level as small fragments.

Traces of the movement qualities were found in the singer’s (Björk’s) voice. For example, the quality of fulfillment was created with the attenuated syllable, increasing the intensity of the voice and increasing the space of the oral cavity. Laboriousness, for example, was created with a creaky voice and constricted and labored articulation.

The main results of this study were the following: (1) The content of the singer’s expression consists of the vitality affective movement qualities. Pressing, curling up, expansion and gliding are examples of such qualities. (2) The singer’s expression is essentially fluent and dynamic. The sense of movement and change is typical of the vitality affects. The flow of expression, however, may also be stopped or stagnant in nature. (3) The content of a singer’s expression is mediated by his/her voice. The listener can sense what kind of movements the singer has used to produce his voice. For example: has the singer tensed his body while singing and thereby created the quality of tightening to his expression (cf. Theo van Leeuwen)?

To sing is to move. Without movement, there would be no sound. References to a certain kind of expression and movement qualities can be found in the singer’s voice (the voice may, for example, be tight). However, expression cannot be explained by the parameters of the singer’s voice alone. Expression is always understood in the experience and this process of understanding is likely to vary from one listener to another. Nevertheless, even though we are all unique bodily beings, we can still find some common understanding in our bodily and vocal expressions.


© 2021 Anne Tarvainen