Changing the world for 50 years

The science of singing: York professor's musical journey in search of a natural voice

Posted on Wednesday 19 June 2013

As an accomplished musician and singer, Professor David Howard understands the ability of music and voice to inspire and engage. And as an engineer, he is fascinated by the mechanics of the processes that enable that to happen.

Hitting the right note: Professor David Howard combines a love of music with a background in electrical and electronic engineering

Recognised as one of the world’s leading experts on the voice, Professor David Howard, Head of the Department of Electronics at the University of York, has combined a lifelong love of music with a background in electrical and electronic engineering to explore the subtleties of the human voice from speech to the acoustic properties of singing.

Synthesised voices

Electronic speech might be easily understood. Most of the time, we can tell what is being said, but it doesn’t sound natural and it could never be mistaken for a human being

Professor David Howard

He pursues a particular interest in computer generated, or synthesised voices, pioneering work with the potential to develop more natural human voices for people who have lost the use of their vocal chords through injury or illness.

“Electronic speech might be easily understood. Most of the time, we can tell what is being said, but it doesn’t sound natural and it could never be mistaken for a human being,” said Professor Howard. “There have been significant advances in synthesised voices, but we still have a lot to learn about what makes a voice natural, and what needs to happen to make our ears accept it as a human, rather than a computer generated voice.”

His understanding is aided by a life-size model of his own trachea, larynx and mouth parts, developed from MRI scans of his head, which makes for an eye catching ornament among the books and papers on his desk.

The model also aims to improve our understanding of how our voices work.

“If we can understand the intricacies of our voices and what makes each of them different, that will greatly aid our ability to recreate voices for other uses,” said Professor Howard.

“Our work at York also has the potential to help people with cleft palates or snoring problems. It could also inform surgical decisions, for example understanding the difference it could make to a singer’s voice if they have their tonsils removed.”

Musical journey

Professor Howard’s own musical journey began as a five-year-old when his mother encouraged him to learn the piano. He went on to take up the organ – still his greatest love – and has played some of the most famous English church organs including those in St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. 

His considerable musical repertoire also extends to choral singing. He was a deputy tenor songman at York Minster and he conducts the Vale of York Voices, a local choir that sings Evensong once a month in York Minster.

Professor Howard’s interests in music, speech, singing and engineering began to harmonise in his PhD thesis which focused on the physics of cochlear implants to help adults with hearing impairments. This extended into an interest in the science of music and the singing voice, an area developed over 35 years of pioneering research in York’s Department of Electronics.

The science of good singing

As well as his administrative role as Head of Department, he is a Senior Media Fellow for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and shares his enthusiasm for all things vocal and musical with audiences and media around the world. He has fronted TV programmes, including contributions about the science of good singing in Channel 4’s Hidden Talent Show; he subjected comic impersonator and satirist Rory Bremner’s trademark Tony Blair impersonation to scientific study for the purposes of a BBC 4 television programme Voice and he produced an electronic castrato singing voice for a BBC 4 television programme Castrato.

We should all sing more often...singing speaks to the soul and it settles the mind

Professor David Howard

He provided expert forensic advice on the acoustics of the human cough, during the Who Wants to be a Millionaire fraud trial and in one study, he rated the singing skills of football fans, declaring Southampton FC fans top of the Kops.

Professor Howard runs regular healthy voice use sessions for staff and students and he performs his own music. A recent innovative piece combined a computer, four-part choir and two sopranos to explore the differences between computer and human singing.

He is also the UK representative for World Voice Day, an annual global event, designed to celebrate the emotion and power of the human voice and its importance for communication in our daily lives.

“We should all sing more often,” said Professor Howard. “Singing speaks to the soul and it settles the mind. There are certain passages in traditional choral music, or some Abba four-part harmonies that are just magical. Singing and music have the ability to connect and move us. It has many different facets which makes it a wonderful area to research.”

Related links

  • The Department of Electronics
    Read more about the University of York’s Department of Electronics, consistently ranked among the best electronics departments in the country for teaching quality
  • The Creative Speech Network (CREST)
    The Creative Speech Network (CREST) an international network of contributors to the field of computer speech


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