05/27/2016

Why Is Vocal Fry Popping Up in Pop Music?

11:26 minutes

Vocal fry, a speech pattern that is characterized by a throaty, low register, has recently been showing up in speaking styles. That creaky sound has also been popping up in pop music from artists like Britney Spears and Enrique Iglesias. Vocology researchers John Nix and MacKenzie Parrott discuss the history of vocal fry in music and what the sound might convey to listeners.

Which of these sounds more expressive? Listen to the clips and click the button below to test your hypothesis!

Segment Guests

John Nix

John Nix is an associate professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas.

Mackenzie Parrott

Mackenzie Parrott in a researcher in vocalogy at the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now for a musical test. OK, here you go. Ready? What do these two songs have in common?

BRITNEY SPEARS: [SINGING] Oh baby, baby, how was I supposed to know that something wasn’t right. Oh baby, baby.

ENRIQUE IGLESIAS: [SINGING] I can be your hero, baby. I can kiss away the pain.

OK. Did you pick it up, what they have in common? No? No, it’s not all these baby, baby, baby stuff that’s in the song. Maybe a flair for the dramatic? That is a bit closer. But the correct answer is something called vocal fry. You’ve heard that creaky register when it comes to speech, but it is popping up in pop music too. Why are singers choosing to fry? And how might listeners perceive it?

Well, my next guests looked exactly at that, and some of their ideas were presented this week at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. John Nix, associate professor of voice and vocal pedagogy, or pedagogy, at the University of Texas in San Antonio. Mackenzie Parrott is a vocalogy researcher at also University of Texas in San Antonio. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN NIX: Thank you.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Hi. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: John, what sound are we listening for in that Britney Spears song? Where is the vocal fry?

JOHN NIX: So it’s at the onset of the sound. So we’re hearing like uuhhh. Kind of like Lurch used to sound when he would open the door on The Addams Family, he’d say, you rang. So it’s a very low frequency, below about 70 hertz, sound.

IRA FLATOW: And this is a musical technique that’s sometimes used? What is happening in the throat? It’s hard to make that sound. What’s happening in your throat when you try to do that?

JOHN NIX: Sure. Well, you’ve got really low lung pressure, and you’re using not a whole lot of air flow. And then your vocal folds are very close together, but they’re very relatively short and lax, and the air just kind of bubbles through. Most of the time they’re closed, but we just get these little bubbles. And it’s not a high amplitude kind of sound.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah.

JOHN NIX: So I mean, that’s basically what’s going on down at the laryngeal level.

IRA FLATOW: There’s a lot of vocal fry in speech patterns. It’s what you would call the Kardashian style of speaking.

JOHN NIX: [LAUGHS] Well, yeah. And typically in speech, it occurs towards the end of a phrase. And some people use it as a way of denoting, OK, I’m at the end of my thought. I just did it right there.

IRA FLATOW: And we’re not adopting this. [LAUGHS]

JOHN NIX: But what’s interesting is that the pop singers and the country singers are using it at the onset. They’re doing it at the beginning rather than at the end.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Mackenzie, you ran a small test to look at expressively at music. We’re going to play two clips from your test. And I want our listeners to listen closely and decide, which one do you find more expressive?

MACKENZIE PARROTT: [SINGING] O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.

IRA FLATOW: OK. That was clip number one. Let’s try two.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: [SINGING] O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.

IRA FLATOW: You could get the ehhhh, the fry right there.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Right on the onsets.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: So our listeners, they weren’t aware of what the factor was. So that was what was really interesting about this study is that we played the clips in random order, and we had a female and a male singer. And so they were just asked to rate the expressivity of the performance on a scale, and we found some pretty interesting results.

IRA FLATOW: Such as?

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Such as just in our small study, it seemed to be that the listeners rated the female’s performance with vocal fry onsets as being more expressive as her performances without fry onsets. And it was the opposite in the case of the male singers. So they rated his performances that didn’t have vocal fry onsets as being more expressive than his that did have the fry onsets.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Any idea why the difference?

JOHN NIX: That’s a very interesting question. One thing we want to do is go back in and– in part these were not identical performances. So we had them sing the whole thing without the fry, and then we had them sing the whole thing with the fry. What we’d like to do, I think, to really make sure that they’re identical performances is to, if we can, edit out the fry so that it’s an absolutely identical performance.

The male singer sings popular styles all the time. The female has actually just finished an undergrad degree in vocal performance and is an aspiring opera singer, so.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Is there much vocal fry in opera?

JOHN NIX: No. There’s–

IRA FLATOW: I don’t think so.

JOHN NIX: It’s not something that you could hear over a symphony orchestra. So it’s not something advantageous for an opera singer to do.

IRA FLATOW: You tested, John, to see if vocal fry was used in other types of music, not just pop music. And what did you find?

JOHN NIX: Well, what I did was looking at whether you could hear fry without amplification, and you really have a hard time once you get in a big hall and you’re farther away. You might hear that there’s a little glide up in the pitch, but you really don’t hear that gravelly, rough sound that we associate with vocal fry once you get farther away. And especially when you have accompanying instruments, that’s really going to cover up the sound of it because it’s such a low and not a very intense sound.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with John Nix and Mackenzie Parrott, both from UT in San Antonio. What is the idea here for the artists in using the vocal fry? Do your tests show why they want to include it, or why they should stay away from it in some cases?

JOHN NIX: Well, I’ll let Mackenzie talk a little bit about what we want to do in the future. But we didn’t ask them what it was that people found expressive. We just were simply asking them to rate on a 1 to 10 scale. You want to talk a little bit about what we want to do in the future?

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Sure. In the future– another interesting thing that we found in my study was there was a little bit of a generational gap between the young listeners and the older listeners and how they rated the expressivity. So we were kind of wanting to have a larger sample from different decades of different song styles and maybe see how the progression of vocal fry has increased, kind of like how it has in speech, in popular music.

Because it seems like during the ’70s and ’80s, especially with female singers, you don’t hear it quite as much as you do in music from the ’90s and the 2000s. So we’re going to look forward to studying this more in the future and having not only more male and female singers included in our study, but also music from different decades and to see if there’s a different correlation between whether maybe people prefer the kind of expression that was used of the music when they were growing up than maybe something that’s more popular today.

IRA FLATOW: Well, speaking of different decades, vocal fry isn’t new. Didn’t Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday?

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Right.

JOHN NIX: News for us, exactly. And that’s one other area we’re going to look at is kind of historically go along and see if we can kind of find where it first started to appear. And immediately I was thinking Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, some of our legendary kind of blues singers from much earlier in the 20th century, let alone the 21st century.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. That doesn’t mean that the male singers did not use it also.

JOHN NIX: Well, absolutely. In fact, Ruben, who’s our engineer here, he was mentioning Barry White from back in the ’70s, certainly low voices like that, and Lou Rawls, people like that.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Especially it’s all over country music with male singers.

IRA FLATOW: Why country music more than other places? Any thoughts on that?

JOHN NIX: Hmm. I’m not quite sure. One of the things we were trying to nail down– and I think as we study this in the future we may have people do expressivity writing. And then what made you write it this way? We were talking with a colleague who is a voice teacher out in Los Angeles, and she was mentioning people might use it to be sexy or to be angry. It’s also maybe a way of portraying intimacy, or maybe that it’s difficult to get these emotions out. It’s like, oh, it’s hard for me to say that.

IRA FLATOW: Oohh, yeah.

JOHN NIX: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s hard for me to ask this next question.

[LAUGHTER]

I mean, I’m hurt. It’s hard to do. Is there any possibility that you’re hurting your vocal chords by trying to do this too much?

JOHN NIX: Well, there’s a good way and a bad way to do fry. The fry that’s really low in pitch and loose in feel– aahhh– is a whole lot healthier than the pressed– ehhh– kind of doing it. And on an overall level, if we think about our voices– kind of like when we go to work out, we need to do cardio. We need to do strength training. We need to do flexibility. And with our voice, it’s more important to use regularly our full range and intensity and expressive capacity, and not just limit ourselves to kind of a narrow little band.

IRA FLATOW: You know, when I try it, I come out like Grandpa Simpson more than anybody–

[LAUGHTER]

–when I try to do that, so.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Probably more of the creak, I think, than the pressurized thing than rather like the– uuhhh– low rumble fry.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. OK.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: You have to talk– try talking like a Kardashian, and then see what comes out of that.

IRA FLATOW: Ooh, yeah. Now I’m understanding it. I get it.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Well, all right. Thank you, Mackenzie Parrott and John Nix. Mackenzie Parrott is a vocalogy researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio and John Nix associate professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at University of Texas, San Antonio. OK. We’re going to write–

JOHN NIX: Thank you.

MACKENZIE PARROTT: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: –one of these days. And you can try out our vocal fry test. Do you want to try it out yourself? The clips are up at our website at sciencefriday.com/fry.

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