Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Do men sing in a scale that is higher than women?
My motivation for writing this piece was a debate I recently had with a friend about the scales typically used by male and female vocalists for their performance. According to his understanding of what his music teacher taught him and his wife (both of whom learn from the teacher) men sing in a scale that is higher than women. The teacher is a senior and respected vocalist of the Jaipur gharana, and there is no question of his being wrong or teaching anything that was incorrect. However, this was quite contrary to what I thought was a well-accepted fact in all genres music, that female singers sing in a higher scale than men, mainly because their vocal chords are shorter and thinner than men’s, and their natural pitch is generally about 50% higher than men’s. So I decided to go to the root of this contradiction by digging into a bit of the physics of sound, and taking a few examples of male and female vocalists to look at the scales they sing in. Rather than trying to cover all genres of music, I have chosen a male and female singer of Hindustani Classical Music, and a male and female singer of popular “old” Hindi film music.
A minor digression - the term “scale” could be somewhat confusing for readers familiar with either Indian or Western music, but not both. So a bit about its usage in the two genres would be useful, although it may be very basic for some readers.
In Western music, the term “scale” refers to a collection or pattern of notes with one note as the “root” or “home” note. For example, the C-Major scale has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, which happen to be all white keys on a piano or a keyboard. An F-Minor scale has F, G, G#, A#, C, D, and E. An octave has seven white keys and 5 black keys, and if you start with C as the base note, the chromatic scale has all 12 notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B. A sharp key is also written as the flat version of the next higher key, so for example D# is the same as E♭. A standard piano has about 7 and a half octaves, and a standard keyboard generally has 5 and a half. A standard harmonium has about 4 and a half. Following is the image of a piano keyboard with 7 and a half octaves showing the keys, with the octaves numbered from 1 to 7.
When we refer to a singer’s scale in Indian music on the other hand, we mean the note that the singer generally (but not necessarily always) uses as his or her “Sa” or tonic note, based on their range of voice. As mentioned above male singers, because their vocal chords are longer and thicker than female singers, have a vocal range that is lower than the latter, and therefore sing in a lower scale. Human voice (or almost any sound for that matter) is a mix of sinusoidal waves of different frequencies, with one fundamental frequency, that is most dominant in the voice. So typically male singers have their mid - Sa as C3, C#3, D3 or D#3 (i.e., which have the fundamental frequency as 130.8Hz, 138.6Hz, 146.8Hz or 155.6Hz). Female singers have their mid-Sa as G3, G#3, A3 or A#3 (which have fundamental frequencies as 196.0Hz, 207.7Hz, 220Hz, 233.1Hz). There are exceptions of course, and it is said that vocalists in the age where there was no electronic amplification available, sang in scales that are 2-3 notes higher than today. Male singers often sang in E3 or F3 or even F#3 so that they could be heard at the back of the auditorium without electronic amplification.
The frequencies that we are referring to here are the “fundamental” frequencies in the voice, but the voice contains a mix of harmonics, i.e., multiples of the fundamental frequency. The more balanced and richer is the mix of harmonics, the better is the voice, but that would be a subject for anther blog post.
To compare scales of male and female vocalists in the Hindudtani Classical genre, I have taken clips from Yaman sung by Ustad Amir Khan and Smt. Kishori Amonkar, where they have held a sustained mid Sa and taar-Sa (in the upper octave) for a few seconds. I plotted the spectrum in the clips using Audacity.
Ustad Amir Khan
Ustad Amir Khan: Mid Sa
Ustad Amir Khan: Upper Sa
Amir Khan Saheb’s scale is Kali Ek and his mid Sa is C#3 (approx 136Hz) and upper Sa is at C#4 (272Hz). See the spectrum plot for the two clips:
Pta. Kishori Amonkar’s
Kishori Amonkar: Mid Sa
Kishori Amonkar: Upper Sa
Kishoritai’s mid Sa is at Kali 5 and her mid Sa is A#3 (approx 236Hz) and upper Sa is at A#4 (approx 372Hz) in this recording. Here are the spectrum plot for the two clips below:
When a male and female singer sing a duet they have to sing in the same scale (unless they are doing a Jasrangi jugalbandi - more about that in another post!). We will see how their pitches are relative to each other when they sing a duet with a popular song from the film "Bambai ka babu" - "Deewana mastana hua dil" in the next post.
So stay tuned!