I once heard that Percy Grainger claimed the alto saxophone was the instrument most akin to the human voice; I've heard other claims that the cello is similarly close. Are there any scientific data to back this up, whether from a timbrel/sound envelope perspective or otherwise?

Perhaps it's simply the range and the relatively soothing timbre (as opposed to, say, the viola). It's always struck me as a little pseudo-scientific, but now I'm wondering if there is in fact any evidence to support it.

  • Isserlis and Gabetta, in articles in the same newspaper 5 years apart both say how they feel the cello is 'close to the human voice'. I quite like Isserlis's idea that the relationship between a musician and their cello is similar to that of a singer and their voice, that its proximity makes it become part of you. Perhaps this emotional attachment can affect timbre in subtle ways? Aug 3, 2016 at 20:42

4 Answers 4


I heard that claim of close similarity to the human voice for so many instruments, that I lost track, whether any one is missing: violin, viola, clarinet, even for an instrument I have never encountered before: Sarangi. Mostly these statements were from players or strong supporters of that instrument, so it is obviously considered a positive or even important property. I'm unable to agree, since the inability to transport text overshadows any similarity of sound. The Liszt transcriptions of Lieder from Schubert are masterful, but evoke quite different impressions. There are also some interesting recordings substituting the voice by a cello (e. g. by Mischa Maisky).

A somewhat scientific page is here on the basis of formant analysis.

  • Well, you can say your vowels with a Jaw Harp, but people hardly consider that like the human voice... Ha! Aug 4, 2016 at 20:04
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    The same goes for the kazoo, which is perhaps even closer to the human voice. Aug 5, 2016 at 14:29

I think Percy Grainger was perhaps referring to the range of the saxophone. Depending (very often) on gender people's singing voice more than not falls into the alto (like sax/viola) or tenor (sax/cello) range.

Wether or not they actually sound the same has to do with the timbral characteristics of the sound spectrum. Personally, I don't really think that sax sounds the same as a human voice. Of the cello, I have heard this, as is also discussed here. Although there are most certainly differences, the characteristics that seems similar appear to be: "rate and extent of vibrato, degree of aperiodicity, accuracy in pitch control, and the possibility of forming continuous streams of notes (phrases)", according to this article. If you are interested in seeing some frequency graphs, the above would be a good article to read.


I don't think it's a particularly scientific thing. Just that the sax sound is very "bendable" and can do the same sort of tricks as a human voice can. I don't personally see the same similarity in cello, though it certainly has a very beautiful, expressive sound.


It is not about if they actually sound like the human voice. They're alike because of its harmonics, both are so harmonically rich as the human voice. As a classical singer, I would say that are (again, harmonically) close as an educated voice, rather than the standard spoken voice. If course, there are some people that have a very rich voice in their natural speaking.

That's the reason.

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