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A very common technique in singing is to smile in order to brighten the tonality of a given note and raise the pitch of the note.

When it comes to raising the pitch of the note, is it the overtones or fundamental frequency being raised? My understanding is that the vocal chords determine the fundamental frequency and the second formant does not. So if smiling affects the fundamental, does it somehow then impact muscles in the throat?

In practise, without any technical discussion, smiling really does work! But in theory, from what I know, it should only impact the overtones, like how changing from an 'A' vowel to an 'E' vowel does. And then that makes me wonder, and might make me ask another question on Stack Exchange, "is a note on pitch if its fundamental frequency is way off, but its overtones are on point?"

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    I'd question your hypothesis, right from the outset. Smiling brightens notes, it doesn't sharpen them. If you go sharp too, it's because you haven't separated the throat functions from the mouth functions & one is directly affecting the other. – Tetsujin Feb 18 at 11:10
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    With Tetsujin on this one. Smiling will change the tone making it a little brighter, but shouldn't affect pitch. If a note is sung slightly flat, it's just as easy to change its pitch by singing it correctly. – Tim Feb 18 at 11:19
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    Agree with previous comments that the premise is incorrect. And to answer the hidden follow-up question Yes of course a note is out of tune if the fundamental is off. The fundamental is the primary indicator/dependency of tuning, so whilst it’s a clever technical achievement to get the overtones correct, the note will sound out. – Steve Mansfield Feb 18 at 12:01
  • Thanks Tetsujin, Tim, Steve for clarifying that smiling doesn't impact (or at least shouldn't) the fundamental. So then can I shift focus to overtones? I know Steve says fundamental=tuning, but there are musical edge cases where overtones reign supreme over fundamentals. There's overtone singing, where the amplitude of the first overtone can be greater than the fundamental. And of course there's stretch tuning on pianos. So would it not be reasonable to say smiling DOES sharpen note, because the overtones of the flat note can be sharpened to the correct frequency, relative to some ensemble? – Alan Feb 18 at 15:40
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The question is being asked with false premises.Smiling won't change the pitch. It will change the timbre or tone. Which may change the number or mix of overtones slightly, all of which will still be overtones of that original pitch.

If the initial pitch is out of tune, then automatically any overtones or harmonics will be too.

So in answer to your embryonic question - the overtones from an off note won't be somehow in tune if the base note is out of tune anyway.

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  • Hi Tim, you are correct, and I give you accepted answer, though somewhat begrudgingly after the unnecessary [and I'd deem] inaccurate accusation of my question being 'embryonic'! I was wrong because I thought human vocal overtones could be inharmonic. After playing with an audio spectrogram and reading online, I see I was mistaken; human vocals are remarkably close to ideal oscillators. But do allow me to say your statement "may change the number or mix of overtones slightly...", is a little off; it's absolutely necessary for overtones to vary if the timbre does. – Alan Feb 18 at 16:29
  • The embryonic question is the one still to be asked... – Tim Feb 18 at 16:30
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No, your facial expression has no direct correlation with the fundamental frequency you vocalise. However, smiling while singing does in fact tend to have a number of favorable side effects.

Traditionally, when I've heard singing (usually choral) instructors explain this, they say that smiling will prevent you from going flat on a note, and that it also prevents you from being monotonous/lifeless. And from my own personal experience, it's seemed to largely be effective advice, especially at lower levels of singing, where the singers may not be as skilled at sustaining a note and keeping it in tune every single time.

If I had to guess (and that's all this is, a somewhat educated guess), I'd say that somehow the act of smiling is closely linked to certain elements of the singing mechanism that are beneficial, and therefore thinking about smiling sort of unconsciously enables the singer to produce the sound more optimally (hence this "sharpening" would really just be a better sound production mechanism being better at singing in tune). And obviously, thinking about smiling can help one be more emotionally aware of the music.

So yes, other answers are correct in that a singer can frown and be perfectly in tune, or smile and be off by half an octave. But choral directors and other singing instructors have been conscious of the correlation between the two human processes, and as such, it makes sense to use this relationship in an educational setting in order to facilitate better singing technique.

Of course, I'm not a vocal instructor myself, so if you're looking to use this idea in your own singing studies or teachings, please talk to actual professionals about how to learn or teach the specifics of this - like many singing ideas, if you do it wrong, it may be more harm than good.


A couple random online sources I found discussing this:

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