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Find Your Voice Type

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Kevin Schwandt
By Kevin Schwandt, Dissertation Editor

In opera, people tend to categorize singers’ voices based on the Fach system. The broadest categories in this framework are familiar to many people: soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. But for opera fans, there’s more to it. The Fach system is based on range, but also on tone, power, and dramatic effect. Two sopranos can sing the same pitch, but they sing it quite differently; a dramatic soprano might shatter your glass, while a lyric soprano might lull you to sleep. Further, the music written for individual characters requires different voice types. Puccini’s Cavaradossi sings of love lost in tragedy with desperate bombast, while Gluck’s version of Orpheus is subdued and poised when singing about precisely the same kind of emotion.

Regardless of the context, however, most opera composers rely on a combination of various voice types to create musical continuity and fullness.
At some point, the Wagnerian soprano, in her Viking horns, shrieking on her way to save the world, must sing with the baritone patriarch, against whom she rebels. At that moment, the musical range is increased and the two voices complement each other to produce a sound that neither can create alone.

Cultural discourse is similar. In politics, of course, shouting pundits (as a baritone, I’ll call them tenors) talk about the same things as sober, careful journalists (perhaps introspective mezzo-sopranos), but the two voices have substantially different effects. Both pundits and journalists, at the same time, discuss issues that have been examined by social critics, fiction writers, scientific scholars, and a whole range of other people. All of these voices exist in tandem, and all are necessary for a full cultural conversation. Writers, though, need to adjust their voices according to the roles they play. Just as a soprano playing Mozart’s vicious Queen of the Night needs a different tone when singing the cautious melodies of the same composer’s Zerlina, a passionate social advocate needs to adopt a different tone when writing scientific prose.

I always feel a little pained when I tell a student to lose the adjectives, eliminate evaluative statements, and restrict personal experiences to the appropriate sections of a capstone. But scholars need to remember where they fit into the broader opera of social debate and, more importantly, need to remember that they can play different roles in different documents. When conducting and reporting on science, a scientific voice is required. Otherwise, the scientific rigor of an author’s study can (and should) be called into doubt.

My advice to students who struggle with scientific tone typically turns out to be something like “Save your passionate language for the op-ed you will write when you have those letters after your name.” Nothing strengthens an argument like credibility. In social science, one mark of credibility is a degree. However, to obtain that degree, an individual must show that he or she is an expert in the science part of social science, and that expertise includes writing voice.

Just as a lyric tenor cannot become a heroic tenor without developing and practicing the resonance of his high register, a social advocate cannot become a social scientist without developing and practicing the objective, measured tone of a scientist. Your lyricism won’t go away, but the heroism of your scientific voice will lend it credibility.

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