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Faculty of Music


Dr Philip Fine 

University of Buckingham, UK

What makes for a clear singer? Factors underlying the intelligibility of sung text

Singing is universal, and the ability to understand sung words is important for many listeners’ enjoyment of vocal and choral music. However, this is not a trivial task, and sung text intelligibility is likely to be affected by many factors. An exploratory survey of 143 professional and amateur musicians identified 43 factors believed to have an impact on intelligibility. These factors were categorised into four categories: performer-related, listener-related, environment-related and words/music-related. The factors mentioned most frequently in each of the four categories were, respectively: diction; acoustic; hearing ability; and genre. In more than a third of references, the extent to which sung text is intelligible was attributed to the performer. Over 60% of respondents rated the ability to understand words in familiar languages as “very important”, but only 17% when the text was in an unfamiliar language. 

We then carried out two empirical studies manipulating various  factors identified in the survey. These included: the number of singers; listeners' experience of singing; familiarity with the song; and meaningfulness of the song. Results suggested that choirs are harder to understand than a single singer, singers are better at understanding sung text than non-singers, familiarity increases intelligibility, and meaningful texts are easier to understand than scrambled texts.

The results have implications both for vocal pedagogy and for compositional techniques, such as word-setting.

Philip joined Buckingham in 1996, when finishing aDPhil on face processing and hemispheric asymmetry at the University of Oxford. He teaches courses in Cognition, Perception, Biological Psychology, and Cognitive Neuroscience & Neuropsychology. He is a Graduate member of the BPS and a member ofSEMPRE (Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research) and ESCOM (European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music). Being a singer and pianist, it is not surprising that his interests moved towards the area of music psychology in which he both researches and supervises student projects.

Research interests
Philip’s main area of research concerns the psychology of music, in particular the cognitive processes involved in expert sight-singing. Current investigations also include those into the factors affecting the understanding of sung lyrics, mental rehearsal in musicians, and memory for musical speed. He is also interested in expert problem solving, and is currently involved in research into cryptic crossword and sudoku solving. Other areas of interest include various aspects of cognition (time estimation, memory and language) and perception (visual and auditory), and of cognitive neuropsychology, such as face processing and hemispheric asymmetry. Philip is particularly interested in supervising research students for projects on sung text intelligibility, expertise in sight-singing music and expertise and strategies in cryptic crossword completion.

Wednesday, 12 March, 2014 - 17:00 to 18:00
Event location: 
5.00pm, Recital Room, Faculty of Music