Nothing exists, at least not as solid matter. Push a theoretical physicist to describe what is and you are going to hear a lot about waves and particles. If you push her further, she’s going to concede that at some very basic level the particles are really waves too. Yep, it looks like it’s all waves, man. Nothing but waves.
The character Oddball, Donald Sutherland’s goofy hero in Kelly’s heroes, might have had it right with his preoccupation with negative waves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out these short fun excerpts from the classic movie. Better yet, check them out if you do know what I am talking about.
Which brings me to music. Music is made of waves, big fat waves of oscillating matter, which, as we just discussed, is nothing more than teeny-tiny waves. So we have waves making waves, and its a very good thing, because music helps us deal with all that theoretical physics. It turns out that any wave can be described by three attributes: frequency, phase and amplitude.
So, what makes someone an excellent singer? Three of us got into this recently, and one came down firmly on the side of range. Can he hit the high notes? Another advocated for pitch. Does she hit that perfect A at exactly 220 hertz? I pushed for vastness, a voice that fills the void.
Range person, who it turns out really cares about frequency, used the example of Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon as one of the all time greats. You can see for yourself which popular singers had the most range at a fascinating post called “The Vocal Ranges of the Worlds Greatest Singers.” Mariah Carey wins for high notes, while Prince takes the male honors. Low note ability goes to Axl Rose with Nina Simone winning for the females. Sheer range honors go to Axl with Mariah in close second. Kevin Cronin isn’t mentioned.
Pitch person holds that perfectly hitting the notes exactly right makes for the most pleasing vocals, but when pressed for who actually could do that, the most recent example he could think of was Bing Crosby. There is reason he had trouble finding more examples, as true perfect pitch is extremely rare. Other singers besides Bing who may have it (or have had it) include Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Yanni and, once again Mariah Carey. At least that is the claim made on this Mental Floss post called 10 people with Perfect Pitch. This is, by the way, an attribute that involves a combination of phase and exact frequency.
My examples of great singers included the young Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane, and Adele. Both of these ladies make me feel less alone in the universe thanks to the sound waves they create, even though I know that I am mostly just talking about their amplitude. I found this list of top 20 singers with the most powerful voices and Adele came in at 18 and Gracie didn’t even get mentioned. Josh Groban and Whitney Houston made the top ten, as did, once again Mariah Carey. Guess I’m going to have to start listening to more Mariah Carey.
Great singing, of course involves being able to do all three well. A lucky crowd at the Lincoln Memorial was treated to this beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner a few days ago by Star Swain, an assistant principal from Florida. She has range, she has pitch, she has power, and all her waves are positive. Oddball would have loved it, as did those who had the good fortune to hear her. Enjoy, and happy Independence Day to all!