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A writer lost his singing voice, then discovered the gymnastics of speech


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. There are a lot of things we take for granted, and among them are our voices. We sing. We laugh. We yell at ballparks. And we talk all the time - on the phone, in the office, on street corners. And in doing so, we can damage our voices. Our guest, writer John Colapinto, has had his own experience with that, which you'll soon hear about. And he became interested in the voice, which is the subject of new book, "This Is The Voice." It's an exploration of the astonishing complexity of our vocal apparatus - how we form words, how babies learn to speak, how accents arise and how different kinds of voices affect us, which ones sound authoritative or sexually appealing or politically persuasive. Colapinto argues that the development of our prehistoric ancestors' vocal structures may have been the key to humans becoming the dominant species on the planet.

John Colapinto is a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. He's the author of the bestselling nonfiction book "As Nature Made Him" and the novel "About The Author." He joined me from his home in New York City last year to talk about his book, "This Is The Voice," which is now out in paperback.

Well, John Colapinto, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JOHN COLAPINTO: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: I thought we would begin with the story that you tell in the book early, when you're 41 years old, I think, working at Rolling Stone magazine. And the publisher, Jann Wenner, is putting together sort of an ad-hoc rock band for a big staff party and asks you to be the lead singer. Had you done any singing?

COLAPINTO: I had, actually. I had been singing since high school just kind of casually. I sang in my school choir and so on. I played piano in coffeehouses in college. So I was, you know, somewhat - I could carry a tune. I even knew what projection was - you sort of making the voice big and filling a room with it. But I had never done any proper vocal warm-ups. And that's how I got into trouble when I was singing with Jann Wenner's rock band with Rolling Stone magazine. And I was being silent all day long. I would jump up at the end of the day, take the subway to our rehearsal space and then just start wailing over their cranked-up guitars and drums, I mean, 0 to 60 with my voice - just crazy. Anyone that knows anything about singing, proper singing, knows you don't do that. And I quickly developed a rasp and sort of hoarseness, which I'd had in the past and had cleared up. This didn't. Later learned that it was a vocal - I have a vocal polyp, which is started by a bleeding vocal cord.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah, and you describe it in one of the rehearsals. I mean, you know, Rolling Stone was a pretty hot commodity then. And the lead singer for the J. Geils Band drops by and hears you singing in rehearsal and gives you a little advice.

COLAPINTO: Yeah. He pulled me aside and said, hey, man, you don't have to sing full-out in rehearsal. Save something for the show. And, you know - and he was actually doing a guest song with us and I saw how he was doing it. I mean, just, you know, he was kind of quarter power - very, very smart. And I've never forgotten that.

DAVIES: Right. But it was new to you. And so you get to the concert, and you don't quite have the range that you did. You said it's kind of painful to listen to the tape from that, huh?

COLAPINTO: Deeply terrifying. I mean, there's nothing quite like the seconds and minutes ticking down to a performance in front of 2,000 people that include Yoko Ono and her son Sean and Paul Shaffer and Val Kilmer and countless others. And knowing that - you know, and knowing that there's something wrong with your voice. A certain high note in one of the songs, "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones, had been really, really hard to get over the preceding days. And it was just terrifying. I mean, I remember getting up in the spotlight and thinking, oh, Lord, I just hope this all happens. And, you know, somehow I kind of got through the performance. But, yeah, it's painful to listen to the CD because I can hear the tentativeness.

And this is one of the things about the voice and performing with a voice. We hear - all of us, actually - tentativeness, just anyone slightly holding back. You can't get away with those types of things without people recognizing something's slightly amiss. So it makes me wonder how professionals do it, especially people like opera singers, who are being listened to so closely by people with acute critical skills. Terrifying.

DAVIES: Right. It is an instrument, which is, I guess, what your book is about.

COLAPINTO: Yes, yes.

DAVIES: You have terrible laryngitis after the concert. And then you have this encounter in an elevator with a woman...


DAVIES: ...Who just catches this right away. What does she tell you?

COLAPINTO: It was amazing. We were brand-new in the building. I said to her, what floor? - as one does in New York. You're going to push the button for someone. And those two words - she said, oh, you've got a serious voice injury. And I said, oh, you know, it's nothing. It'll clear up. And she said, no, no, no. You know, I work with Broadway singers and so on. And she said, I know what I'm hearing. And she read me like a book. She said, you know, I bet you get kind of tired at the end of a day 'cause you're using all your muscles. You're having to work harder with your back and your abs and your hip flexors, all of these muscles we use in order to actually push the air out when we speak. She even said, you know, I bet your neck gets pretty sore. And it had been burning, almost as if I had, like, scalded the skin. I mean, it was amazing.

But the last thing she said to me was, you should at least get a laryngologist to look at that because it could be something else. I grew up in a medical family. Something else is the approved euphemism for cancer or some kind of dangerous growth. So I immediately made an appointment with one of the top vocal surgeons in the world, Peak Woo. He looked in my throat with a laryngology instrument and said, you've got a pretty major polyp, which is a bump on the edge of my vocal cord.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, let's go into that. How does a polyp like that develop? How did it develop in your case?

COLAPINTO: Yeah. You know, amazingly, this is one of the mysteries of the voice. So we still know so little about it. But as far as doctors understand, these polyps really begin with bleeding within the vocal cord itself, which is effectively a bruise. And if you bleed, you know, without any staunching of that bleeding, you can develop this scar tissue and this bump. The thing that's critical about that, though, for the voice is that our vocal cords don't produce sound like a violin string or a guitar string, a plucked guitar string. And it sounds like it might because we say vocal cord like a string-like thing. But in fact, the - it's a valve at the top of our throat that opens - that under pressure from the lungs, vibrates in this way that chops the air into these pulses.

So, I mean, amazingly, as you and I speak to each other right now, your vocal valve is open 'cause you're listening to me, and you're breathing. But the minute you want to ask me a question, you're going to shut your vocal valve quickly across the top of your windpipe. You're going to time that with a thrust of air from your lungs or more than a thrust, actually. One of the interesting things about us as a species is we can kind of eke the air out slowly. Gorillas can't do that. That's why they go (imitating gorilla). They - and they make these quick, short sounds. But we can draw out the air stream because we've got to put the consonants and vowels in.

Anyway, this chopping of the vocal chords - if you've got - of the air stream with the vocal chords, if you have a pure, clear singing tone like Barbra Streisand, let's say, you indisputably have very clean edges to your vocal cords. They meet flush. They chop the air really nicely. If you've got a lump on the vocal cord like me, you get all this extra turbulence. You get air passing through in funny ways. And you get pulls and all of these other things. The vocal cord is also burdened with this extra mass on it. So I cannot as effectively and smoothly change the pitch of my voice because we really do that by, you know, tautening it or slackening the tension on the vocal cord. And that's been kind of messed up for me, too.

DAVIES: You ended up later on doing a story in The New Yorker about this very subject - vocal surgery - and with a doctor who had treated singers who - famous singers, in some cases - who dealt with this. He took a look at you, saw this polyp. If you were to try and get this repaired, what would that entail?

COLAPINTO: It's quite remarkable what it would entail. And really, he not only explained to me what he would have to do, but I watched him do it to several patients of his. And what you do - what he does is he gets the person lying on their back, puts them unconscious and also introduces a paralyzing agent to the entire body because the slightest move while he's operating on a vocal cord will only make the matters worse because he'll nick, you know, healthy tissue or something.

But the person's lying on their back. And their head is tilted back. And then this instrument is introduced down the throat that pries the vocal tract open, then reaches down the vocal tract, the throat, with these tiny scalpels and little devices for plucking at the flesh. And he's got them in both hands. And they're on, like, long, knitting needle extensions that go down the throat. And he's looking through a stereo microscope that's aimed down there with a little light on it. And he's making these meticulously tiny movements with his fingers to do this astonishingly delicate surgery on these vocal cords.

And when you remove a polyp, he slices delicately through the outer mucous membrane that covers all of our vocal cords. And in there is this little lump that, interestingly, can - doesn't need to be cut out. It can be sort of scooped out with a spoon-like instrument. And then, once he's done that, he cannot sow the mucus membrane closed because it's too delicate. And so you, the patient, have to remain silent for six weeks afterwards so that everything can heal on its own. And that's my excuse, lame as it is, for never having had my polyp repaired. I just never saw the daylight for six weeks of vocal silence. Not to mention I'm a little bit scared of being operated on. But let's - you know, let's not admit that.

DAVIES: Wow. That's quite an undertaking. And, you know, some well-known singers have had surgery like this. It hasn't always gone well, right?

COLAPINTO: Totally true. Actually, famously, Julie Andrews was the sort of super-famous case when she was singing in "Victor/Victoria" Broadway play. And she was known - I mean, I should have used her as the perfect example of the pellucid vocal tone with the clean, clean chopping of the air. I can't even imagine what her healthy vocal cords had looked like. But she developed a bleed while she was doing that show. And she went up to Mount Sinai. This was before Peak Woo's tenure there.

And unfortunately, in the effort to remove the polyp, some healthy tissue evidently was removed as well, because when she came out and did her six week of vocal silence and then tried to speak and sing, lo and behold, she had a voice that was as bad or worse. And that happens. I mean - because it really is this exceedingly delicate surgery. So yes, it's a really - it's a big undertaking to do that.

DAVIES: So you opted not to get this intricate surgery and live with it. Just talking to you, I can hear a little gravel in your voice. How has this damage - which is sort of, I guess, unrepaired - how has it affected your life?

COLAPINTO: Yeah. Well, it was actually Zeitels that explained to me what it was doing to me. I mean, I really can't sing properly anymore with anything like the singing voice I used to have. I go off pitch and so on. But it was really in my speaking voice that he said, you know, you've got a lot of trouble there, and you don't know it. But you are doing all sorts of stuff to speak around your injury. And what he meant by that was I was dropping my voice into a pitch where the part of my vocal cord that would still chop the air cleanly would do that. But it meant that I was, to a degree, removing what people call - what linguists call the prosody from my speech.

And what that is is the musical up and down, the melody that we actually fit all the lyrics of our speech to. We don't really realize we're doing it until we hear someone talk like that. And you cannot listen to someone talk like that. It's boring. It's irritating. And you lose focus on it. So Dr. Zeitels said to me, because you're dropping your voice into this more monotonic range, you're really removing the emotion from your voice - or some of it. When he told me that, I was like, oh, boy. That's kind of scary. And to a degree, I - you know, I'm obviously still doing that because I have not had my polyp removed. But I'm not as raspy as I was. I mean, I really couldn't even produce what I sounded like when I first did the injury because it's become second nature. And that's the interesting thing, too. We - all of us do things with our voice sort of unconsciously that becomes sort of fixed in the signal.

DAVIES: You know, I - my voice matters in what I do. I mean, I talk on the radio. And I have, over the years, realized that I can't go to a ball game on the night before I go on the radio because I'm going to yell. And I'm going to get raspy. I stay away from really noisy bars or restaurants because I find it just strains my voice. And pretty soon, I'm speaking in a very low tone like that. So I guess a lot of us are walking around with some injury here, aren't we?

COLAPINTO: Absolutely. It's by no means singers, which he calls vocal athletes, who get these injuries. People who talk a lot, just because they're loquacious, you know, extroverts, get it. Schoolteachers get it heavily. So anyone that has a heavy vocal load in a given day is entirely susceptible to this. In other words, you don't have to be straining the voice, reaching a high note or even yelling over crowds. You probably know this. You've probably had moments of raspiness where you were doing nothing more than speaking at a cocktail party or something. I mean, so I guess this goes to how very, very delicate the vocal cords are and how much we don't really think of that.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with John Colapinto. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new book is "This Is The Voice." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto, who has a new book about the human voice, how it works, how it evolved, how different voices affect us. The book is called "This Is The Voice."

So you write at - you've written about your own experience. But then you've done a lot of research into different aspects of the voice, its evolution, its structure. So let's talk a bit about that. What makes the human voice different from those of other animals, which, you know, after all, have a wide variety of vocal communication, some of them kind of sophisticated?

COLAPINTO: Yeah. I mean, really, the thing is our ability to shape the signal, that vocal signal, into the vowels and consonants that we then, you know, assemble into words and then structures that we call sentences, i.e., language. We do this thing where we're singing, but we're also shaping it into meaningful utterance. And no other animal can do that. It enables us to talk about what's going to happen tomorrow, what happened yesterday, what we hope to do 20 years from now, what we're worried about and so on. Animals, for all the sophistication of their vocal signaling - and it is more sophisticated than I had realized - are really making in-the-now utterances and proclamations about how they feel, you know, threats, the urge to mate and so on. They're kind of in the moment. But language permits us to talk about stuff that isn't there. And it allowed us to cooperate with each other in ways that, ultimately, permitted us to make things like cellphones and airplanes.

DAVIES: Before that, fire and, you know, agriculture and all that, right. I mean, right, there's a lot that you can do when you can communicate in a more sophisticated way.

COLAPINTO: Which was handy for a species that was slow-running and not very strong and that could just be eaten by lions and other things.

DAVIES: I had no idea until I'd read the book about how complex the physical structures are in our mouths and throats that produce the sounds that we use in everyday language. You need your mouth and throat to act independently, right? Can you think of any - give us a little example of the ways in which this all comes together?

COLAPINTO: Well, that's exactly right. The - really, what we're doing is - when we speak - is we're creating a buzz in our throat - that air pulse thing I was talking about - as our vocal cords chop the air from our lungs. And that drone - this, uhh (ph) - we can shape into A, E, I, O, U, which are the vowels of English, A, E, I, O and U. But we also can do these cool things with our lips and tongue where we make noisy sounds like puh (ph), puh and tuh (ph) and cuh (ph). And all of those involve the tongue or lips making contact with each other or almost making contact when we say sss (ph) or zzz (ph).

So we're making these noises that we're mixing with the singing-like tones of A, E, I, O, U. And as you point out, you know, things are acting independently of each other. I'm droning with my throat. But I'm arching and pushing forward my tongue for the vowels. But then I'm also hitting it and tapping it and doing all sorts of stuff to make the consonants. And then I'm timing all that in a way that puts together words and sentences. And we tend not to think of how remarkable that is.

DAVIES: Right. We get the buzz from our throat. And then all these amazing little subtleties that produce consonants with our mouths. A P, you're not putting the buzz. A B, you're giving it a little buzz. And...

COLAPINTO: I love that. Yeah. The voiced and unvoiced consonants, absolutely. And the tuh and duh are exactly the same gesture. What we also don't think of, almost more amazing, is that nuh (ph), nuh is the same gesture as duh and tuh. Why does it sound different? Because there's a little trapdoor at the back of our throat, back of our palate. And we open that up for access to the nose. And we send the sound into the soft nasal passages, which turns duh, tuh into nuh, nuh, nuh. It's coming through the nose. And likewise, muh (ph), which is just the buh (ph) sound, but, muh, you're putting it through your nose, incredibly. So I mean, the gymnastics of saying something as simple as give me the salt are just - it's kind of unimaginable.

DAVIES: John Colapinto is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His book, "This Is The Voice," is out in paperback. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Petite Maman" about an 8-year-old girl which imagines what it would be like if you'd known your parent as a child. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. We'll end this half with an example of truly impressive vocal gymnastics from Stephen Sondheim's musical comedy "Company," something a little more complicated than giving salt.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto about the human voice - how it evolved, how it works, how we can damage it and how different voices affect us. His book, "This Is The Voice," is out in paperback. When we left off, we were talking about the evolution of the human voice and how we use our mouths and throats to vocalize, something we learn unconsciously.

How much information do babies in utero get from what they hear?

COLAPINTO: Incredibly, about 28 weeks gestation, when the auditory system is complete, they are picking up the mother's prosity - which we talked about that up and down movement of the melody of the voice. They're hearing some vowels and consonants, but they're kind of hard to hear. It's like listening through a wall. But they're also getting that sound not just through the airwaves that pass from the mom's mouth through her belly, but literally through her skeleton, through the bone conduction. So it goes down through her body and actually makes the liquid that the baby's in in the womb vibrate against the baby's body.

And if you really think about it, you know, a fetus in utero is really the only sensory input that it's getting from the outside world is sound, which is heard not just through its auditory system, which has developed at 28 weeks, but also against its body. So, you know, it is really absorbing an amazing amount of information bout how the mom speaks, how people close to her in the room speak that also get through. So babies are born, we've learned, with way more linguistic knowledge than we'd ever imagined.

DAVIES: And you note that there are studies that show that when babies cry - I mean, newborn infants - they reflect some of the tone and kind of melody of the different languages. A German baby cries differently from French baby.

COLAPINTO: Yes, exactly. Languages have sort of a trajectory of melody. French goes kind of upward. German goes somewhat downard. And so do the baby's cries of - that are born in those respective countries, remarkably. And it seems to be a way to sort of foster bonding with the mother. So she's hearing something that the baby's doing that's saying that's my baby, that's my language, that's, you know, that's who I look after.

DAVIES: And when kids, through trial and error, babies learn to make all of these consonants and vowels by just regulating the vocal chords in the throat and the movements of the tongue and the teeth and all of that, they tend to make - they learn to make sounds which are specific to their own language. Not all languages use the same vowels or consonant sounds, right? Are kids at a young age able to learn that? Is that one of the reasons that kids pick up languages simply but older kids and adults find it harder?

COLAPINTO: It's partly that. It's also because the baby brain is so - as neuroscientists call it - plastic. In other words, it's able to wire itself and rewire itself incredibly quickly, much quicker than people after puberty, let's say. The way that they're learning that complex gymnastics of making a P versus a B versus a muh sound, which all have that same, you know, gesture of the lips, but have the vocal chords either buzzing or not buzzing or the velum, which is that trap door at the back of the nose, you know. The way that they're learning all of that is through play. And I liked emphasizing that in the book because learning, we know, really comes out of play.

So what the baby is doing is it's been hearing mom and dad make the specific sounds of their native tongue. Let's say it's English. So they're hearing puh, buh, my, by. And they're hearing those sounds. When they start babbling, they actually are just making random movements with the vocal chords and the lips just for fun. But if they happen to go buh, they go, oh, wait. That's reminding me - because they've stored that sound because they've heard it so much from mom. They've heard it in the womb. They've heard it for, you know, a year - well, not a year. They start babbling before they're a year old. But they'd been hearing this for months after being born.

So they get super excited. They go buh. And they go, oh, I like that. And they go buh, buh, buh, buh, over and over. And what that's actually doing is it's not unlike learning how to ride a bike. First, you fall off, and then eventually you get it figured it out. And then eventually, you can't not know how to do it, and you, you know, what you've done is you've grooved it into this part of the brain that kind of fires the muscle memory. So you get all these muscle memories of buh and tuh and cuh. If you're French, you're getting slightly different ones. You know, you get those subtle (vocalizing) - you know, you're not getting two, you're getting tu (ph), tu. You're getting this weird - well, not weird, but a different tongue position.

DAVIES: Another fascinating thing about learning language is that when you listen to - if I were to listen to, you know, a long set of sentences in German or some language I have no knowledge of at all, I couldn't distinguish the words, right? They're just syllables that all run together. And for, you know, a baby learning English - same thing, right? I mean, it's just a bunch of noises. But they get it. How do they figure it out?

COLAPINTO: It's crazy. Yeah. It's a ribbon of sound that's completely unbroken. As you say, we know it when we hear a foreign language. What babies are doing, even as they're sitting there looking so cute and passive and useless, when they're first born, they're learning to that speech stream. And they're making statistical calculations. So they're hearing something that English does, for instance, which is that it tends to accentuate the first syllable of words - two-syllable words like baseball, birthday. It's rare that the second syllable is emphasized like surprise. That's a little less frequent in our speech.

So remarkably enough, those babies are - in English are hearing this buh-buh, buh-buh, buh-buh rythym - buh-buh, buh-buh, buh-buh. But a French baby's hearing exactly the reverse because the second syllable tends to be accentuated there. So part of what permits a baby to figure out that something is a word, at least what gives it a clue, in English is that they're hearing buh-buh. So they - OK, that might be a separate structure. But at the same time, they're doing something that's almost more remarkable, which is running a statistical analysis on the sounds that are adjacent to each other, which sounds complicated, but let me just say this.

The name Zbignu (ph) in Polish has the Z and the B right beside each other. English does not do that. It's illegal. Well, I say that, but if you say leaves blow, I say leaves blow - well, I've done it across the word boundary. Babies are paying attention to that. So English babies realize, oh, that z-buh (ph) doesn't come very often. In fact, it's very infrequent. So maybe that's a place where words split. So if you can imagine them absorbing, calculating around the rythm - buh-buh - and the sounds - leaves blow - then you can realize they sort of put these things together to start segmenting the speech stream. That's what linguists call it. They cut that ribbon into separate pieces. And then they can get to work assigning meaning to those separate pieces.

DAVIES: Something else fascinating about the anatomy of our vocal chords - you note that forming most actual words is anatomically impossible for newborns for several months. I didn't know this. Explain why this is.

COLAPINTO: Yeah, and it's because the voice box, or larynx, which houses the vocal cords, is way up in the back of the mouth, effectively. It's not where our Adam's apple is in an adult male. You'll note that that's about halfway down your neck, so that's where your vocal cords are positioned. But for a baby, they're way up in the throat. And the reason that matters is because those A-E-I-O-U sounds I was talking about are really made by reshaping the vocal tract, which is this tube that runs from our vocal cords to our lips and does a 90-degree bend at the back of the throat into the mouth.

That tube - we are actually making resonances, which really means that we're kind of highlighting particular notes in the vocal spectrum, both in our throat and in our mouth simultaneously. And so we're really blending these pitches so that, practically speaking, if I say E, I've actually made the mouth resonator very small by pushing my tongue forward and lifting the back of it - E. But if I say, ah, as doctors ask me to do to look at my throat, I say ah, and I'm actually making the mouth really big, but you'll note that I've pushed my tongue back, so I'm actually making the throat resonator small.

So why does that matter for babies? Well, they don't have a throat resonator, and it limits them to vowels that can only be made in the mouth. So that's around, like, ay (ph), ay - those sorts of sounds. And if you think about it, speech is possible only because we can do a range of vowels. So if I take the consonants H and D and put an A in between or an E-A or an I, I can get had, hid, head, heed, hot, HUD - and I'm only able to make those different words because my tongue is so mobile, and I'm getting different resonances from throat and mouth. Babies just can't do it.

DAVIES: And the larynx is high in a baby's mouth because it has to do with them nursing, right? I mean, they can...

COLAPINTO: Yeah, it's a beautiful reason. Everything is so beautifully enfolded here. When you're breastfeeding, you want to be able to drink, drink, drink, suck away without having to lift your head and take a breath. So what the baby is doing is breathing through its nose. Its mouth is there. The milk is coming in and coursing around the sides of the elevated larynx and going down around the sides and into the stomach. It goes into the esophagus, which is the tube that carries it to the stomach. So as the baby, amazingly, begins to move off of purely liquid food into solid foods, the larynx actually begins a migration down the throat, down the neck area until, oh, boy, I guess probably puberty, again, it's reached the adult place, which is in the middle of the neck. But it really does have to make that journey for vowels to become very, very clear the way we make them.

DAVIES: And kids are making vowels pretty clearly by the time they're, you know, in preschool. So if we need to have that larynx lower in order to make all the vowels that comprise our language, does that distinguish us from our primate relatives, you know, in prehistoric times?

COLAPINTO: Hugely. It - you know, if you actually listen to a chimp, as these scientists did that recorded them endlessly, they really are making kind of that ay, ah, E, uh (ph) sound I was talking about in the mouth. And the reason is because their larynx is actually where a baby's is when a baby's born. It's up, up, up in the throat, right sort of under the trapdoor to the nose. So they are highly limited in their ability to make vowels. It's a reason that, you know, "Planet Of The Apes" is just never going to be real...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

COLAPINTO: ...Because the larynx is definitely in the wrong spot for speech. But, yeah, and over the course of the evolution of primates into human beings, researchers remarkably have been able to study from fossil remains how the larynx actually kind of inched down the throat through the various species that led to us.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with John Colapinto. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new book is "This Is The Voice." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking with New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto. He has written a new book about many aspects of the human voice, its evolution, how it works, how different voices affect us. The book is called "This Is The Voice."

There are some clear distinctions between male and female voices, at least most male and female voices at puberty, right? I mean, this is not something in our imagination. What are the anatomical differences?

COLAPINTO: Yeah. Well, men speak about an octave lower than women, and the reason why is because at puberty, the structures in the male voice, vocal mechanism, really explode in growth, not unlike how a male's muscles get big and they tend to grow taller than women on average. And that's really because testosterone and other androgens course through the system at puberty, and they attach to muscles and cartilage and other things, bone, and make them grow bigger. So if you've got a vocal cord that's longer - it's not unlike an elastic band that's long - it's going to vibrate slower and chop the air at a slower rate, and so you get a deeper voice.

Also, the human - the male body grows bigger on average, so the resonance chambers tend to be bigger. And so you get sort of a booming quality because the voice is kind of echoing around in larger structures, larger chambers. Female voices do go down a little bit at puberty, but nothing like the male voice because of the really, really big change that males experience at puberty.

DAVIES: And are there theories about why evolution would have directed things this way?

COLAPINTO: There are. And it really goes to stuff that Darwin talked about when we mate. You know, we - there's sort of two different mechanisms at work. We woo and attract a mate with sort of ornaments, but we also drive off competitors. And that - so males kind of get the other males out of the way. So if you look at stags or roosters, they actually have grown what Darwin called special weapons. So the antlers on a stag when they butt heads or these terrible sharp things on a rooster's claws and they kind of claw at each other and fight off the other males.

So really what happened was in the male voice, the belief is that this is actually a special weapon, partly. It was a way for men facing off against each other. You know, they would sort of be in an arms race to see whose voice could get lowest in order to threaten the other guy away. But interestingly, you know, the person that had the genetic accident of bigger vocal cords - just, you know, a lower voice just by virtue of biology - those would tend to win the contest competition and get to mate. So lo and behold, those genes get selected in our species and get passed along. And so you get, like - you know, you get this deep voice in males.

DAVIES: We haven't talked about song at all, which - I know you love music. You know, you sing. Do you think song among our ancestors is what led to language? Do we know about the interplay?

COLAPINTO: It was really Darwin that was the first to suggest that song and music was where language came from. People before that, theorists, tended to focus understandably on words because those seem like the - and indeed are the special thing. But it was Darwin's brilliant insight that probably the sort of melodic shape of sentences actually arrived first. And he theorized that because certain primates make these sort of incredible singing cadences, these ways of expressing anger, and as he put it, jealousy, rage, lust, you know, mating urges through melodic changes. And so it was really Darwin's theory that we sort of had this stream of meaningful melody that we then began to develop the ability to move our lips and tongue to shape words, a proto-language.

And he actually saw evidence for that in how babies learn to speak. Because if you think about it, little babies will say musical things, musical-sounding things, before they shape them into words. And the example with his kid was when the kid wanted food, it had a nonsense word, mum. But it would say, mum, mum. And he heard, oh, that's rising on pitch. And so he began to realize, yes, yes, that fits with what I was thinking. And so it was quite unique in his insight that that's what comes first and then we articulate.

DAVIES: You injured your voice when you were singing in a band among staff at the Rolling Stone when you were working there. You're now in another band.

COLAPINTO: (Laughter).

DAVIES: This is sort of coming full circle. Tell us about this.

COLAPINTO: Oh, yeah, the Sequoias. I was invited to join a New Yorker magazine in-house band. My fellow writer, John Seabrook, tapped me to do this. And I also play piano. So when I joined the band - my God, it could have been 10 years ago now - I was determined to just play keyboards. I didn't want to further damage my voice. I knew I mustn't be naughty. But of course, within the first rehearsal, I was, like, demanding to sing some songs and just wanting to because just the pleasure of it. I just love it.

And so I just insisted on singing with the band. And, you know, I think that in doing that, I almost inevitably further damaged my voice, especially when we got sort of frightening high-profile gigs, like the White House Correspondents Dinner Jam, which we were invited to do two years in a row - really exciting, but again, kind of nervous-making. And I sang in both of those Jams and emerged probably with a more (laughter) damaged voice, at least for singing.

DAVIES: Well, John Colapinto, thank you so much for speaking with us.

COLAPINTO: It's been my pleasure.

DAVIES: John Colapinto is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new book, "This Is The Voice," is out in paperback. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Petite Maman" about an 8-year-old girl who enters a magical world after the death of her grandmother. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.