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U of U Health researchers bring in heavy metal singer to study musical screaming

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | Jun 12, 2024

Courtesy Jhonatan Larrocha, University of Utah Health

If you’re convinced your child is listening to “devil music,” you might be surprised to learn there’s truly some talent behind all of that screaming.

According to researchers at University of Utah Health, those harsh vocals involve a skill of complex internal acrobatics in order to produce the heavy metal sounds.

“We’re still in the infancy of being able to understand harsh vocals,” said Amanda Start, speech-language pathologist in otolaryngology in the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine and lead researcher in the study that is looking to understand how screaming in music is different from other singing styles.

In order to understand this type of sound, researchers had music artist Will Ramos go into a recording studio and watched as he cupped his ears, opened his mouth and roared. It was “a guttural, crocodilian rattle that rolled out from the two-way mic,” U of U Health Science Communications Manager Sophia Friesen reported.

As one of the biggest names in deathcore, Ramos’ voice sounded almost inhuman to the researchers as he belted out note after note, proving that the human voice can defy all expectations.

Courtesy Sophia Friesen, University of Utah Health

Amanda Stark, a speech-language pathologist in otolaryngology in the U’s Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine and the lead researcher on the study.

Stark said she’s hopeful the study can lay the groundwork for musicians to learn harsh vocals in a safe way and to prove this singing style isn’t inherently damaging and can even empower everyday people to look at the full potential of their voice.

To begin the study, researchers collected a high-quality sound recording to capture each note in the absence of background noise or instrumentals. This helped to predict which parts of the vocal anatomy controlled different aspects of sound from the larynx to the lips. They also wanted to understand whether or not these certain sounds were causing damage to the internal workings of the throat.

The researchers then looked at Ramos’ vocal cords with an internal camera and used electromyography to measure throat muscle activity. Then, they captured video in real time using dynamic MRI, a technique that takes images during squeezing or straining. This provided a comprehensive view of how he sings, screams and squeals.

Elizabeth Zharoff, producer of the YouTube channel The Charismatic Voice, said electromyography and dynamic MRI analysis were firsts for the musical genre.

“Nobody has done this before. Ever,” she said.

Halfway through the recording session, Ramos was asked to rank his level of vocal fatigue on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most fatigued he had ever felt. Ramos rated his fatigue at a 2 and did so in a completely normal speaking voice.

Derek Legler, researcher and speech-language pathologist in otolaryngology at SFESOM, said the results were stunning. He said song and speech are produced in large part by vibrations of specialized tissue in the throat called vocal folds, which are attached to cartilage-based structures that typically open up to allow breathing and close when using our voices. However, Ramos was torquing his to one side as he sang. While some metal vocalists do damage their voices, others have careers for decades without any harm.

“It’s so fascinating,” Legler said. “Watching his throat do that was — it doesn’t usually do that. The human body just doesn’t usually do that.”

Stark said researchers are hopeful that studying vocal musicians like Ramos can expand the scope of vocal possibilities. Ramos’ vocal health was judged “fantastic” by voice scientists, which was proven by the dynamic MRI scans.

“If we study these unicorns that have this diversity in their sound, it can empower other people to say, ‘I can have that diversity in my own voice. Holy cow, I don’t have to just expect my voice to sound like this. I can do this,'” Stark said.

So while some people have a hard time listening to the screaming of heavy metal and deathcore, others who enjoy the sound can rest assured their favorite band can sing the tunes safely.

“How cool would it be if someone could go to Juilliard to learn harsh vocals?” asked Kirk McCune, chief operating officer of The Charismatic Voice. “It changes the landscape of how music can be created.”


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