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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Morell Mackenzie on Those who Pretend to See with their Fingers (1886)

'It cannot be too clearly understood at the outset that the voice is generated solely in the larynx. It is necessary to insist on this elementary fact with some emphasis, as much confusion has been caused by fanciful expressions like “head-voice” and “chest-voice.” Philosophers are never tired of warning us not to mistake names for things, but it is an error to which we are all liable, and none more so than these estimable persons themselves. The present is a typical example of the danger alluded to.

The originators of the terms “head-voice,” &c., no doubt applied them with subjective accuracy, i.e., the name expressed the fact as they conceived it. But just as “the evil that men do lives after them,” misleading terminology continues to work havoc in the minds of learners long after its incorrectness has been recognized by teachers, who, however, adhere to it from a mistaken notion of its practical usefulness. It is no exaggeration to say that most of the confusion in which the whole subject of voice-production is still involved is due to the use of terms either wrong in themselves or wrongly applied. The larynx is the organ of the voice just as the eye is the organ of sight, or the ear of hearing.

Every one would laugh at a man who should pretend to smell with his lips or see with his fingers; yet such claims are not one whit more absurd than those of singers who profess to fetch their voice from the back of the head, the roof of the mouth, the bottom of the chest, or anywhere else that their misinterpreted sensations lead them to fancy.

As a basso profundo is sometimes figuratively said to “sing out of his booths,” we may perhaps be grateful that there is no voce di piede among the acknowledged registers.'



Morell Mackenzie, The Hygiene of the Vocal Organs: A Practical Handbook for Singers and Speakers (London: Macmillan, 1886).

The page below is from a collection of Two Hundred Sketches, Humorous and Grotesque by Gustav Doré, originally published in 1867. It presents caricatures of the Prima Donna, Prima Tenore, and Basso Profundo, as well as the chorus. The soloists are mocked for being so expensive, £7,000 in 1867 is the equivalent of roughly £800,000 today (just over a million USD). The chorus are mocked of for their manner of singing (‘shouting’) as well as the length of their movement (three-quarters of an hour) and the cliché nature of their lyrics.

The whole collection of cartoons can be found here in a later reprint:

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