In praise of sub-vocalization, lip-syncing and playing the kazoo

One of the core beliefs of those making a case for singing in the school curriculum is its complementarity to the playing of instruments. According to Kemp, being musical through use of the voice, relying as it does on action within, and unseen, is less cognitive and more subjective than knowing through instruments. [1] Some kind of subjective-objective balance is proposed.

The voice within, the instrument without.

Well, there’s a compact rationale for you.

Many vocal advocates highly prize the power of silent singing (sub-vocalizing), the thinking and feeling of music in mind – (body), and thought of as a foundational form of listening.

But what about the art of Lip sync?

‘Lip sync, lip-sync, lip-synch (short for lip synchronization) is a technical term for matching lip movements with sung or spoken vocals. The term can refer to any of a number of different techniques and processes, in the context of live performances and recordings.’ [2]

Here the voice is disembodied, the lip syncer is wearing a mask.

We could think of this as sub-vocalizing with lips moving, a sort of musical ventriloquism. Much listening required in this, much attentive listening. [3]

But now let’s introduce that much neglected instrument, the kazoo patented in 1883. This is an instrument through which humming and other vocalise is transformed into instrumental timbres. Is there a kazoo-ukelele orchestra out there? [4]

Sub-vocalization, lip-synchronization and kazoo playing offer in their different ways forms of intensive listening experience and, of course, the experience of thinking in sound. Thinking in sound – is this what is meant by music as the target language? ‘The target language’ – what an unfortunate expression that is.


[1] Kemp, A. E. (1990) Kinaesthesia and development in music micro-technology, British Journal of Music Education, 7, 223-229.

[2] See

[3] Lip syncing is a cultural practice and I’m not sure about reducing it to psychological behaviour. What do you think?

[4] See

On track 16 of the Naxos recording of Lully’s Ballet Music of the Sun King the kazoo is substituted for the trumpet marine.



8 thoughts on “In praise of sub-vocalization, lip-syncing and playing the kazoo

  1. davidashworth

    Given my track record on uke-bashing, you would expect me to come weighing in here. But kazoos are absolutely fine by me. My first serious forays into music making were on this underrated instrument. Although I enjoyed singing, I realised at an early age that the girls seemed to have sweeter, more mellifluous voices – so I went outside the box and took up the kazoo. Three weeks later, i took second prize in an end of the pier contest with my groundbreaking version of the “Keel Row”. Not a dry seat in the house by the time I came into the final cadenza. The posh girls singing a close harmony version of “Linden Lea” took first prize of course, but I was pleased enough.

    Here was an instrument that allowed me to explore music making in a whole new way. Don’t knock it, I say. Well done, John for championing this instrument….

  2. davidashworth

    …and, of course, this instrument* was given further credibility by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix on iconic recordings. [*actually probably the ‘poor mans kazoo’ of comb/tissue paper]

    This is just the sort of info that can give you that little bit of an edge in a pub quiz play off….

  3. interesting to look into the provenance of the kazoo. It could be placed in a family of instruments to include comb and paper, jaws harp and many more. As David points out the kazoo has stong cultural form. My interest was in the novel way in which it acts as go between thinking, vocalising and instrumental timbre. My hypothesis is that the kazoo can help in the development of in-tune singing.

  4. davidashworth

    Yes, John, your points re the important part that the kazoo can play in helping with developing singing and musicianship are well made.

    Playing the kazoo serves two main functions:
    1. it allows the child who may not be a confident singer to ‘hide behind’ this device whilst still exploring using their voices musically.
    2. because children have already learned to control and use their voices expressively through talking, they can transfer these skills in this first step towards instrumental playing. A useful ‘bridge’ before learning how to employ the use of fingers in controlling instrumental sounds.

    Also, it shows how technology can be used to ‘transform’ sounds – something they will come across in other areas of music making at later stages.

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