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 synclip-synclip-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

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

  1. I think I’d like to shoot whoever puts these silly algorithmic ads on your site! Today’s generated an advert for hearing aids! So helpful (not!)

    I just wanted to add something, from a personal perspective here, about singing as in and instrument as outside the body. Since I do both but singing came much earlier it’s fascinated me for a long time how both my singing and my instrument playing improve because I now do both not just one, singers often ignore instrumentalists as if they were a ‘service industry’ or a ‘support act’ for themselves – or amateur ones do anyway. Instrumentalists, because they just (again, as amateurs) just want to playing them notes in the page’ can ignore the significance of How singers use lyrics. But both are, in fact, both inside and outside activities. Good posture, breathing, intonation and resonance even, are ‘researched intensively by both singers and instrumentalists at professional level – and without an ‘inside’ and often emotionally costly (look at the nervous breakdown rate of semi professionals trying to ‘make it’ in their field) ability to ‘mask’ that and make it look effortless outside there would be no great professional performances. Castiglione’s words here, later taken up by musicians like Ganassi, writing in the early sixteenth century concern, as an example, the art of using sprezzatura’ in performance:

    Sprezzatura ([sprettsaˈtuːra]) is an Italian word that first appears in Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”.[1] It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”.[2] Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance”.[3]

    To us, today, this may seem, initially, very ‘arch’ (it was, because it was written for courtiers) and Irrelevant. But in fact, as later used to produce performance manuals for the musicians of the day it began to fundamentally inform not only technique but also musical interpretation. This is Ganassi on the ‘art of diminution.’ These players KNEW, technically and from inside their bodies, what it actually takes to go 7 notes above the stave, reliably and musically, when you perform – and outside, they wrote all that technique down too. Singers, on the other hand, because memory mattered so much more in a society with few written books, learned audition skills we can only stand in awe of. So I think my question is – have we forgotten how much singers can learn from the voicing’ strategies which instrumentalists use ….and can we perhaps, by finding out a bit more about the ‘internalising’ sound processes singers use help instrumentalists become more sensitively alive to the dense forest of vocalisation through which singers have to clear a space to ‘own’ their own voice?

    Sorry for the rant – you hit a nerve! I may also be talking rubbish…butI offer it nonetheless.

    Mary x

    . control

    Sent from my iPad


    1. In writing the blog, as with Tony Kemp’s point about complementarity, I mostly had younger children in mind and the value of singing AND playing instruments (and moving). I was hinting too that some pedagogies mandate the voice before instrument. But as time passes self-dentities do develop and often its case of ‘I am a singer’, ‘I am a keyboard player’, I am a sound artist etc. and often in the case of instrumentalists the identity of singer is rejected. I offered the kazoo as a mediating in between vocal-instrument that perhaps could assist poor-pitch singers.

      But as you say, if the instrumentalst and the vocalist drift into their own worlds, as will surely do, it would be beneficial if they could find ways of reconnecting. I have always sung and played instruments so I may not know too much about the disconnect.

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