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What’s a squillo, and why do opera singers need it? Ming Luke

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An orchestra fills an opera house with music, but a singer’s voice soars above the instruments. Its melody rings out across thousands of patrons— all without any assistance from a microphone. How is it possible that a single voice can be heard so clearly? The answer lies in the physics of the human voice. Ming Luke explains the carefully honed technique of an expert opera singer.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Educator Ming Luke
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger, Eleanor Nelsen
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Singer Ellen Leslie
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • Special Thanks Jenny Hunt
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Opera 
The history of opera in Western culture dates back 400 years to Renaissance Italy where a group of musicians, known as the Florentine Camerata, decided to revive the Greek tradition of melodrama and theater, telling a story with musical accompaniment. Composers in the Baroque period saw opera as a medium through which they could integrate all artforms into a single work thereby appealing to an audience’s every sense and sensibility. At its heart, opera relies on music and drama working in tandem to communicate narrative, emotion, and character. Opera continued to gain popularity and evolve until by the end of the 18th century, it was an international phenomenon. As operatic productions grew larger and more advanced, vocal training and pedagogy for opera singers necessarily followed suit. Singers were, and are still, categorized by their voice type and trained accordingly for specific styles of singing. For a long time, women were not allowed to sing on stage, giving rise to the tradition of the castrato soprano voices. While during much of opera history, castrati were treated like superstars, this tradition fell out of favor and the last castrato singer died in 1922. Opera singers work for decades to hone the specific skills necessary to both project and emote their roles. You can watch a master teacher and singer in action to learn more about these techniques and learn more about the physiology of the operatic voice. Ready to go see an opera, but want to brush up on and understand all the lingo? Check out this resource for Opera 101 and learn more about the production of specific operas on this opera podcast.

Science, Math, Music and Pythagorus
Legend has it that Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagorus of the famed Pythagorean theorem was walking past a blacksmith when he paused to listen to the pounding of the hammers. He heard that some pitches were higher than others so he went to investigate. He found that the sizes of the hammers determined their pitch and that they were in direct proportion to each other. While this legend has been largely debunked, Pythagorus is credited with discovering that a string exactly half the length of another will play a pitch exactly one octave higher and that if you divide the same string into thirds, you raise the pitch an octave and a fifth and so on. This discovery gave rise to the study of the overtone series and the mathematical ratios that determine the specific harmonics in the series and greatly contributed to how we understand Western musical theory, notation, and acoustics today. Watch this video to see how Pythagorus extended his philosophy to contend that the entire universe is in a constant state of vibration and sound, otherwise known as the Music of the Spheres.

Sound amplification and architecture
The shape and design of a concert hall can greatly impact how opera singers and musicians are heard without amplification. Most of us have been in poorly designed spaces in which presenters or performers sound muddy or overly loud or soft (think of band concerts in a typical high school gym). You may have found yourself wondering how a better design might produce more favorable acoustics. In 1895, physicist Wallace Clement Sabine, a young physics professor at Harvard, wondered the same thing when it became clear that the new Fogg Lecture Hall rendered voices indiscernible because of its poor acoustics. He took a scientific approach and through experimentation with a pipe organ and stopwatch, created a formula to measure the reverberation of a space. Now considered the father of architectural acoustics, Sabine helped to pioneer the field of quantitative acoustics that has led to the building of some of the best concert halls in the world. Read more about Sabine’s work here and learn more about the intersection of art, science and engineering the design of concert halls here.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Educator Ming Luke
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Sound Designer Weston Fonger, Eleanor Nelsen
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Singer Ellen Leslie
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • Special Thanks Jenny Hunt
  • See more