The Great Vibration Theory, Or Are Singers Really Stupid?

Arturo Toscanini firmly believed that “the vibrations of high notes beating frequently on a singer’s brain make him stupid.”

It is a notion held secretly or sheepishly by a number of music’s leaders, supported by a body of folklore and some medical opinion. According to the theory, the higher the voice, the more stupid the singer — particularly tenors, whose resonant upper register causes more acute brain-beating frequencies.

Basses, baritones and contraltos have more sense because they have fewer vibrations.

In Italy, a man would much rather be called a cuckold than be accused of having a faccia di tenore—the face of a tenor. In France, the proverb goes: “Stupid as a tenor, amorous as a baritone, drunk as a bass.” Some doctors who specialize in treating singers’ throats and nasal passages at least half-believe the theory. Says a well-known Manhattan doctor who probably caters to more of the city’s vocal elite than anyone else: “I have always jokingly said that tenors are so dense because they are living with chronic brain concussion. They have all of those vibrations bouncing off the bones of their heads. It is definite that they do feel the vibrations, and sometimes when they sing high notes, they feel faint and dizzy, and they often have to sit down. Sopranos are probably not as affected because their voices are smaller.” An internist finds the theory scientifically feasible: “Ultrasound shatters molecules, and that’s what we are made of. High frequencies in his singing voice could well knock a tenor silly every time he belts out a high C.”

Among themselves, singers are naturally divided. Soprano Birgit Nilsson has referred to a tenor partner as “having a resonance chamber where his brain used to be.” Metropolitan Opera Soprano Teresa Stratas takes a feminine view: “Stupidity, no. Egomania, yes. Tenors seem stupid because they are so fully absorbed in themselves. Sopranos —they all have to be pretty smart cookies to have gotten where they are.” Tenor Richard Tucker, in a cheerily frivolous reaction that goes far to refute the thesis, comments: “Since tenors usually carry their fat elsewhere, you can be sure they are not fatheads. And besides, the mere fact that there’s vibration in a tenor’s cranial cavity would seem to be a sign of life not found in the same area in many other people.”

Overall, most U.S. neurologists would agree with Dr. Rudolf Zimmermann, famous German throat specialist: “From a medical standpoint there is not the slightest shred of evidence that there could be such a link to the mind. Singers —often out of necessity and insecurity —may harbor a somewhat inflated ego. But few of them could be considered outright dumb.”

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