22 Nov The Science of Singing in the Shower
All of us have broken into song during a shower at least once. Many of us go all out. As Josh Groban said, “There’s no half-singing in the shower. You’re either a rock star or an opera diva.”
But what makes singing in the shower so much fun? Let’s take a look at the acoustics of our private, steam-filled vocal booths. Spend five minutes on the internet (like I did) and you’ll find websites, blogs, and the like attributing the joy of shower singing to the venue’s tiled surfaces and small room size.
While this commonly found explanation certainly holds true, and captures some of the science at play, other aspects should be considered. Let’s unpack the science of speech acoustics in a space by reviewing four key concepts: speech production, room acoustics, background noise, and sound isolation.
In speech production, vowels are produced by our vocal cords. Vowels are often heard as long, controllable, continuous sounds that represent the emotional content of both speech and song. Here’s a blatantly obvious example: “Mamaaaaaaaa, ooo ooo ooo, didn’t meeaan to make you cry.”
Most consonants, however, are produced as plosives: low-energy, high-frequency, and short-term bursts of air, such as the letters “k,” “s,” etc. These sounds represent the information in our speech, and are not easily controllable in terms of pitch.
The hard surfaces of tile floors and walls usually found in washrooms are acoustically reflective. In other words, most of the sound within the space is reflected back into the room. At a glance, this seems favourable. Specific to singing, when you hold a note (vowel) in a small, reflective space, sound builds up and fills the room quite quickly. This gives you a glimpse of what it feels like to sing like Josh Groban, which is what probably led you to sing in the shower in the first place. However, this is not the whole story; read on!
The constant noisiness of the shower tends to hide consonants (the information), letting the louder low- and low-mid–range vowels “ring” above (or through) the sound of the shower. This effect is known as “masking sound.” It hides a lot of the high-frequency, heavy sharpness of consonants, and allows your louder, smoother vowels to ring out over the sound of the shower.
Don’t believe me? Switch off the shower and exhaust fan, and try singing again. Sounds a bit different, doesn’t it? Now the room exposes the tiniest details in your voice. Unless “professional singer” is in your job title, this slight change in conditions has turned your vocal haven into a minefield of sharps and flats. There is a reason studio vocal booths are padded with acoustical panels.*
I have some more bad news for you. Because washrooms require ventilation, the privacy of shower singing is often not true. Your washroom connects to the rest of your house or apartment—remember, the door is not air tight. In addition, your washroom’s air exhaust shaft may connect with exhaust shafts from other suites, especially in older apartment buildings. Think of your neighbours before your next performance.**
Acoustical Engineering Solutions
If you want to learn more about building acoustics, drop us a line. At BKL, our acoustical consultants have the knowledge, experience, and instruments to solve almost any acoustical issue—from noise transfer to echoes and beyond. When it comes to your singing, however, you’re on your own.
Post by Joonas Niinivaara
*While washrooms may not have ideal acoustics for singing, they do have a very distinct sound. (It is subjective, after all.) Everyone from Elvis Presley to Arcade Fire has used various “throne rooms” for recording music.
**I would like to thank Metro Vancouver Water Services Department and my wife, whose patience allowed for practical testing of the theories discussed in this article.