October 01, 2014

Voicing Thoughts

Aretha Franklin released her cover of "Rollin' in the Deep" this week (full album available October 21st); she began singing at age 10 and is still performing at age 72. I marveled today at the power of her voice and what the human voice can do. Whenever I get interested, I usually go looking for more to learn, so... this morning I went looking for information about the human voice.

Following A.W. Tozer's example, I often like to start my learning with looking at Bible verses about the topic. The word 'voice' occurs hundreds of times in the Old and New Testaments, from Jacob's voice when he tricks Isaac to get Esau's blessing to descriptions of voices of angels, the voice of God, and comparisons of the sound of voices to thunder, trumpets, and mighty waters. The Greek word translated 'voice' is phone (foh-nee'), which we still use today in a number of words like telephone, phonetic, and euphonium. Plutarch called phone "that which brings to light upon that which is thought of in the mind." Or, to use Spiros Zodhiates' words, "The voice explains that which one had in his own mind for others... Phone is the cry of the living creature."

The spectrogram of the human voice reveals its rich harmonic content.
When we inhale, our bodies gather oxygen in the lungs, then exchange needed oxygen and unneeded carbon dioxide. Exhaling removes carbon dioxide. That exhaling, when it's controlled and shaped, is how we speak. Air from your lungs is the fuel for speech. Muscles like the diaphragm are the regulator, controlling the rate the air leaves your body; singers train for years to learn proper diaphragm control. Controlled air goes past two flaps of tissue in your airway called your vocal cords. Vocal cord length and shape plus the size of your airway are what determine the pitch of your voice, how high or low it is. You flex and relax throat muscles to control the pitch of your voice, whether singing or speaking. When the airflow is controlled and the pitch is decided, you use your cheeks, tongue, jaw, teeth and lips to turn the air into recognizable patterns. Vowels are shaped airflow; consonants are all about restricting or stopping the airflow.

Most of us learned to talk farther back than we remember. Without thinking about how we do it, we take the thoughts and ideas and feelings inside us, then use air (breath, wind, spirit, ruach, pneuma) to carry those intangible things past our shaping manipulations so they can take shape in someone else's mind. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 that the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.

Beyond that, the human voice is one of the most intimate things about the human body. We identify loved ones by voice alone; we yearn deeply over hearing our name said by someone we love. Darlene Rose once said that no one ever said her name the way her mother did; I know I feel similarly about how my mom says my name. Parents learn to recognize their child's voice across distances, to discern whether a cry is their child or someone else.

This is the kind of relationship and knowledge Jesus talks about when he says in John 10 that sheep follow their shepherd because they know his voice; they will not follow a stranger. Hebrews 3 & 4 plead several times for us to listen to God's voice today rather than hardening our hearts and turning away.

I think of all the speaking and singing voices I can recognize in very short order and how quickly I move from identifying the person to enjoying whatever I might hear. I'm working to recognize God's voice like this. I'm trying to take time alone to be still, to listen, to train my heart and inner ear to become so familiar with him that I could never mistake a stranger for him. I know it will take time.

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