Poor neuro-motor tuning of the human larynx: A comparison of sung and whistled pitch imitation

Michel Belyk, Joseph F. Johnson, Sonja A. Kotz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human communication that underlies the capacity to learn to speak and sing. Even so, poor vocal imitation abilities are surprisingly common in the general population and even expert vocalists cannot match the precision of a musical instrument. Although humans have evolved a greater degree of control over the laryngeal muscles that govern voice production, this ability may be underdeveloped compared with control over the articulatory muscles, such as the tongue and lips, volitional control of which emerged earlier in primate evolution. Human participants imitated simple melodies by either singing (i.e. producing pitch with the larynx) or whistling (i.e. producing pitch with the lips and tongue). Sung notes were systematically biased towards each individual’s habitual pitch, which we hypothesize may act to conserve muscular effort. Furthermore, while participants who sung more precisely also whistled more precisely, sung imitations were less precise than whistled imitations. The laryngeal muscles that control voice production are under less precise control than the oral muscles that are involved in whistling. This imprecision may be due to the relatively recent evolution of volitional laryngeal-motor control in humans, which may be tuned just well enough for the coarse modulation of vocal-pitch in speech.

Original languageEnglish
Article number171544
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 18 Apr 2018


  • Articulation
  • Evolution
  • Imitation
  • Larynx
  • Motor control
  • Voice


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