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Research Reveals How Heavy Metal Singers Scream and Squeal

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Sophia Friesen
Manager, Science Communications

Deep within the labyrinthine halls of the imaging research center, a gaggle of voice scientists crowded around a small window with expressions of utter astonishment. Trading theories in hushed voices, they peered into the tiny, soundproofed room where their current study participant got ready to do what he did best. As they watched, he cupped his ears, opened his mouth, and roared: a guttural, crocodilian rattle that rolled out from the two-way mic.

Will Ramos sings.

A person with full sleeve tattoos cups his ears as he sings in a recording booth
Ramos in the recording booth. Image credit: Jhonatan Larrocha

To those unfamiliar with Will Ramos’ oeuvre, the sound seemed almost inhuman. But as one of the biggest names in deathcore belted out another note—this one strangely resonant, as if he stood in a cave instead of a cramped recording lab—he proved that the human voice is an instrument that defies expectations.
To understand that instrument, the researchers were embarking upon a comprehensive scientific study of the harsh vocals that characterize deathcore and many other musical genres, revealing for the first time the complex internal acrobatics that produce these unique sounds.
“We’re still in the infancy of being able to understand harsh vocals,” said Amanda Stark, PhD, speech-language pathologist in otolaryngology in the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine (SFESOM) and the lead researcher on the study. “The goal is to begin to understand how a scream or a harsh vocal is different from a clean vowel, a spoken sentence, or other singing styles.”

Stark hopes that by breaking down the technique of skilled harsh vocalists like Ramos, she can lay the groundwork for artists to learn harsh vocals safely, prove to the skeptical that these singing styles aren’t inherently damaging, and empower everyday people to explore the full potential of their voices.

Sound Strategy

Collecting high-quality sound recordings was the first step in the process. Capturing each note in the absence of background noise or instrumental accompaniment let the researchers define the precise acoustic differences between, for instance, a “moose scream” and a “pterodactyl scream.”
They could also start to predict which parts of the vocal anatomy, from the larynx to the lips, control different aspects of each sound. But especially in cases like Ramos’s, whose singing styles are understudied in voice science, understanding how the sounds were produced—and whether they’re causing damage—required taking a look at the complex internal workings of the throat. 

This is where the expertise of the Voice, Airway, Swallowing Translational (VAST) research lab came to the fore, as techniques routinely used for patients with voice disorders were repurposed to understand Ramos’s unique sound. The research team looked at Ramos’s vocal cords with an internal camera and used a technique called electromyography to measure the activity of his throat muscles. Finally, they captured video of his internal vocal acrobatics in real time using dynamic MRI. Together, this panel of tests provided a comprehensive view of how Ramos sings, screams, and squeals.

Dynamic MRI of Ramos singing a "clean" (not harsh) note.

Ramos singing harsh vocals.

Elizabeth Zharoff, producer of the YouTube channel The Charismatic Voice, said that electromyography and dynamic MRI analysis were firsts for the musical genre. “Nobody has done this before. Ever,” she added.
The results were stunning, according to Derrik Legler, speech-language pathologist in otolaryngology in SFESOM and a researcher on the study. Song and speech are produced in large part by vibrations of specialized tissue in the throat called the vocal folds. These are attached to cartilage-based structures that normally just open to allow us to breathe and close when we use our voice, but Ramos was torquing his to one side as he sang. “It’s so fascinating,” Legler said. “Watching his throat do that was—it doesn’t usually do that. The human body just doesn’t usually do that.”

Stark hopes that studying vocal specialists like Ramos can expand the scope of what’s possible for everyone with a voice. Professional singers have the expertise to demonstrate a wide range of vocal strategies in a research setting, revealing new aspects of the human voice that are applicable to the population at large.
“If we study these ‘unicorns’ that have this diversity in their sound, it can empower other people to say, ‘I can have that diversity in my own voice,’” Stark said. “‘Holy cow, I don’t have to just expect my voice to sound like this. I can do this.’”

A person in a black blazer stares intensely at a laptop. Image credit: Sophia Friesen.
Amanda Stark, PhD, literally on the edge of her seat as she sees the data behind Ramos's vocals.

Changing the Landscape

There’s a common perception that harsh vocals are physically unhealthy. To the untrained ear, the rough-edged growls of deathcore sound like they must be painful. But while some metal vocalists do damage their voices, others have careers that last for decades with no apparent harm.

Partway through the voice recording session, after Ramos had sung dozens of acoustically distinct vocals, Stark asked him to rank his level of vocal fatigue on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most fatigued he’d ever felt. “Maybe a two,” Ramos replied, in a completely normal speaking voice. 

Unlike an untrained scream, Ramos's singing doesn't cause vocal strain.

The voice scientists in attendance judged Ramos’ vocal health as “fantastic,” an assessment that was later borne out by the dynamic MRI scans. Ramos had learned how to scream, squeal, and hiss like a teakettle, all without jeopardizing his vocal cords.
By demonstrating that harsh vocals can be sung safely, the researchers hope to reduce the stigma around deathcore and related musical genres. Having a clear picture of how to produce those sounds without compromising vocal health could also help teach aspiring artists to master these styles. “How cool would it be if someone could go to Juilliard to learn harsh vocals?” mused Kirk McCune, COO of The Charismatic Voice. “It changes the landscape of how music can be created.”


Watch Ramos in action in the VAST Lab here.