Gibbons and Opera Singers Use the Same Voice Tools


It’s an old party trick—sucking helium from balloons so you can sing like a Wizard of Oz munchkin. When gibbons inhale this non-toxic gas, researchers can detect much more sophisticated impersonations. It turns out that gibbon vocalization techniques mirror those of highly trained soprano opera singers.

“We’ve shown how the gibbons’ distinctive song uses the same vocal mechanics as soprano singers, revealing a fundamental similarity with humans,” explains Takeshi Nishimura, an associate professor with the Primate Research Institute at Japan’s Kyoto University.

Scientists had previously believed that human speech was possible, in part, due to suspected evolutionary changes in the larynx, tongue, and vocal tract. But Nishimura’s new findings suggest that humans may not have vocal anatomy and ability as unique as previously thought.

We share voice-box physiology with gibbons, and likely other primates, but we also share the way we manipulate sound, Nishimura explains. With both humans and gibbons, the origin of the sound—the larynx—is independent from the vocal tools (or training) used to tailor audible messages.

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