This regular series will examine different facets of vocal health in which we hope to dispel myths and inaccuracies. Most importantly, our goal is to provide support for those who have experienced vocal concerns and provide constructive solutions for singers.
This article is designed to be an introduction to how the vocal sound is produced and resonated. It also serves to clarify sometimes confusing instruction surrounding the same.
Human Voice = Musical Instrument
The human voice is an instrument. Musical instruments require three components to generate sound: 1) a power source, 2) vibratory source, and 3) resonating chamber. In the case of the human voice, air is the power source, the vocal folds1 are the vibratory source, and the vocal tract is the resonating chamber. Vocal sound is then transmitted through the air to our ears.
The vocal folds are located at the top of the windpipe and are housed in the larynx. Vocal sounds are created when the two vocal folds draw together and then vibrate as air passes through. Pitch is determined by the length of the vocal folds. The vocal folds are like rubber bands: the more stretched and thin they become, the higher the pitch.
The vocal tract is the resonator of the human body and has two main areas (see the teal portions of the graphic to the right):
- from the vocal folds to the soft palate and from the back of the throat to the back of the tongue is called the pharynx
- the mouth is called the oral cavity
- the nasal cavity is a part of the vocal tract only during nasal consonants (n, m, ng)
Variation in Timbre
Changes to the size and shape of the vocal tract give us different timbres. A full or thin sound is often the result of a high or low laryngeal position. In barbershop, we have embraced differing laryngeal positions. Low larynx examples: Acoustix and Nightlife. High larynx examples: Nighthawks and the Sidewinders.
The above examples of quartets can be tricky. Yes, they are representative of their respective laryngeal positions, but they also are examples of tongue position. Generally, the higher the blade of the tongue is, the more we perceive the tone as being bright. A higher tongue position is closest to speech and the tongue when at rest (it rests on the roof of the mouth). To see how changes in tongue position results in bright or hollow sounds, check out this fun website (the circle controls the tongue position). Are you aware of your tongue now?
An understanding of the human voice based on its function can help us avoid confusing instruction. Remember that vibrating vocal folds produce sound and then the air/sound leaves the body by way of the vocal tract; changes to the vocal tract give us timbre.
Here are a few commonly heard myths:
Placing a tone- this oft-used metaphor can be confusing to many. How exactly does one place a tone, whether it be forward or backward? Answer: you cannot. That’s not how air works in a tube. What you can change is the position of your tongue. Variations on this theme:
- Sing into the mask: there is no such body part as the mask and we cannot direct air there anyway.
- Sing out the top of your head: air leaves the mouth or nose only.
- Sing brighter/darker: colors like these are psychoacoustic perceptions (our brain's take); mostly dependent on tongue position.
Lift the tone- this is also an impossibility. Typically what the coach or director is asking for is a change in laryngeal position, usually down. Variations on this theme:
- Raise the soft palate: most singers don’t sing with a lowered soft palate, but many sing with a high larynx. An instruction to sing with a raised soft palate results in a lowered larynx for most (but also tongue tension).
- Sing with a beginning of a yawn: this instruction does lower the larynx, but for many it also can induce root-of-tongue tension.
- Sing with an inner smile: this usually results in a lower larynx too.
None of these instructions are inherently bad, but often the good habit requested are unconsciously coupled by another, bad habit (usually tongue tension).
Take a Look
The human voice is fascinating. Watch the video of a mixed, classical quartet getting scoped while they sing a motet.
(If you’ve never seen vocal folds up close, I offer caution. Some are uncomfortable with the sight!)
Happy, healthy singing, my friends!
1 In the past vocal folds were called vocal cords (never chords!) due to their appearance as bands. Vocal folds is the correct, modern nomenclature.