“How does the voice work?” is the ultimate question of every singer. I have already written a blog post about how voice works (you can read it here) but today, I am bringing you a video. I had lots of fun creating this video – I had to find an artist inside me because I attempted to draw the structures that make up the vocal mechanism. It took a long time but here is the final product. I hope you will find it helpful.
Enjoy the video.
I also included a transcript for those who prefer it. At the end of this post, I also included a player for the audio recording of the video that you can either listen to online or download.
Today I want to talk about a topic that many new singers wonder about. I want to show you how voice works.
Why is it important for singers to know how voice works?
I believe that it can help them understand better what is going on inside their body when they sing. If you know your body, you can improve your vocal technique and maintain vocal health.
It isn’t necessary to memorize all the specific terms and functions of the vocal anatomy. My goal here is to give you some understanding. Also basic knowledge of terminology, like diaphragm, resonance, and soft palate, improves communication with vocal teachers.
Let’s start with breathing. I don’t need to tell you that coordinated breath support is essential for good singing. Well, I just did.
Here are the lungs and here is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle dividing the torso into the chest cavity and the abdomen.
Air enters the lungs through the trachea, otherwise known as the windpipe. During inhalation, the ribcage moves out and sideways and the diaphragm descends – moves down. The lungs are stretched and air is drawn into the lungs. During exhalation, the lungs are compressed and the air is pushed out because the ribcage and the diaphragm return to their relaxed position.
Let’s move on to the larynx, also known as the ‘voice box’. The larynx sits on top of the windpipe. The larynx plays a role in the protection of the windpipe and in the production of sound.
This organ in your neck does not look like much in this picture. However, it is a complex structure that houses the vocal folds, also known as ‘vocal cords’.
Let’s finish this picture with the rest of the vocal tract – pharynx, mouth, tongue and nasal cavity – but we’ll get back to these later.
Here is a closer look at the same structures.
The larynx is made of cartilages, joints, ligaments and muscles.
The larynx is made of 9 cartilages in total, three of them are in pairs and three are unpaired. Here in the picture, I drew only the biggest one, which has a lump or protrusion in the front – you may know it as the Adam’s apple. The cartilages form a skeleton of the larynx that is connected to other structures of the head and neck through muscles.
Right above the larynx is the pharynx – this is your throat situated right behind the mouth and nasal cavity. The pharynx is a part of your vocal tract that is shaped during singing to produce an optimal sound.
The sound that is made in the larynx travels through the vocal tract and is amplified based on the position of the tongue, lips, mouth, resonance of the nasal cavity and finally the shape of the pharynx. The buzz created in the larynx resonates or vibrates in all these body parts, which we call resonators.
Let’s have a look inside your mouth.
No, you cannot see the larynx when you open your mouth. But you can see other structures that are important for singers. You recognise a tongue and teeth. You can also see a hard palate, soft palate and uvula that make up the roof of your mouth. You can actually see a small part of your pharynx – right behind your oral cavity – mouth.
Now, let’s have a look at the larynx from up above. To see your own larynx, you need to visit a specialist who will use a viewing instrument called a scope.
On the front part of the larynx is the epiglottis. The epiglottis is a leaf-shaped flap attached to the root of the tongue and the cartilage of the larynx.
During breathing, the epiglottis points up so that air enters and exits the windpipe and the lungs freely. During swallowing, the epiglottis moves back and covers the entrance to the larynx to prevent food from entering the larynx and the lungs.
Next, you see a triangular opening that is narrow in front and wide in the back. This opening is called the glottis. The opening continues to the windpipe. Air passes through this opening when we breathe or vocalize – make sound.
The vocal cords extend from the front to the backside of the biggest laryngeal cartilage. Here, the vocal cords are apart to let air pass during breathing. Their outer edges are attached to muscles in the larynx and do not move or vibrate. Their inner edges are free to vibrate.
This picture shows the vocal cords together. We see the same structures – the epiglottis, the laryngeal cartilages and the vocal cords.
The vocal cords close when we speak or sing. To bring the vocal cords together, you engage the deep muscles of the larynx that influence not only the position but also the shape and tension of the vocal cords, for example the deep muscles make the vocal cords loose, bring them together or spread them apart.
Let’s continue looking at the larynx. This is a cross section of the larynx – your voice box cut in half vertically viewed from front. There are two pairs of folds – false vocal folds and true vocal folds, otherwise known as vocal cords.
The False Vocal Folds
The false vocal folds are located above the true vocal folds. The false vocal folds are covered with mucosal lining but they do not have muscles. They vibrate a little bit during singing, especially during vibrato singing. They play a role in resonance but they do not produce sound. The false vocal folds are important when swallowing because they help create closure to prevent food from entering the windpipe.
The True Vocal Folds
‘Vocal folds’ is a better name for ‘vocal cords’. Most teachers and singers use these two terms interchangeably. The folds are not strings like guitar strings that vibrate when plucked so the word ‘cord’ may be misleading. In reality, they are folds of tissue as seen in this picture.
The true vocal folds have three layers – outermost or superficial layer is mucosa (a type of tissue that lines surfaces of cavities in our bodies). This is a special gel-like tissue that vibrates during sound production. It is really just the outermost part of the vocal folds that vibrates during phonation.
The deep layer is made of a muscle tissue. This muscle can contract, which shortens the vocal folds. Between these two layers is an intermediate layer that consists of a vocal ligament.
Sound is generated in the larynx, right here between the two vocal folds. This is where we change pitch and volume. As I said before, during breathing the vocal folds are open and the air travels to the lungs.
Just before we speak or sing, the folds come together, which causes air pressure to build up underneath the folds – called subglottic pressure. As the subglottic pressure increases, the vocal folds are pushed apart. Air rushes through the opening between the vocal folds, which causes the outermost mucosal layer to vibrate. The tension, the shape and the length of the vocal folds determine the pitch of the voice.
There is so much more to know about the larynx, the vocal mechanism, the muscles and phonation… Let’s stop here for now.
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