Singing 101: Heavy Lifting!: The Muscles That Control Your Vocal Cords

If you were to do a quick Google search about singing, you'd likely see a lot of information of varying degrees of clarity/accuracy talking about breathing and "singing from your diaphragm" (which is a particular pet peeve of mine, as it is a fallacy - you do NOT sing from your diaphragm). Or using breath support to "get out" your high notes. Or some other absolutely unhealthy ideas requiring you to tense up, push your voice out, and continue to be in a vicious cycle of pushing more, and liking the results less. 

Because here's the secret: it's not about breathing. Well, not all of it anyway. Let's do a quick & dirty overview once more of how the vocal mechanism works. (For a longer, dorkier read on this particular topic, see my Singing 101 post about How The Voice Works).

When you go to sing, you inhale a new breath in, and your diaphragm (a sheet of muscle and tendon located beneath your sternum) drops down (this is why your belly inflates out). As your air passes between the closed vocal cords, they vibrate against one another, creating sound. That sounds then travels through the Pharynx (my favorite piece of vocal physiology, whoop whoop, nerd alert) and resonates in the throat, mouth, nasal cavity, face, chest, and skull to amplify the sound, and it then travels out of your mouth and into the ears of the listener. Beautiful, ain't it?!

Now. I bet there was a piece in there that you may not have ever even thought about. And that piece is the one we're going to focus on today: The muscles that control your vocal cords, pulling them together to create different pitches. These two muscle groups are called the Thyroid Muscles, and the Arytenoid Muscles. Oh yeah. I love these babies.

Two Muscle Groups: The Thyroid and The Arytenoid

Think of your vocal cords like a rubber band. The only thing that creates pitch is your vocal cords pulling together to a particular pitch opening, which produces a certain pitch frequency. Therefore, every note you sing has its own specific pitch opening. The pulling-together is controlled by two sets of muscles: the Thyroid muscle group, which controls your Chest Voice (low notes), and the Cricoarytenoid muscle group (I sometimes use just "Arytenoids" to refer to this muscle group), which controls your Head Voice (high notes). If you look at this diagram of your larynx or Google it yourself (I'll wait while you sort through the inevitable "Eww!"-exclamations), you'll see that the Thyroid group is located at the front of your throat, and the Arytenoids are located at the back. The more taut the vocal cords, the smaller the pitch opening, faster the pitch frequency, producing higher notes. Alternately, the looser the tension, the slower the pitch frequency, producing lower notes. As you move through your Mixed Voice, the Thyroid group needs to be less and less active, acting instead as a bracing tension whilst the Arytenoids take over the pulling up higher. So:

Thyroid Muscle Group = Chest Voice

Arytenoid Muscle Group = Head Voice

Vocal Cords.jpg


So, what does all this mean? It means that working these muscles mindfully via scale-work is a really important, often not-discussed piece of working on one's vocal strength and agility. In this post, we're going to talk about how to place your voice properly in Chest Voice and Head Voice, and how to sing your scales with this "rubber band" & muscle groups concept in mind to help you build more strength in your voice. 

Chest Voice = Cord Effort

When I hear an undeveloped voice, I usually hear one of two things in the singer's Chest Voice. Typically, the Chest Voice is either pushed and breathy-sounding, or else it sounds as if the voice is "stuck" in the throat - resulting in a sound sort of like the notes (especially the lowest ones) are "bottoming-out" and the singer can't quite grab the note with the cords. Both of these can be remedied through an idea called "Cord Effort." Let's go to our speaking voices for a minute. Think of saying a sentence in a very breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque voice. Try it out. Say, "I love to sing," or something equally as cheesy and ridiculous, in a really breathy voice. Overdo it. It feels kind of yucky, doesn't it? You can probably sense your voice is sort of hollow, feels unsupported, and like you can barely get the sound out without a lot of pushing. Now, say the same sentence in a clear, engaged voice, the way you would normally speak it. Feels a lot better, now, right? You can probably feel your voice is more engaged, and while there is vocal cord effort, it doesn't feel like you had to push, per se, to make the sound come out. That is what cord effort should feel like: like the vocal cords are pulled together, engaged, and you can make a clear, full sound that has some tone to it, as opposed to just hearing breath pushing through. Cord Effort is what you want to try to use when singing in your Chest Voice, to ensure your vocal cords are engaging properly and healthily. The more you get the cords together, so they can vibrate against one another and create a nice, balanced, full tone, the more you are strengthening these muscles in the right way. 

Now, I want to say a quick word here about "effort." "Effort" should not be confused with ANY sort of pushing or squeezing. Remember one of our cardinal rules of singing: singing should be more of a mental effort than a physical one. If you find yourself pushing or squeezing when singing, fall back for a second and check in with your breathing and placement. Ensure you are taking a proper inhale, exhaling freely as you sing, and that you are thinking of your voice being carried forward, out of your body, towards the opposite wall. When I say "effort" I am referring to the vocal cords being engaged, which is paramount in creating a nice, balanced, resonant tone - which is essentially what we're trying to do at all times. Creating a resonant tone is the first step to all the other pieces - volume, strength, power. 

So, when you're singing in Chest Voice you want to 1) think about singing with proper cord effort, and 2) now we need to address those bottoming-out notes. Many new singers (especially my women) are surprised at how many more notes they have available to them at the bottom of their range, simply because they didn't know the right way to "place" these low notes. For our Chest Voices, we want to think about our voices as being at Mouth Level - remember, another one of our cardinal singing rules is that we are no longer thinking of our voices as being down in our throats, where we need to push them out; from here on out, we need to have a mental image of our voices as up and out, starting with Chest Voice. So, Chest Voice is starting up at Mouth Level, now. When you are singing your low notes, you want to really think of placing the sound forward, outside and in front of the mouth. When done correctly, you should feel your voice "click in" to the pitch in a very solid way - not in the way you might have been trying to croak the notes out from your throat as before. My voice teacher (shoutout to Coreen Sheehan!) used to have me actually physically lean my chest forward to get the notes properly placed forward. You can try this as well; something about the physical action of leaning forward helps you to steady your larynx so the vocal cords can actually work themselves to stretch to, and produce, the note. 

This brings me to the physiological breakdown of what we are really trying to do here with the Chest Voice Placement. Your larynx should be sort of tilting, rocking backwards and forwards a little bit, as you are singing. It should not, however, be dipping WAY down, or hiking WAY up. When an untrained singer is trying to sing low notes, their larynx, trying to help, will bob too far down, which sort of gets in the way of staying steady so the vocal cords can pull to the proper pitch opening. Same thing with high notes: our larynx will jump way up, under our throats, as we start reaching up and up as our voices try to sing higher. Neither action will help you hit your notes. And so, we need to try to keep our larynx steady. Instead of focusing directly in to KEEPING THE LARYNX STEADY - which you've likely never thought about doing, ever, and have no clue HOW to do, at all (who does?!) - we focus on using proper Placement to achieve this goal of physically keeping your instrument steady as you learn to create the pitches. Voila - the result is a healthier way of going about singing, which results in a more balanced, resonant tone...and you know where that leads, by now.

Head Voice = Singing From the Vocal Cords

Head Voice is usually the register that eludes most people, and that usually needs the most love when new singers come to me. Think about it: we don't spend as much time speaking up in the Head Voice, like we do in Chest Voice, so the Cricoarytenoid muscles are naturally more under-developed than the Thyroid muscle group. On top of that, the sound feels "false" to many people due to how we hear and perceive our own voices (that whole acoustic perception piece is a doozy). Furthermore, there's this whole cultural narrative that not only singing is HARD, but that singing high notes is VERY HARD. All these pieces combined result in all kinds of incorrect and unhealthy ways that people try to muscle out their high notes, typically by pushing too much air (a lot of vocal coaches will tell you - inaccurately - to "send more air" which, unless you're actually holding your breath, will not help you with your high notes), or squeezing and reaching from the throat. 

The key to properly placing your voice in Head Voice is largely mental. We'll break down singing your high notes into a few different key parts:

1) mental visualization: singing down, rather than up

2) thinking the cords together: creating your notes from the vocal cords engaging and coming together to create pitch


3) not pushing as much air: creating an engaged, ringing tone, as opposed to allowing more air out in between the cords

Mental Visualization

The mental visualization piece is honestly a big game-changer for most of my students, and seems to make the biggest difference in the Head Voice. When we are singing in Head Voice, we want to flip our way of thinking about our high notes. Rather than thinking of singing UP to our high notes, instead, we want to either think of singing DOWN to the notes, or think of the notes as being right out in FRONT of us, as if on a horizontal place. Again, Placement isn't about some magical "The Secret" kind of thinking that will click everything into place instantly, but is more about our mental visualizations resulting in physical changes in our bodies and instruments, to get us to be able to utilize our instrument more effectively. When you think of the note as being "up" you are going to physically be reaching up for the note - your larynx will hike up, your jaw will tense and jut out, or you will squeeze and tense in the throat to try and push the note out. But. Remembering that the only thing that creates pitch is the vocal cords pulling together to a certain pitch (with the other pieces, the throat, for example, needing to stay relaxed and open so as to create a resonant chamber for the sound the cords are producing), you can see how this is flawed. Instead, we need to think of creating the pitch by getting the cords pulled together. We'll have an easier time doing this if we're not tensing to reach up to the notes, which is why we're using this visualization of the notes being DOWN, or horizontal on a straight line traveling straight ahead of us. So, pick one; try each one on for size and see which one makes the most sense to you, and which one results in you relaxing more:

1) Think DOWN: as you inhale, imagine you have caught a wave which perches you up already above the note. As you come into the first note, picture yourself singing or floating DOWN to it. Some people find that physically bending their knees to sink down (imagining something of a counterweight idea) helps them with this initially. Play around, use a mirror, and see what images help you to click into this "down as you go up" idea. 

2) Think HORIZONTAL: as you start to sing your first note, imagine this note (and all subsequent notes) are simply traveling out right in front of you on a horizontal line. Some people think of a laser cutting through the air, and all the notes stay on this plane. I've heard other people talk about thinking of a spot on the floor that they allow to "scoot" forward as they sing more notes. Again, play around with which images come to you naturally and make the most sense. 

Give yourself time and allow the process of undoing any bad, physically-tensing habits to take as long as you need. Remember, we're working on changing muscle memory and default physical habits - you've spent a lot of years learning to sing this way and, while it may not take years, per se, it will take some time to undo some of the knee-jerk habits, and then relearn newer, healthier ones in their place. So be gentle with yourself, and work with each piece one at a time before moving onto the next so you can be sure you're not taking on one too many things all at once. As always, a vocal coach who is trained in vocal technique can go a long way in identifying for you what physical habits you might be engaging in, and can zone in on these very quickly. And, again, usually when we're singing "correctly" and healthily, it will feel deceptively easy. 

Singing From The Cords

Once we ensure we're not reaching up and tensing by trying to push our high notes out, we can start to think of a "DO" action: thinking the cords together to ensure they are engaging properly. Again, I like to use a mental picture or visualization in order to do this. Let's go back to our rubber band analogy. Thinking of your vocal cords like a rubber band, you want to picture pulling the rubber band together so that both sides, or "cords" are pulled fully together, leaving no space between them (in reality, there IS a very tiny space in between the cords here - when we are singing in Head Voice, we're just using the very inner edges of our vocal cords to create our pitches; while the air vibrates the cords against one another, there is a tiny space in between. It's important to remember that while we are not pushing our air out, we do always need air blowing through, so as to not just rub the cords against one another. This isn't healthy singing either). Think the cords together, trying to not use volume or air pressure (which we will address in a second) to make your notes. The notes will likely feel light, and maybe even weaker than you'd like them to be. This is okay. Allow the notes to be light and floaty, and we will work on strengthening and filling out the tone later. What you are really trying to cultivate here is singing your high notes from the cords coming together. This is all about the strength of the Cricoarytenoid muscles, and allowing THEM the chance to pull together to create the pitch, as opposed to using volume and/or air pressure to do this. If you are always using volume or air pressure to blast and push out your high notes, you're never giving these little muscles a chance to do the heavy lifting, and you'll never build the muscle memory to be able to rely on them. We need to effectively "bench" volume and air pressure and give these muscles a chance to work and build up strength. Similar to when you learn proper form when working out with weights, you might feel like this is a less gratifying way of singing. As when weight training properly, to properly work the right muscles, you might find that the proper form and execution requires you to limit your range of motion - it feels similar with learning to sing properly. We may to reign it in a bit initially in order to ensure you're working the right muscles, as opposed to all the other ones that aren't actually going to help develop a strong, healthy, versatile voice. 

If you are finding this very difficult to do, you can use a little trick to get the cords together. I do not recommend using this trick for longer than a week or two - it can be a little too heavy-handed for the vocal cords, but can be a helpful way to feel the cords coming together. As you start to sing your first note (I recommend an OOH vowel for Head Voice work, as it uses a bit more air, and the smaller shape seems to be easier to work with for most people), you can think of almost stroking the cords together (it might be a little bit of a slam to start - PLEASE be gentle!), to really FEEL them come together in your larynx. You may use a little bit of volume here to get a little jump-start, but please make sure you aren't pushing or squeezing while you do this. When you get really good at this, you will be able to feel the cords engaging. Until then, you're trying to go for a really ringey, clear-as-a-bell sort of tone - this is how you'll know the cords are coming together and engaging. 

Don't Push So Much Air!

Lastly, something I see a lot of people do is push more air to try and muscle out those high notes. This creates a vicious cycle because the more air we push, the harder it is for the cords to fully come together and create a strong, full tone. Here's the thing about Head Voice: a strong Head Voice doesn't come from a big, heavy, voluminous sound like the way Chest Voice feels. A strong Head Voice comes from a strong tone cutting through at a higher frequency. Therefore, if we want to have a "strong" Head Voice, we need to focus on creating a strong tone, as opposed to focusing on volume and power. We're going to create a strong tone by ensuring that our vocal cords are engaged up there, and then we're going to repeat this action to build the muscle memory, and tune all of our 5 vowels (EE / EH / AH / OH / OOH) to teach ourselves how to sing each note in our range on each vowel sound we will encounter. 

So my last piece of best-practice advice for a properly-placed Head Voice is to ensure you're not pushing air, which will help you get your cords together and create a stronger tone. When you are singing high notes, try to focus on making a really ringey sound, like a bell, and trying to keep the cords engaged to not allow any breathiness into the tone. Breathy tones are created by the vocal cords not being all the way together, thus allowing more air than tone out. Of course, breathiness as a vocal effect is totally cool and can absolutely be used - as a vocal effect. But my goal with all the voices I work with is to have a default of a really well-balanced, well-placed voice, with other vocal effects being just that - effects that you add or subtract at will, and not because your voice isn't strong enough to produce notes any other way. So, once you're able to engage your first notes of a scale in a ringey tone, then the key to building the strength more is to KEEP the tone ringey as you sing through the other notes - this is the key to really strengthening. As we are letting off slack, or tightening, on the vocal cords to change pitches, it's really easy for them to let go, and lose the "stretch of cord." Our goal is try to keep the cords together - keeping the stretch of cord at all times - which is the true test of strength. Again, you can add breathiness, or weight, or different colors and textures to different notes, but first we must master a clean slate of a properly-engaged tone. 


As always, I hope this has been helpful! There's a lot of information in here, so take it step-by-step and keep at it. Remember, the voice does take time to build, but it's also an instrument that intuitively knows how to sing itself. Try to let it do its thing, without trying to prod or force it into sounding a certain way, and you might just be surprised that singing becomes easier when you allow your voice to be what it is at the moment, and observe, and then use your tools to help guide it towards more strength and freedom. 

Happy Singing, songbirds. <3