Singing 101: How The Voice Works

One of the first things I go over with all of my students is how the voice works. 

I know, it seems like that should be a given, right?! 

You'd be surprised how little most people know about HOW the voice works. I've even run across voice teachers who, somewhat perplexingly, don't know how it works. How can you properly assess what's holding a student back, and effectively guide them towards better tools and habits, if you don't know how the instrument works? How can YOU use your instrument if you don't know how it works? Any other musician playing any other instrument knows how their instrument works - the nuts and bolts that make it tick. The same should be true for singing if you are to use your voice the way you want, and have a longlasting relationship with it (whether it be professionally, or just personally!). 

So. Let's talk about how your voice works, shall we?

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The Players: How The Body Produces Sound

When you start to sing, air comes up from your lungs (no, not the diaphragm!), travels through the trachea (your "windpipe"), comes up into your larynx "your "voicebox"), and passes between your vocal cords. When the air strikes the cords, they begin to vibrate. The cords, meanwhile, have stretched to a specific pitch opening, thus creating pitch. The vocal cords produce the sound, and the air propels the sound out of the body. 

The Larynx

What the hell is a larynx?! In short, it's your Adam's Apple (more pronounced in men than in women, but we can still feel it in the same spot, ladies!). It's something of a cylinder in your throat - a cylinder made up of cartilage and muscles. 

Okay, but what the hell is it?! It serves as a little protective box for your vocal cords to be housed in. 

The Vocal Cords

Yes, it's spelled "cords" - and yes, it's one of my major pet peeves to see this spelled incorrectly. Nerd alert. 

Inside of your larynx, are two vocal cords, right next to each other, running from the front of the larynx to the back. Think of these like a rubber band. It will help later. It's this stretch (like a rubber band stretches) that creates and modifies pitches while singing. Depending on the pitch, the size of the teeny-tiny opening between the cords will shift. Every single has its very own size stretch, therefore its own size opening through which the air passes. The stretch of the cord is what determines how large (lower) or small (higher) the opening or pitch will be.

The Muscle Groups

I know what you're thinking now: there are MUSCLE GROUPS?! I thought I just needed to take a big old breath and push my air out and hope for the best!

Nope. There are muscle groups that control your vocal cords, and they, my friends, are YOUR friends. 

There are two main muscle groups responsible for what I like to call the "heavy lifting" of singing. Remember, these muscle groups are what stretch the vocal cords to create different pitches, as the air passes between them, causing them to vibrate. These muscle groups are called the arytenoid (head voice/high notes) and thyroid (chest voice/low notes) muscles. The arytenoid muscles are smaller, and are located at the back of the larynx and control the head voice. The thyroid muscles are heavier and are located at the front of the larynx. They control the chest voice. 

Resonators & Articulators

This is just a fancy way of referring to all the other players. We'll get more in-depth with these guys as we discuss tone and resonance, which are absolutely key, key, key in singing well.

Your resonators and articulators are basically the tongue, teeth, lips, jaw, palates, and pharynx.

ARE YOU NERDING OUT YET?! I am. The voice is so cool, and while it may seem right now like there are about one million moving parts, I promise you'll start to see them all grouped together as part of one big, beautiful, well-oiled machine. 

The resonators and articulators are responsible for taking the sound you're producing down there in the larynx with your vocal cords, and creating a resonating chamber (think of a big, old church with high, vaulted ceilings. Don't those places sound gorgeous? That's sort of what we're going for, but in our bodies. COOL.) in which to build on that sound. If you think of your body as an instrument, like an acoustic guitar, you'll see that the way everything is shaped in there can make a HUGE difference in the kind of sounds you get. 

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The cool thing about all this is now you know how this amazing instrument of yours works! Again, I know it may seem overwhelming at first, but I encourage you to look up some pictures online (erm....pictures of actual vocal cords are sort of NSFW....just a warning....you'll see why) or diagrams and really try to get a sense of how all these little pieces and pulleys work together. The sort-of-frustrating-news is that, since there ARE so many little pieces working all at once, there could one or a few that are sort of getting in your way, and it can be challenging to parse out which ones those might be, if you're not a trained vocal technician. Finding and working (even for a few sessions) with a well-trained voice teacher, who knows her (or his) vocal pedagogy is a great way of getting feedback about any bad habits or tension you might have in any of these areas. And of course, any voice teacher worth her (or his) salt will be able to offer kind, compassionate, and constructive feedback towards that end, as well as ideas and exercises to help steer you towards healthier habits. 

Happy Singing and Vocal Pedagogy study, my dearests. <3