As we begin our journey towards using proper vocal technique to help us become the singers we want to be, it’s important that we start by becoming properly acquainted with the physical pieces that make up our voices, and how they work.
We took our first step in this direction in the article Breathing Effectively and Efficiently for Singing, Part 1 , in which we were introduced to the diaphragm and how vital the anatomy and physiology of our breathing mechanism is to the way we sing.
I’d like to take the next step in helping you understand the way your voice works by talking about the VOCAL FOLDS.
The vocal folds are twin infoldings of tissue which are (roughly) the size of our eyelids. They are covered with a protective mucosal lining and are located in the larynx, which is the cartilage casing in the throat that is often referred to as the Adam’s Apple” (for men), the “Eve’s Apple” (for women), or the “Voice Box”.
Our voices create sound when the air expelled from our lungs rushes through the larynx, causing the vocal folds to open and close rapidly, or vibrate. This vibration creates a tone that we then direct into either our throats (which is an incorrect, inefficient, and often damaging voice technique, and should be avoided at all costs), or a set of spacial resonance chambers, or cavities, located inside the skull (a much healthier, more efficient, and more effective way to vocalize), which in turn creates volume and resonance.
Check out the following vids to see actual video footage of what the vocal folds look like when they operate:
I mentioned a moment ago how we direct the tone created by the vocal folds’ vibration into resonance chambers in our skulls, creating volume and resonance. We’ll get into resonance in a later article. For now, let’s stick with the vocal folds, and focus on how they are related to pitch.
What is “pitch”? Pitch is defined as the “highness” or “lowness” of a note. When we sing a note, how high or low a note sounds is a direct result of how fast or slowly the waveform is repeating. And the speed of the waveform’s repetition (also known as the *frequency* of the note), will be a direct result of how fast or how slow our vocal folds themselves vibrate.
If the vocal folds vibrate slower, the wavelength they produce repeats fewer times per second, which, upon being detected by our ears, is interpreted by our brains as a lower note. Conversely, if the vocal folds vibrate faster, they produce a wavelength that repeats MORE times per second, which our brains are going to perceive as a higher note.
Check out the below video examples demonstrating the difference between faster vibration (thus containing more wavelength frequency repetitions, creating a *HIGHER* pitch) and slower vibration (thus containing less wavelength frequency repetitions, creating a *LOWER* pitch).
Okay…I know that seems like heady stuff, but stick with me.
So: the vocal folds vibrating faster means they produce a higher note for us to sing. The vocal folds vibrating more slowly creates a lower note.
That speed of vibration will be determined by three distinct factors:
1. How thick or thin the particular set of vocal folds are to begin with.
2. How long or short the particular set of vocal folds are to begin with.
3. The vocal folds’ degree of tension (in other words, how tightly or loosely the vocal folds are being pulled / held by the pitch muscles in the larynx at a given moment).
I’d like to expand upon each factor, one at a time. To do so, I’m going to use the image of guitar strings as examples:
A guitar has six strings, all at different levels of thickness. When the guitar sits on your lap, the string at the top is the thickest, and bottom string is the thinnest.
When you pluck the thicker string, it vibrates at a slower rate simply by virtue of it’s thicker mass (more mass to vibrate means slower overall vibration), producing fewer wavelengths per second, which, upon being detected by our ears, is interpreted by our brain as a lower note. And when the thinner string is plucked with the same force as the thicker string, because of its lesser mass, it’s going to vibrate much faster, producing more wavelengths per second, which our brains perceive as a higher note.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
The vocal folds, though they are more like folds of flesh / tissue than actual strings, work the same way. Thicker vocal folds vibrate slower, thereby creating lower notes. Men, as a general rule, have thicker vocal folds than women, which is why men’s voices tend to be lower and deeper, and women’s voices tend to be higher in pitch. Children, same thing! Little body’s, smaller larynxes, thinner vocal folds, higher voices. Make sense?
Think of how a guitar is played. Plucking a string by itself without touching any other part of the string creates one note. But, by pressing down on the string somewhere in the middle of the guitar neck and plucking it, you create a higher note. Why? Because in essence, by pressing down on the string, you are only allowing the part of the string BELOW your finger to vibrate; basically, you’re SHORTENING the string. And shortening the string makes a higher note.
Here’s a video example of what I’m talking about:
Again, it’s like the thickness idea: less mass, less to vibrate, equals faster vibration, more wavelengths per second, which we hear as a higher note. And longer strings means more mass to vibrate, less wavelengths, and lower notes. Make sense?
Once more, though they don’t actually resemble guitar strings, the same principle applies to the vocal folds. Notice how men have larger larynxes than women? Men have “Adam’s Apples”, while women have “Eve’s Apples”, because men tend to have longer vocal folds than women, which is, once again, another reason why men have lower voices than women. And, again…children! Smaller larynxes, shorter vocal folds, faster vibration, higher voices.
It actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it, right?
Have you ever seen the way a person tunes a guitar? They twist little tuning pegs at the top of the guitar neck, which tightens or loosens the strings’ tension.
Here’s a video example of what I’m talking about:
Tighter / more tension means less slack, which, in turn, means it vibrates faster and produces more wavelengths per second when plucked (say it with me, class: HIGHER NOTES!). Looser / less tension means more slack, which means the string doesn’t vibrate as fast, producing less wavelengths for the brain to interpret as, what? That’s right! Lower notes.
So…the vocal folds have muscles attached to them in the larynx. One is called the “thyroarytendoid” (pronounced “thy-roh-ah-reht-uh-noid) and the other is called the “cricothyroid” (pronouced “kry-koh-thy-roid”). Don’t worry if you don’t remember the names of the two muscles…they won’t be on the quiz. Just remember that the muscles are there, and what they do.
In effect, those muscles do to the vocal folds what the tuning pegs at the top of the guitar neck do to the guitar strings: they tighten (increase tension of) or loosen (reduce tension of) the vocal folds. So, when we, as singers, hear a particular note in our mind’s ear that we want to hit, our brains send a signal to the thyroarytendoid and cricothyroid, which in turn create JUST the right amount of tension on our vocal folds to (hopefully) reproduce the precise note we want to hit.
We’ll be exploring further the concepts of matching pitch, the mind’s ear, and over all, how to train your singer’s ear in later articles.
By the way, just FYI: with all this talk about the “Vocal Folds”, you might be wondering how they relate to the “Vocal CORDS”. The answer is: they are the exact same thing.
What *used* to be called the “Vocal Cords” are now commonly referred to as “Vocal Folds”. Which makes sense, right? “Vocal CORD” implies the sound is created with something resembling a cable, band, or string that vibrates when it’s struck or plucked, which, as we now know, is not the case. Once more, from the top of this article:
“Our voices create sound when the air expelled from the lungs rushes through the larynx, causing the vocal folds to open and close rapidly, or vibrate.”
“Vocal *FOLDS*” is a much more visually accurate term, which is why it has basically replaced the term “CORDS” in the vocal nomenclature. Make sense?
One last image to help hammer the whole concept home for you: I want you to picture A BALLOON. Imagine blowing up the balloon, but instead of tying it closed, you squeeze the edges of the balloon’s mouth, making a squealing noise. The air in the balloon SLOWLY escapes while the squeal sound is made.
Imagine the body of the balloon (which contains the air) as being like the diaphragm; it expands as it takes in the air, and as it releases the air, slowly, it gets smaller.
Imagine the MOUTH of the balloon (which you are squeezing) to be the VOCAL FOLDS, and your fingers (which are squeezing the mouth) as the thyroarytendoid and cricothyroid. Want to create a HIGHER or LOWER squeal sound? Pull the mouth of the balloon tighter (increasing the tension), or relax the tension of the balloon mouth (by making it a little looser), and the pitch of the squeal will go higher or lower accordingly.
The balloon image is probably the best abstract visual representation of the way the vocal mechanism works in conjunction with the breathing mechanism that I can think of.
Why have I spent so much time focusing on the physicality and physiology of the vocal folds in this article? Because, now that you have a strong basic understanding of how they work, I can speak about them in later articles / posts regarding alleviating tension when you sing, how to economize your air and connect your breath, how to develop emotional connection and work through performance anxiety and stage fright…etc.
When you have a firm rudimentary understanding of how your voice operates, you can start to address the more specific issues that may be holding you back from becoming the artist and singer you want to be. And that’s when the *real* fun begins. (:
Have a question about singing technique, voice training, or performance, or an article you’d like to see written? ASK DAN.