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A Resource for the Aspiring Vocalist

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Background

Anatomy of the Voice

Probably not too many of us have spend a lot of thoughts on how our body exactly creates those sounds, per example when we interact with others through speaking and singing. But it's a fact that we rely on our voice on a daily base, and on those days when we experience problems producing sound per example due to sickness we feel the impact all too well. For the vocalist the voice has an elevated importance, and maintaining its health is therefore of significant importance. The knowledge of the human anatomy behind the production of sound is for that reason very useful.

On a second level many vocalists are confronted with a number of recurring anatomic terms and notions through professional voice instruction, be it in the session with a vocal coach or through the own research of the topic. Even here at Lead Vocals we haven't been able to avoid using those terms when we wrote about ways for singers to improve on their craft of singing. A good example are the instructions on how to improve the sound and tone of a singers voice through a proper breathing technique.

Read deeper into the topic

 
^ How is our voice created?

Think a moment in terms of a musical instrument, let's take per example the saxophone. A saxophone consists of a mouthpiece, a neck, and a body. If a musician wants to produce sound on the saxophone, he or she will have to fuel it with his breath. The air will enter through the mouthpiece and the attached reed, which produces a sound by vibrating due to the air passing by. The air then will pass through the resonance chamber, which is provided by neck and body of the saxophone. During the process, the sound will be amplified and will also receive its pitch controlled through keys that affect the length of the air column.

 
Illustration of the Respiratory System, by User:Theresa Knott [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Andy Strohkirch

Illustration of the Respiratory System

Our human body works in very similar ways. We fuel our human voice with the air, that we initially draw into our lungs through lowering the diaphragm and then exhale, creating a stream of air in our trachea. As a vocalist we seek to produce a steady and strong air stream with good breath support, because this will give our voice the strength. The sound of our voice is produced when air passes through our set of vocal folds (also called vocal cords), which vibrate just as the reed of the saxophone does. Muscles in the larynx control the length and tension of the vocal folds affecting the frequency of the vibration, which on average lies somewhere between 65 to 1175 times per second, and which gives the sound of our voice the desired pitch. The now vibrating air finds its resonance chamber in our throat, mouth, nose, and sinuses.

The complex interaction of the different physical mechanisms and the variety of adjustment methods our body offers give the vocalist the ability to influence the sound of our voice in many ways. Let's explore these interactions to find out what happens on the anatomic level, and how we influence the different processes through behaviour.

 
^ How do we generate a powerful voice?

We already know that the air we breathe out is the material with which sound is generated. The expiration of air must be steady to produce a sound that has a consistent amplitude. The loudness of the voice depends to an extend on the strength of the air flow that we exhale from the lungs. The exact cause for the amplitude of the sound waves that come from the larynx is the moment when the two vocal folds open and the glottis (the space between the two folds) grows. This movement causes the air to explode through the vocal folds and sets off the vibration of those.

 
Movement of Glottis and Arytenoid Cartilage, by User:Presto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Andy Strohkirch

Movement of Glottis and Arytenoid Cartilage.

The vocalist can control the loudness of the voice by controlling the amount of time the vocal folds will remain closed. If the closed phase is kept proportionally short (soft phonation), the explosion of the air will have less force and the voice will be softer. With a proportionally long closed phase (loud phonation) the explosion will be stronger which will produce a wider opening of the glottis with the air blowing the vocal folds further apart. This will result in a louder voice.

Anatomically the muscles connected to the Thyroid, Cricoid, and Arytenoid Cartilage are responsible for keeping the vocal folds together when resisting the air pressure.

Diagram of the different positions of Glottis and Arytenoid Cartilage, by User:Presto [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Andy Strohkirch

Diagram of the different positions of Glottis and Arytenoid Cartilage.

The loudness of the voice is in addition affected by the shape and size of the vocal tract, which builds a resonance chamber for the sound produced in the larynx. It is to mention that anatomically male and female singers differ in regards to the size of larynx and vocal folds, which gives male singers an advantage in creating a powerful voice.

 
^ How do we produce pitch?

The sound of our voice consists of a fundamental pitch, and additionally of a variety of harmonics which vibrate multiple times as fast as the fundamental tone. These harmonics, also called overtones, are produced in the vocal tract which functions as a resonance chamber. The for speech or singing meaningful portion of these overtones show up as peaks in the spectrogram, and are referred to as formants.

When we sing the air passing through the larynx makes the vocal folds vibrate. The frequency of this vibration determines the fundamental pitch of the note we sing. Per example if the vocal folds vibrate around 165 times per second, we produce an E3 note which is in accordance with the average speaking pitch of a tenor voice type. During the process of speaking or singing we will often vary the fundamental pitch to express emphasis, contrast, emotion, and tone. This is called intonation.

In general it can be said that the faster the vocal folds vibrate, the higher the pitch of the sound they produce. On average an untrained male voice usually produces vibrations with a frequency range of 90 to 500 Hz, and a female voice may produce vibrations between 150 to 1000 Hz. The general speaking pitch in conversation for men resolves at around 115 Hz, and for women around 200 Hz for pitch accent languages like per example English. Vocalists with a trained voice can produce between 65 to 1175 vibrations per second suitable for normal singing ranges.

From an anatomic point of view we can observe that men do have about 20 percent longer vocal folds, which translates to a 60 percent longer vibrating portion. It is for this reason that men's voices turn out to be lower than women's voices. Also, the female vocal cords will leave through more air which results in a more "breathy" voice.

The natural vocal range of a person does also depend on the thickness of the vocal cords. If the vocal cords are thicker, the sound produced will tend to be more full and deep because the vocal folds need more air force to vibrate. Thinner vocal cords result in easier vibration and therefore the voice will sound less full. It is for this reason that in literature we classify singers by their natural vocal range into the categories Bass, Baritone, Tenor, Countertenor, Treble (Boy Soprano), Alto (Contralto), Mezzo-Soprano, and Soprano.

In general there is no real barrier to sing in the range of different vocal categories for an advanced, well trained vocalist. We can look up the vocal ranges of many famous singers as a proof. However, singing notes outside the natural vocal range means that the singer has to work harder than a person with the underlying, natural anatomic features.

 
^ How do we affect vocal quality?

The vibration of the vocal folds triggers a chain reaction of vibrations, starting with the air column and the structures around and above the larynx. Some of these different body parts vibrate depending on the fundamental pitch of the sound that is generated in the larynx.

 
Resonators of the voice in head, neck, and chest, by User:Arcadian, and Henry Vandyke Carter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Andy Strohkirch

Resonators of the voice in head, neck, and chest.

The vibrating parts are called resonators, and the frequency of their vibration determines the quality of the tone. Resonators are per example chest, larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, nasal cavity, and sinuses.

As a singer you should pay attention to the specific areas of vibration, that can be felt as sensations caused by resonance of the voice. When you focus on a specific area during singing we speak of placing the voice, or voice placement. You also need to know that your voice sounds different to you, than it sounds to others or in a recording. For that reason you need to find out when you sound good and translate this to your "inner" voice.

The pitch spectrum of your voice can be simplified through dividing the spectrum into head voice, middle voice, and chest voice. Head voice covers the high pitches; chest voice covers the lower pitches. Depending on pitch the majority of resonance is produced in certain areas, the resonators. It helps to know which resonators vibrate most at what type of voice. Although the singer can consciously only manipulate throat, mouth, and facial expression, it is still possible to put the voice into the right place.

 
Head Voice

Vibration should be felt around the upper half of the face as a result of a strong resonance in the sinuses.

Middle Voice

Vibration should be felt around the lower half of the face, the chin, and the upper neck area, as a result of strong resonance in the hard palate and pharynx.

Chest Voice

Vibration should be felt around the lower neck area and sternum as a result of strong resonance in the upper chest, trachea, and larynx.