How the Voice Works – A Guide for Singers

Following on from the post last week about how breathing works, here’s a quick guide to how the voice works.

There are four parts to the voice the air pressure system, the vibratory system, the resonating system, and the modifying system. Each of these works to create the sounds we make when speaking and singing.

Candle-flame-no-reflectionWe’ve already looked at the air pressure system – it’s the diaphragm and intercostal muscles that pull air into the lungs and then control the outflow of air. You can test it! Imagine there’s a candle in front of you or use the one on the right. With your first breath out, blow over the candle very gently so that you would make the flame flicker, but not go out. Now, with your next breath, blow a strong puff of air as though you’re going to blow the candle out. Manage it? Congratulations – you can modify the air pressure coming out of your lungs!

You can see how the lungs connect to the throat and mouth in this diagram:

Chest and respiratory system

So let’s look now at the vibratory system. This is what turns the air into sound – at this stage, it’s just any old sound, though. To create sound, your body has vocal folds (or vocal chords as they used to be called). These are flappy bits of flesh which are normally relaxed when you breathe in an out. When you choose to speak, your body uses muscles to create tension, and the air rushing past them makes them vibrate. The closest analogy in the musical world is the way in which blowing into the reed on a clarinet or an oboe produces sound. If you watch the video below, you can see the vocal folds vibrating as the poor person with the camera down their throat tries to sing for us…

balloon-squeakerOne way in which I demonstrate this for my students is by getting a balloon and blowing it up so it’s full of air. Then I pull the neck of the balloon taught and let the air out – it makes a very loud, but unfocused noise! Try it for yourself next time you are blowing up balloons for a party.

Singers learn to adjust the muscles around their vocal folds and the larynx that protects them so that the quality of the sound is clearer. Learning to sing also involves exercising these muscles to make them stronger and more flexible which increases the range. Because we can’t normally feel these muscles, it can involve some creative exercises and lots of imagination!

Now the body has made sound, we need to make the sound louder. The noise made by vocal folds is quite small, so the body has a resonating system to amplify the sound. Many instruments have a resonating system – for example, the body of a violin or acoustic guitar, or the long length of the tube on a trombone.

In humans, our resonating system is our mouth and nose, or “oral and nasal cavities”. Just as the body of a string instrument allows sound waves to bounce around and get bigger inside it, so the space in our mouth and nose allows the sound from our vocal folds to get larger. You can feel the effect a little if you hum single note in the lower half of your voice. As you hum, relax your lips until you can feel them vibrating. That vibration is the effect of your mouth magnifying the sound into much larger waves.

Part of singing training is making use of this resonance to not only amplify the sound but to modify it’s quality so that it has a lovely tone. We can do this by adjusting the shape of our mouths – lowering the tongue, and raising the soft palate, for example. We might also want to limit the nasal resonance of sound for classical singing – though if we’re singing a country song, some of that nasal sound can be useful!

Last of all, the human body is designed to be able to shape the sound we make into distinct forms that allow us to form words.This is the modifying system. Every time you form a word, you use your lips, tongue and teeth to form and pronounce different phonics. Babies are born with the capacity to make all the sounds used in all the languages in the world, but they very quickly copy adults to learn what sounds they need to be able to use to communicate in the language their family speaks. Young children will start to sound like their parents, not just in language, but in accent because they copy the sounds around them. That’s why teens are so easily mistaken for their parents on the phone!

Here’s a labelled diagram showing all the parts of the resonating and modifying systems:

Head and cavities

You can experiment very easily with this modifying system by comparing the letter P and T. P, when pronounced as “puh” uses the lips to control the sound. T, when pronounced as “tuh” uses the tongue at the roof of the mouth. We also use our soft palate (the soft part of the roof of your mouth at the back) and the glottis (the flap that closes the airway when we swallow) to form different sounds.

Singing lessons help singers to learn to form letters in a way that still allows the sound of their voice to resonate properly, and doesn’t change the air pressure or vibrations of their vocal fold. This can involve learning to modify vowels, for example, to make the mouth and throat more open on a high note. Compare singing the sound “ah” to the sound “ee” for an example.

Each exercise a singer practices aims to develop control over different parts of these systems. Great singers have developed excellent control over these systems so that their lungs produce well controlled pressure, their vocal folds vibrate free from strain that might damage them, they can direct sound to the places of best resonance and then modify it to communicate not only sound but words to the audience. A good teacher will develop all of these skills in their students.

Want to know more about how to make the most of these vocal systems? Why not take singing lessons? Discover Singing provides lessons based in Leith, Edinburgh.

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