Unlike any other instrument, the voice can feel like a bit of a mystery. We can’t easily take it apart to see how it works. We can’t even feel lots of the parts that make it function. In fact, research into the voice is a cutting edge area with new research being published regularly. In the last fifty years, our understanding of breathing and the singing voice have completely transformed from the hit and miss hypotheses found in classic voice manuals.
So, how does your voice work?
All singing starts with the breath. We all know how to breath, in that we all do it constantly. It’s pretty essential. The body has a fantastic respiratory system that uses air pressure to pull and push air in and out of our lungs. Here is a great summary video by TedEd that explains how normal breathing works:
As the video notes, specific breathing techniques have been developed for both physical and mental health. Just the same with singing.
When thinking about breathing for singing, it can help to remember that there are two parts to your upper body: the abdomen and the chest. The chest is like an accordion – it is fixed in shape by your ribs, but not in size – it can get bigger and smaller. Your abdomen is more like a water balloon. It is a fixed size, but not a fixed shape, so your organs can move around as you breathe in and out. Between the two is the diaphragm. This is a HUGE muscle that is automatically controlled, like your heart. The diaphragm works with your abdominal muscles and your rib (or intercostal) muscles to help you breathe.
Research shows that for singing, it is important to allow the belly to move out when breathing in by releasing the abs. This allows your internal organs to move down and forward to make more space for air in your lungs. Then when you breathe out, your abdominal muscle engages again, along with your intercostal (rib) muscles to control the breath out.
It’s really important to breathe in a way that works with normal, restful breathing for singing. The last thing we want to do is introduce excess tension!
Learning to breathe efficiently and effectively is an important part of singing studies, and something that is best learnt from a qualified teacher.
Breathing alone won’t get us singing! The next stage of creating sound is the vocal folds. All sound is vibration. The vocal folds are essentially two flaps (which are made up of skin, membrane, ligament and muscle) that vibrate. The closest example in instruments is probably a double reed like an oboe, but an easy example to try at home is to pluck a blade of grass, trap it between your thumbs and blow across it. The grass vibrates and makes a noise.
Here is a great video by kids TV show Operation Ouch explaining how the vocal cords make noise:
And this is a short video of someone’s vocal folds while they are singing:
To see a video of a four part song showing the vocal folds, you can head over to YouTube. The video is age-restricted, so I can’t embed it here.
By moving the larynx and the muscles around it, we can then change the pitch and tone of the sound we make – just as a violinist will use their fingers to shorten or lengthen each string to change the pitch.
The sound is then amplified by the space in our throat and head. This is similar to the way the body of an acoustic guitar makes the sound of the strings louder.
As singers, we learn how to control the amount of air flowing over our vocal folds, and practice lots of different exercises to help us bring the folds together in a way that makes a good sound in a safe way.
At this point, we have a loud buzzy noise, but not a lot else. This is where singing gets unique! We get to add shape to the sound in a much more flexible way than instruments do. We can even add words.
Our buzz vocal fold sound is not only amplified by our throat and head, but also refined into a much more pleasant tone. Have a listen to this video which shows the effect of adding a model of a throat and mouth onto a buzzy vocal fold sound:
In the video, you can hear two different sounds – an AH and an OO sound. The difference between the two is the shape of the mouth, tongue and lips. Try it for yourself – say AH and then OO. You’ll feel your mouth and lips change shape to move between them.
As singers, we learn how to shape the sounds for singing. This is where it will depend on what style of song and what language you are singing in. You can learn to explore different sounds just by adjusting your mouth shape. This can be challenging too as we can need to unlearn some of our speaking habits!
A good teacher will help you to explore different sounds and learn how to adjust your singing to help you perform the songs you love. I love to explore tongue twisters, singing on different words and even making animal sounds to help my students find the right sound for their repertoire.
Never stop learning
It’s so important to keep learning about your voice, so if you want to learn more about the anatomy of the voice, there are a number of good books out there. One of the more affordable is Theodore Dimon’s Anatomy of Voice.
However you are learning to sing, it’s important to remember that most of the anatomy we use to sing doesn’t have a lot of nerve endings so we can’t feel it when it’s working well. If you’re getting a lot of sensation, or even pain, you may need to get some advice from a teacher or medical professional.
If you’re looking for a teacher, find out if they are knowledgable about vocal health. Look for vocal health qualifications, or ask them about what kind of training they’ve taken. For online lessons, or lessons in the Edinburgh area, enquire here.