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How Your Vocal Cords Work

Audrey Hunt, author of "Anyone Can Sing," teaches us how to sharpen our ear-training skills.

Audrey's vocal student singer Kristen Mc Namara on American Idol TV show.

Audrey's vocal student singer Kristen Mc Namara on American Idol TV show.

How Much Do You Know About Your Vocal Chords?

The human voice. Aaaah - What a wonderful instrument. It is our principal means of communication. We laugh with it, cry with it, play with it, sing with it, and yet how little we know about it. Vocal production is a vigorous activity (we don't realize it) that can communicate fun, excitement, passion, anger, and enthusiasm. Yet, we give little thought to our voices, taking it all for granted, never thinking to include our voices in our list of things to be thankful for.

Few of us actually have any idea exactly how the vocal cords (folds) really work. If you like singing or are a public speaker, you need to know this process.

As we begin to explore the function of our amazing voice and how it works, I promise that you will develop a new appreciation for these tiny yet powerful wonders.

Take a look at how the voice works.

Watch The Vocal Cords In Action

How We Produce Sound

To understand how the vocal cords (folds) work, we need a little information on how we produce sound. It's all about air and vibration. I will try to keep this as simple as possible and ask your forgiveness if I begin to get too technical. (I just know that I will).

When producing sound, the lungs blow air against vocal folds (another word for cords), that are closed, but more loosely than they would be during swallowing. Air pushes through the very small space between the vocal folds and in so doing, makes the covering of the vocal folds, known as the mucosa, vibrate. This vibration causes sound.

The body's resonators pick up the sound, magnifying it and in most cases the sound is enriched. A rich, pleasant sound, also requires using certain vocal techniques, along with relaxing the body to reduce or omit tension.

The vocal cords are located deep in the larynx (the house for the vocal folds or cords also known as the voice box). They are protected by a firm shell of cartilage and connecting ligaments.

Men and women have different vocal fold sizes. Adult male voices are usually lower-pitched and have larger folds. The male vocal folds are between 17 mm and 25 mm (approx 0.75" to 1.0") in length. The female vocal folds are between 12.5 mm and 17.5 mm (approx 0.5" to 0.75") in length. They are pearly white in color - more white in women than in men.

Let's break the process down into small steps -

  1. Air comes out of the lungs, through the trachea, and into the larynx
  2. The air makes the vocal folds vibrate
  3. When the vocal folds vibrate, they alternately trap air and release it
  4. Each release sends a little puff of air into the pharynx; each puff of air is the beginning of a sound wave
  5. The sound wave is enhanced as it travels through the pharynx; by the time it leaves the mouth, it sounds like a voice.

When we hold our breath, the vocal folds close, when we breath in the vocal cords are open, and they vibrate as air passes through the larynx including when we speak or sing (known as phonation). They oscillate so quickly (opening and closing 440 times per second when singing the A above middle C).

Every Voice Is Unique—Including Yours

The sound of your voice is unlike any others person's voice in the universe. It is unique—it identifies you and only you.

Just as our bodies, hair, and features differ between each individual, variations in size result in voices with a wide range of notes, tones and pitches so that every voice is unique.

The sound of each individual's voice is entirely unique not only because of the actual shape and size of an individual's vocal cords but also due to the size and shape of the rest of that person's body, especially the vocal tract, and the manner in which the speech sounds are habitually formed and articulated. (It is this latter aspect of the sound of the voice that can be mimicked by skilled performers.)

We have vocal folds that can loosen, tighten, or change their thickness, and over which breath can be transferred at varying pressures.

The shape of the chest and neck, the position of the tongue, and the tightness of otherwise unrelated muscles can be altered. Any one of these actions results in a change in pitch, volume, timbre, or tone of the sound produced.

Sound also resonates within different parts of the body, and an individual's size and bone structure can affect somewhat the sound produced by an individual.

Warming Up the Voice Before Singing

 A Professional Singer warming up the vocal folds (chords.)  Lifting the eyebrows helps to improve the sound.

A Professional Singer warming up the vocal folds (chords.) Lifting the eyebrows helps to improve the sound.

Using the Diaphragmatic Muscle

Learn how to use the diaphragmatic muscle for inhaling and exhaling air. This muscle helps to expand the rib cage allowing the lungs to fill up with air. You might say that the tone 'rides' on air.

When air strikes the vocal cords they are set into motion which makes a sound. Learning how to do diaphragmatic breathing is an important part of singing. As you begin to get good at it, you'll be able to make the most out of your singing.

Once you switch over to this healthy way of breathing you will never go back to chest breathing. The benefits of this natural way to breathe are endless. For improved health and longevity, you should be doing diaphragmatic breathing all the time, not just when you sing.

Set aside a few minutes every day to practice diaphragmatic breathing.

Inhale by Inflating the Belly

Audrey teaches a singer how to use diaphragmatic breathing to enhance her voice.

Audrey teaches a singer how to use diaphragmatic breathing to enhance her voice.

Can Anyone Sing?

Singing is sustained speech, air being the cushion for the sound to ride on. For this reason, it's imperative that when we take a breath before we sing, the breath is generated by the diaphragmatic (breathing muscle). The diaphragm is located between the lungs and stomach. Through proper use of this area, you will be able to release the right amount of air for sustaining speech (sing).

I advocate that anyone that can speak can sing. In fact, the technique described above is used when you were born, in the form of a cry. Cooing is another form of singing. You were born with a perfect vocal instrument. All you have to do is use it.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.

— Barbara Kingsolver

What You Say Reveals Who You Are

Before you use your vocal chords to speak or sing, think about what you will say. Words are powerful. They tell so much about you.

Speak words of kindness, compassion, and truth. Be impeccable with your word.

Use one or more of the following phrases each day:

  • Thank you
  • Well done
  • You're forgiven
  • Please
  • I love you
  • May I help you?
  • I like you
  • God bless you
  • I'm sorry
  • I believe in you
  • You're welcome
  • Please forgive me
  • Have a great day
  • I appreciate you

You can tell more about a person by what he says about others than you can by what others say about him. ~Leo Aikman

Six Facts About the Voice

The human voice is an amazing machine. Most of us rarely consider what makes our voice work. Here are a few facts about the voice:

  • When we speak a phrase the jaw, tongue, lips, neck and chest all work together using around 100 muscles.
  • The English language is spoken an average of 6.19 syllables per second. This varies of course depending on the speed of the spoken word.
  • Richard Fink IV holds the record for the longest sustained vocal note at 1 minute 43 seconds in New York 2009.
  • With the exception of the eyes, the larynx have more nerves than any other muscles in the human body.
  • From the moment they're born babies exploit the full vocal range. They use their whole body to make a sound. The shoulders and neck are free from tension and the mouth fully opened. The breath travels freely from the lower abdomen.
  • The voice was the first human instrument.


Our voice is our principle form of communication. How grateful we must be to be able to speak and sing. We produce sound when air passes through the vocal folds (cords) causing them to vibrate.

Some things to remember:

  • Men and women have different vocal cord sizes.
  • Every voice is unique, including yours.
  • The size of the body influences the sound.
  • Sound resonates within different parts of the body.
  • Singing is sustained speech.
  • If you can speak, you can sing.
  • Learn diaphragmatic breathing for both speaking and singing.
  • There are justified reasons why you think you can't sing.
  • How you speak and what you say reveals the kind of person you are.
  • Don't abuse your voice. Avoid screaming, yelling, smoking and trying to sing outside of your natural singing range.
  • Always warm up your voice before singing. Not only will warm-ups prepare your voice for vocalizing, they will help to prevent damage to your voice.
  • Avoid cold drinks before singing. And do not eat or drink dairy products.
  • Keep your voice well-hydrated with water.

In the final stage of singing, or speaking, the stream of vibrations flow unimpeded through richly resonating chambers and out through the mouth to form words.

The singer's goal must be to free the natural voice, then develop and strengthen the voice, first as a human instrument, then as the human singer.

Our voices are a marvel, and a beautiful human voice can stir the heart and even serve humanity.

If I cannot fly, let me sing.

— Stephen Sondheim




Questions & Answers

Question: Is it possible to ruin your voice when you try to sing outside of your natural singing range?

Answer: Absolutely! Stay within your natural singing range at all times.

Question: What besides talking and singing do the vocal cords do?

Answer: Above the vocal cords are a set of false vocal cords. The “false” vocal folds or cords are placed above the real vocal cords and prevent the substances like food from entering the trachea while we are swallowing it. They are not in any way related to the function of singing or speech.

Question: What are the vocal cords doing?

Answer: When air (inhalation) strikes the vocal cords they are set into vibration. These vibrations produce our singing and speaking sound. This is another reason we must use diaphragmatic breathing every moment we take a breath. If we fail to breathe in enough air, then try to sing, we risk damaging our voice.

Question: Is it necessary to learn vocals in music to become a background singer?

Answer: Yes, if you want to go pro. Sign up for a "sight' singing" class at a local college or community class. The more you know, the better your chances will be in this business. These days, it helps to write your own songs which require knowing music theory and musical form.

Question: When do you use your false vocal cords?

Answer: The upper pair of vocal cords (false vocal cords) are not concerned with vocal production; the lower pair (true vocal cords or vocal folds) can be made to vibrate and produce sound when air from the lungs is forced over them. False vocal cords typically do not vibrate. The false vocal cords sit above the true vocal cords and close for two reasons:

To protect your lungs from things going down the wrong pipe.

To create back pressure to cough something up.

Unfortunately, the false vocal cords often invite themselves to participate even if we do not want them there. In healthy singing we want them out of the way, i.e. open which is something a singer needs to learn. When we close the false vocal cords and sing or speak, the false vocal cords put pressure and rub on the true vocal cords. Ongoing pressure and rubbing on the true vocal cords can lead to injuries such as nodules.

© 2010 Audrey Hunt


Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on August 31, 2018:

Hi Norma

Are you working with a vocal therapist? This would be the first step to recovering the use of the paralyzed vocal cord. I believe when you can speak, you can sing. The most important factor would be breath control. Learn diaphragmatic breathing before attempting to sing. I hope I've helped. Thank you for being here.

Audrey Hunt

Norma O'Meara on August 23, 2018:

Hi. I loved the article. My left vocal cord is paralysed after thyroid surgery.

I have made good progress however, I l would dearly love to sing, I wasn't that good ever but I had hoped to improve when this happened. Do you have any tips? I live on the edge of Europe, Ireland. Thank you.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on January 03, 2015:


Thank you for your comments, your story and helpful suggestion for speakers. I'm grateful to see you here. Happy New Year!

VJG from Texas on December 25, 2014:

I don't sing. Well, I do but only in the car and the shower when I'm alone. Alone in the car, that is - not the shower. I was in radio for several years and later, in my capacity as spokesman, I would speak before TV cameras. I've noticed that if I do not use my "professional" voice constantly I sound defeated, tired and raspy. I've found a song on a Sherman Brothers Songbook CD called "Makin' Memories" that when I sing along with it, I attempt to match the pitch and delivery on the way to work. I arrive with that radio, confident and professional voice that - to my ear - I am losing if I don't use it. My suggestion? Sing (or talk/sing ala Rex Harrison) to a song in which the words are distinguishable. Do this for about consecutive 20 minutes - it will do wonders for your tone and delivery!

Marcela Arnaut on August 20, 2012:

Hello Vocal Coach. Very interesting and useful hub here. I have sung since I was seven without any technical training and everything was fine until about four years ago. I began having a sore throat very often and I began having trouble with my falsetto. Then my voice became raspy. I have not commited to singing in about three years but I have not seen a doctor or taken any lessons. I know it could be that I never learned how to really use my voice in the appropriate way. When this happens, is the vocal damage irreversible? Thank you so much for the information you have provided for us!

Jessee R from Gurgaon, India on August 20, 2012:

A very useful and enlightening hub

midget38 on July 28, 2012:

A great share, Audrey. We always take our vocal chords for granted until something happens and we get irritated throats. Thanks for showing us how to use them the right way!

Audrey Howitt from California on July 28, 2012:

Nice article Audrey--I am always amazed at how the body works! Bernoulli effect and everything!

Syed Hunbbel Meer from Karachi, Pakistan. on July 28, 2012:

A great hub for singers! Thumbs up. You did a great job in explaining some very technical things in the easiest manner possible.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on July 28, 2012:

Desiree - Thank you for reading my hub and for your supportive comments. Take care and come back again!

Desiree on May 15, 2012:

What awesome information. Thank you!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on March 13, 2012:

JLava73 - Great to see you hear and know that like my hub. Please return soon!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on March 13, 2012:

hhunterr - Thank you. I really appreciate your feedback on my hub and your sympathy for my son. Hope to see you soon.

Jennifer Vasconcelos from Cyberspace and My Own World on February 18, 2012:

Very Interesting and informative hub.

hhunterr from Highway 24 on January 19, 2012:

This is so cool. So sorry 'bout your son.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on January 16, 2012:

CWarden - It's been awhile and I don't know how I overlooked your very kind comments. Sending you an apology. Actually this has happened on a couple of my hubs.

So glad you like the photos. Few people have a chance to see what their vocal cords really look like. Our vocal mechanism is really a complex and astounding machine.

Thanks so much!

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on July 07, 2011:

What an informative, comprehensive hub about vocal chords and the extraordinary way they function. I agree that in general, "we give little thought to our voices, taking it all for granted, never thinking to include our voices in our list of things to be thankful for."

When I was 27 years old I had a golf ball sized tumor and several smaller ones on my thyroid and needed surgery to remove them. Following the surgery I could barely talk and the harder I'd try to articulate a word, the less sound would come out. I realized for the first time just how important our voices are, but as I had a newborn baby at home, I didn't have much time to dwell on my severe laryngitis and just assumed it would be a temporary side effect from surgery, as immediately post op the surgeon had told me to expect hoarseness for awhile. It was only when I returned for my post op check-up 1 month later that I learned that the surgeon had been concerned that there may have been permanent damage to my laryngeal nerve, but after examining my vocal chords he was then able to say with certainty that my voice would return to normal, which it eventually did.

It's 30 plus years later, and I still remember to give thanks for my voice sometimes, and I still try to speak words of kindness, compassion and truth whenever possible, as you've suggested here.

Great hub and am rating it up!

cwarden from USA on June 28, 2011:

This is a very interesting hub! The photos are amazing as is the information. I just love learning new things like this. Thanks for putting this together - Wonderful job, as always!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on May 22, 2011:

FreeSingingLessons - Thank you so much for reading my article and replying. I must look at your website. :)

FreeSingingLessons on March 23, 2011:

What an incredible look at the larnxy! The voice training you find embarrassing will have you doing some incredible singing.

Trained and Untrained which one do you want to be? Good Hub!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on January 16, 2011:

glassvisage - Yes, this article required some time and research as I wanted to confirm my writings.Also, I don't think many people have had an opportunity to see the actual vocal cords and how the work. Thanks so much.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on November 28, 2010:

sherrylou57 - How very nice to read your comments. I will be reading your hubs as well. I am sure I will learn much from you and I look forward to that. Thanks, sherry.

sherrylou57 from Riverside on November 10, 2010:

This is great! I love to sing and I do public speaking, great stuff!!

glassvisage from Northern California on November 04, 2010:

Wow, those photos are fascinating! I've never seen what vocal cords look like before! I love connecting this information to the fact that every voice is unique. You obviously put a lot of work into this.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 29, 2010:

HeatherTheNiece - How wonderful to know that you read my hubpage article. This is such a super-great writing site. I have met the best people in the world here and my writing improves with each article. (I hope). You are so sweet to leave me beautiful comments. I love you my precious niece. xoxo

HeatherTheNiece on October 29, 2010:

Hi Auntie! You are so adorable. I love you and wish we could be together more often! Loved the vocal fold info! Just draw bumps on those pictures, and it's a picture of ME!! Aw, me and my bi-lateral vocal nodules... ya gotta love 'em. But they NEVER stop me from singing!!! Music is WAY too important to me! (Gosh, could it be that I'm related to YOU??) Love you so much!! xoxo

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 28, 2010:

greenlotus - Thank you for taking time out to read my hub. As always, I appreciate your kind support.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 22, 2010:

joe w bennett - It is quite amazing how the human voice can be manipulated to acquire different sounds, tones and such. We owe so much to our Creator, the voice being only a small part. Thank you joe and God Bless you too!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 22, 2010:

tonymac04 - You have left such beautiful comments. We are all blessed to be able to speak and owe it to our creator to be careful of both the words and the tone we use. I can tell - it is obvious to me, that you are one who does just that. Thank you my friend.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 22, 2010:

Martie - Hello, my friend. I enjoyed your comments and agree with you - only God deserves our praise for designing such an amazing part of us. The human voice - our job is to speak kindly and truthfully. Thanks, Martie

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 21, 2010:

DeBorrah - So thrilled to see you here. I am very pleased that you found my hub helpful and informative. Blessings to you, my friend.

Elder DeBorrah K Ogans on October 18, 2010:

Vocalcoach, GREAT! This is informative and quite helpful! Thank you for sharing, Peace & Blessings!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 16, 2010:

epigramman - How your comment made me laugh! You are so very clever with words. I love it!

epigramman on October 16, 2010:

...well I know how my vocal cords work when I come here to your hubs - yipeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 08, 2010:

Mickey - Where were you 25 yrs ago? It's ok, 'cause you are here now. I love you too and you can help me by just being who you are. Everyone here on HP really like you. You are just one of those really great people that the world could use more of. Thank you Billy!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 08, 2010:

leni sands - So very nice to see you again. Thank you for finding my hub informative. Have a good one.

Leni Sands from UK on October 08, 2010:

Another excellent hub very informative. Thanks

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 05, 2010:

themanwithnopants - That's right - breath control is the key. Glad to get your comments and hope to see you again soon. Thanks.

themanwithnopants on October 04, 2010:

Wow .. I've always just belted it out there. You know .. load up the lungs for the hard to get stuff. I never knew how or why it worked. Very cool .. thanks!


Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 04, 2010:

CMCastro - So great that you do not smoke or drink. Not only are you protecting your vocal cords, but your entire body as well. Keep up the great singing!

Christina M. Castro from Baltimore,MD USA on October 03, 2010:

I am amazed as I have gotten older my voice has gone from soprano to alto and from meek and quiet to so loud that I don't even need a microphone! I am so glad I don't smoke or drink that can cause harmful things to the vocal cords.I am so glad I finally had time to read this Hub. :)

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 02, 2010:

Hello, Hello - So good to hear that you enjoyed my article. I was hoping that it wasn't too technical. Thank you, my friend.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 02, 2010:

msorensson - Thank you for your good comments. As always, they are so appreciated. Yes, you are right, the exercises at the end are definetly something to keep in mind. Simple - yet timeless.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on October 02, 2010:

masmasika - Oh, thank you dear friend. I have worked,studied and researched facts on the human voice for over 42 years. It is truly my passion and I am still learning how much I do not know.

masmasika on September 30, 2010:

another great hub. You are the expert when it comes to music.

msorensson on September 29, 2010:

I love the suggestions at the end..lol..we need to practice those more often, vocalcoach.

Great hub. Perfect first lesson for singing.

Love, M

Hello, hello, from London, UK on September 29, 2010:

It was fascinating to read about it. Thank you for sharing your knewledge.

Hillary from Atlanta, GA on September 29, 2010:

Wonderful Hub vc. rated up!

Micky Dee on September 29, 2010:

Thank you!

Well done, if you had done wrong you're forgiven!

Please- write more! I'm sorry but I like you, I love you, I believe in you, if I can - may I help you? God bless you!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on September 28, 2010:

ReggieD - You are too funny! Wonderful hearing from you and hope you will be back again soon. Thanks

Tony McGregor from South Africa on September 28, 2010:

I have always thought of the voice as the most beautiful musical instrument there is, producing the most beautiful music.

That's why the voice should be used in the most positive ways possible. I loved the way you admonish us to use the voice to "Speak words of kindness, compassion and truth." And how important it is to "Be impeccable with your word." I think this latter applies equally to the written word.

Thanks so much for a most impressive Hub.

Love and peace


Martie Coetser from South Africa on September 28, 2010:

Thanks a lot for this great, informative hub! I am once again in awe of the human body and all its amazing organs. And really, truly, thankful for having a voice. And on top of this a completely unique voice! This is so amazing. Who else but only God deserves our praise and gratefulness? This one is bookmarked and voted up and up and up!

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on September 28, 2010:

Stars439 - So glad you enjoyed this hub. I really enjoyed writing about the vocal folds. Thank you for commenting.

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on September 28, 2010:

sharon e dix - what a lovely family you have. Love each one as 'tho it may be your last time. When there is family - there is everything. I cannot find the words to thank you for your compassion and mercy. Your comments and your friendship bring me comfort. You are yet, one more blessing sent to me by God, the Father.

sharon e dix on September 28, 2010:

My new friend , your knowledge is great however the knowledge that comes from loss is even greater , your speech,drips with mercy and wisdom, thank you for going past the pain to help others gain many victories. May all your tears turn to joy. your new found friend Sharon e Dix

joe w bennett from Clinton, MS, US of A on September 28, 2010:

Never gave that much though to how uniquely our own our voice is...when singing, yes, but know realize how much this applies to our speaking voice as well...very nice hub, enjoyed...God bless...

Reggie D on September 28, 2010:


Excellent article as always! My folds must be approaching the 25mm mark :-).

Audrey Hunt (author) from Pahrump NV on September 28, 2010:

creativeone59 - I am so very pleased that you found this information helpful. Its a real eye-opener to see how God designed our speaking system. A real miracle. Thank you.

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on September 27, 2010:

Very nice hub. Very educational. God Bless You

Benny Faye Ashton Douglass from Gold Canyon, Arizona on September 27, 2010:

Wow, what great knowledge about how the vocal cords work. Awesome information, thank you for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

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