What You Need to Know About Your Vocal Cords for Speaking and Singing
How Much Do You Know About Your Vocal Chords?
The human voice. Aaaah - What a wonderful instrument. It is our principle 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 just don't realize it) which 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.
Just take a look at how Steven Tyler's voice works.
Steven Tyler's 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 -
- Air comes out of the lungs, through the trachea, and into the larynx
- The air makes the vocal folds vibrate
- When the vocal folds vibrate, they alternately trap air and release it
- Each release sends a little puff of air into the pharynx; each puff of air is the beginning of a sound wave
- 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
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.
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, think about what you will say. Words are powerful. Your words 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
- 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
Unbelievable 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
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Questions & Answers
Is it necessary to learn vocals in music to become a background singer?
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.
What are the vocal cords doing?
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.
Is it possible to ruin your voice when you try to sing outside of your natural singing range?
Absolutely! Stay within your natural singing range at all times.
What besides talking and singing do the vocal cords do?
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.
When do you use your false vocal cords?
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