Understanding the Anatomy of the Voice

Anatomy for Singers

For singers, the voice is more than just a tool—it’s our primary instrument, the core of our craft. We invest hours training, rehearsing, and performing to perfect our vocal skills. But how often do we stop and think about the mechanics behind our voice? What’s happening beneath the surface when we belt out a high note, modulate our tone, or sustain a melody?

Understanding voice anatomy is essential for singers. It’s not just about recognising the parts of our throat or how our vocal cords function. It’s about comprehending how every component interacts to produce the sounds we love and the songs we sing. This knowledge offers us better control, protection against injuries, and insights into refining our technique.

So, whether you’ve been singing for decades or just starting out, it’s beneficial to know what’s going on “under the hood.” This exploration into voice anatomy will offer you a fresh perspective on your most cherished instrument—your voice.

The Respiratory System: Powering the Voice

Every song starts with a breath. And while it may seem straightforward, the process of breathing for singing is a nuanced dance involving several key players.

Lungs

Think of your lungs as the bellows of an old organ. They’re responsible for storing the air that fuels our voice. As we breathe in, the lungs expand, filling up with air, and as we exhale, they contract, releasing air through the trachea towards the larynx.

Diaphragm

Located just below the lungs, the diaphragm is a muscular sheet that plays a pivotal role in controlling airflow. As you inhale, it contracts and moves downward, allowing the lungs to expand. When exhaling, it relaxes and moves upward, pushing the air out. For singers, mastering diaphragmatic breathing is crucial. It not only provides a steady airflow but also ensures that the voice remains consistent and supported.

Breathing Techniques

Singing isn’t just about inhaling and exhaling. It’s about controlling that breath to produce sound optimally. Breath control can affect volume, tone quality, and stamina. Techniques such as abdominal or ‘belly’ breathing can help singers utilise their full lung capacity without straining the voice.

The Role of Posture

The way you stand or sit can influence your breathing. An upright posture, with shoulders relaxed and chest open, facilitates deeper and more efficient breaths. This allows for better voice projection and sustained notes.

In essence, good singing starts from deep within, literally. By understanding and mastering our respiratory system, we lay the foundation for a voice that’s not just powerful but also resilient.

The Larynx: Producing the Sound

Often referred to as the “voice box,” the larynx sits prominently in our neck, acting as the epicentre of sound production. Let’s dissect this remarkable structure.

Location and General Structure

Situated between the base of the tongue and the top of the trachea, the larynx serves as a passageway for air. It’s not just a static structure; it can move up and down, playing a role in swallowing and pitch modulation.

Cartilages of the Larynx:

  • Thyroid Cartilage: This is the largest and is what you feel when you touch the front of your neck, often referred to as the “Adam’s apple.”
  • Cricoid Cartilage: A ring-shaped structure that forms the base of the larynx.
  • Arytenoids: Paired cartilages that are vital for vocal cord movement.

Vocal Cords (or Vocal Folds)

Located within the larynx, vocal cords are layered structures made up of muscle, ligament, and a mucous membrane. As air passes through them, they vibrate, producing sound. Their tension, length, and thickness determine the pitch of the sound.

Pitch Modulation

When you slide from a low note to a high note, your vocal cords are at work. They can stretch and tighten (like guitar strings) for higher pitches, or relax and thicken for lower ones. This process is facilitated by the movement of the arytenoid cartilages and the tensioning by the muscles within and surrounding the larynx.

For singers, the larynx is the heart of vocalisation. Its intricacies and functions underscore the richness and variety of sounds we produce, from the softest lullabies to the most powerful arias.

The Vocal Tract: Shaping the Tone

When we think about voice production, our minds often jump straight to the vocal cords. Yet, once the sound waves are created there, they travel through the vocal tract, where their character and quality are further shaped.

Pharynx

This is the tube that starts right behind the nose and goes down to the larynx. It’s a chamber that can modify sound, enhancing resonance. Depending on the positioning of the tongue and the shape of the mouth, the pharynx can be widened or narrowed, impacting the tonal quality of the voice.

Oral Cavity

As sound waves travel from the pharynx, they enter the mouth or oral cavity. The position of the tongue, the openness of the jaw, and the shape of the lips play instrumental roles here. Singers often adjust these elements instinctively to achieve desired sounds, whether that’s the bright timbre of a pop tune or the mellow tones of a jazz ballad.

Nasal Cavity

Some vocal sounds resonate in the nasal passages, particularly when singing in certain styles or languages. Being mindful of nasal resonance is crucial because too much can make the voice sound nasally, while too little can limit the richness of the tone.

Articulators in Action

The soft palate, hard palate, teeth, and lips come into play prominently when pronouncing words while singing. They shape the sound, making distinctions between different vowels and consonants. For example, the difference in sound between “bat” and “pat” is all down to the action of the lips.

When these elements of the vocal tract work in harmony, they give singers the flexibility to manipulate sound, producing a wide spectrum of tones and styles. It’s like having a built-in equaliser, allowing for adjustments in real-time, enhancing the voice’s musicality and expressiveness.

Techniques and Training

The world of singing is much like an iceberg; listeners often only witness the performance, unaware of the vast expanse of training and vocal technique that underpins it. But for singers, this foundation is paramount. Vocal training is not just about sounding good; it’s rooted in understanding and harnessing the anatomy to achieve excellence.

The Cornerstone of Training

Every singer, whether a novice or seasoned professional, will attest to the importance of proper vocal training. But why? At its core, training is about safeguarding the voice. It’s about using the body’s natural structures in the most efficient manner to produce sound, ensuring longevity and minimising the risk of strain or injury. Furthermore, with a solid understanding of one’s vocal anatomy, singers can navigate challenges and refine their technique to align with their unique physical attributes.

Behind the Exercises

Ever wondered why vocal coaches emphasise certain exercises? From the classic vocal scales to the more esoteric humming and trills, each exercise is designed with anatomy in mind. For instance, scales aren’t just about hitting notes; they train the vocal cords to move smoothly between different pitches. Similarly, breath control exercises delve into diaphragmatic strength and control. Each exercise, while seeming straightforward, is a calculated effort to hone a specific aspect of the vocal anatomy.

Achieving Agility and Range

One of the hallmarks of a seasoned singer is vocal agility—the ability to move quickly between notes, adding flourishes and runs to a performance. This agility isn’t just about talent; it’s about anatomical mastery. By understanding and training the muscles around the larynx and the vocal cords themselves, singers can achieve impressive dexterity in their voice. Similarly, extending one’s vocal range, whether reaching for those high notes or delving into deeper tones, is rooted in the flexibility and control of the vocal cords and surrounding structures.

In essence, vocal training is a dance between art and science. It’s about melding the raw emotion and expression of music with a nuanced understanding of the body’s capabilities and constraints. By anchoring their training in anatomy, singers not only protect their voice but unlock new horizons of artistic potential.

In Harmony with Our Anatomy

As we’ve journeyed through the intricacies of vocal anatomy, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the voice, with its vast range, expressive power, and emotional resonance, is not just an artistic marvel but also a testament to the wonders of human biology. For singers, this knowledge is not mere trivia. It’s a guide, a tool, a means to connect deeper with their instrument. By understanding the delicate dance of muscles, cords, and cavities that produce every note, singers can enhance their craft, ensuring not only longevity in their careers but also a richer, more profound connection with their audiences. In the end, it’s about harmonising the art of music with the science within, creating melodies that resonate both in the heart and the very fibres of our being.

Books on Anatomy and Voice

The Structure of Singing by Richard Miller

Miller brings together the physical, technical, and artistic aspects of singing. He applies current findings in medicine, acoustics, phonetics, and speech therapy to the singer’s needs and demonstrates the scientific basis of exercises and vocalises, covering all major areas of vocal technique. Richard Miller is internationally known as tenor, teacher, editor, and writer. Professor of Singing at Oberlin College, he has authored English, French, German, and Italian Techniques of Singing.

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Speech and Hearing Science by Willard R. Zemlin

The definitive book on Anatomy and Physiology required for those studying Speech and Hearing Science

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Anatomy for Speech and Hearing by John M. Palmer

This workbook for speech and hearing science students includes line drawings of anatomical features to be labelled by the student.

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These are just a small example of the extensive links to online exercises and lessons we have available in the Singers Articles section, which contains complete listings of lessons, and exercises, along with answers to everything a beginner, intermediate, or advanced singer or teacher needs to know!

Journey of the Voice
Provides information on the process of speech and singing, complete with diagrams which include respiration, a Support system for the voice (framework) with diagrams of the spine, ribs, pelvis, phonation, resonation, articulation and care of the voice by Eric Armstrong.

Anatomy of the Human Body
This link leads to details on the muscle structure of the larynx but also contains links back to the index for Henry Gray’s book.

Human Body and Mind
An excellent site from the BBC with interactive games and information on the human body

Inner Body
Provides a collection of interactive diagrams and information on the human body.

Pharyngeal Voice
Description and Application to Pop Music Styles write-up of Midwest Voice Conference.

Phonetics Flash Animation Project
A collaborative effort of various departments at The University of Iowa which includes animated libraries of the phonetic sounds of American English, German and Spanish with animated articulatory diagrams, step-by-step descriptions and audio-video of the sound spoken in context aimed at students of phonetics, linguistics and foreign language. Also has a useful interactive diagram of the articulatory anatomy.

The Human Instrument
Authorative article by Ingo R. Titze on how the human voice works. This article was originally published with illustrations in Scientific American magazine (January 2008 edition) but this version is text only.

Types of Phonation
Provides explanations with diagrams and audio examples on how the larynx works in various types of phonation, including whisper, creak, breathy, harsh & falsetto. Visit the main site EGG & Voice

Vocal Anatomy
Article on vocal anatomy by vocal coach Kristina Seleshanko.