Updated: Apr 15
Commercial or classical artist, this post will discuss how your vocal folds vibrate.
What is a larynx?
The larynx, often called the "voice box," is an organ located in the throat. At a fundamental level, this organ functions as a valve. This valve opens and closes in many dynamic ways to accomplish several different processes, and singing is included as one of its many possible functions.
How does the larynx work?
Before we get into the "how," it is important to acknowledge that the physical process of singing can be broken down into four categories: respiration, phonation, resonance, and articulation. For our purposes in this post, we will focus primarily on respiration (breath) and phonation (vocal fold vibration).
Singing is the result of elaborate and artistic manipulation of human anatomy.
The singer uses the lungs to create a supported and energized stream of air that passes into the larynx, vibrates through the vocal folds, and produces a tone. This tone is then shaped by the throat and mouth to accommodate various vowel structures and consonant sounds. It is an extremely complicated art, but the process of respiration and phonation is a simple concept. To make the vocal folds vibrate, one needs to send a consistent stream of air (respiration) and approximate (bring together) the vocal folds just enough to encourage vibration. Once the vibration is established, then the sounding pitch can rise or fall by stretching or shortening the length of the vocal folds.
The following video shows a demonstration of how the vocal folds vibrate using a source of air and a bovine larynx.
*(Trigger warning; this video contains an actual dissected bovine larynx)*
As we can see and hear from the demonstration, the source of air is constant and does not change speed. With the addition of physical manipulation of the vocal folds, we begin to hear the sound of a cow "mooing" and sliding through multiple pitches. Upon observation, we can determine that three things happen to simulate this sound:
1) The source of air remains constant.
2) The vocal folds are approximated (coming together somewhat).
3) The tone stays the same, increases, or decreases in frequency (Hz) based on vocal fold length.
So, I should sing like a cow?
Not really, no. The title of this post admittedly could have been, "Making Noise From Your Throat Is Surprisingly Simple." However, there are some really significant takeaways from thinking of singing in such a basic way. The number one enemy for a vocalist is becoming frustrated while practicing or rehearsing, and this frustration always seems to stem from some kind of throat tension.
One of the best ways to alleviate laryngeal tension specifically is to break down the singing process into very simple terms. The next time you attempt a phrase from a warm-up, song, or aria, think of the breath as moving constantly. Consider imagining that the breath is continuously flowing while the vocal folds vibrate fully--moving in tandem with a beautiful tone through and past the larynx. If executed properly, one could likely find much more vocal ease and freedom, particularly in the middle and head registers. In other words, high notes require airflow.
That's not the end of the story!
As previously mentioned, singing is a complex art form. This basic outline of the phonatory process is only one small step on the journey to vocal freedom. If you want to be the best possible singer you can be, there are two things you should do: practice every day and seek the opinion of a voice professional.
My social media all in one place: www.mhvoicestudio.com/links