How Singing is Created

Vocal Anatomy

based upon a chapter in Singing Secrets












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This article isn’t intended to be a complete vocal anatomy course; it’s only designed to give you a brief understanding of how your voice works. Vocal anatomy is fairly complex, but if you’d like to know more, go to the Links page for medical websites.


     Although there’s a part of the body called “the voice box” (also known as the larynx), singing and speaking require far more than the use of this one organ. Singers create sound by using the abdominal and back muscles, the rib cage, lungs, the oral cavity, and more.
     The vocal cords (medically, they are “vocal folds”) are membranes that snap open and closed while singing, speaking, or making noises.  As air pressure builds up against them, the folds snap together and a sound is created. When they are snapped gently, a soft sound is heard; when they snap forcefully, a loud sound is the result. The quicker the cords open and close, the higher the resulting pitch will be. (These are durable little suckers: vocal cords open and close 100 times per second during normal speech.)

The vocal folds opening and closing.

     The “false” vocal folds should not be confused with the folds described above. The false vocal folds sit just above the true vocal cords and prevent food, etc. from entering the trachea when swallowing. They typically don’t play a major role in speech or singing.

    When you start to sing, you begin by breathing. The muscles of the larynx bring the vocal cords together. They stay closed until enough breath (i.e., enough pressure) builds up and a burst of air escapes through the cords. As you run out of breath, the vocal cords are once again drawn together. (So now you know the vocal cords do not work like a stringed instrument; they don’t produce sound by vibrating against each other. Sound is actually produced by the pressure changes created when small jets of air pass through moving vocal cords. This is why it can be helpful to think of breath control as the steam engine that makes the machinery of singing function.)   


A vocal fold.



     The picture above is a microscopic illustration of the vocal cords. You can see that the very term “cord” is misleading, since the cords are actually folds of tissue. These cords, or folds, are made up of several layers, and in a healthy cord, the uppermost layer is loose.
     The top illustration on this page will give you an idea of how the vocal folds open and close during sound making. They don’t open all at once; the lower part opens first, then gradually the cords open wide...then close again. Anything that interferes with this process (like a swelling from incorrect singing, smoking, etc., or small lesions that cause hoarseness) reduces voice quality.

The Larynx

     The voice box (or larynx) rests in the neck and is made of four basic components: the skeleton, “intrinsic muscles” (which move the vocal cords, among other things), “extrinsic muscles” (which adjust the position of the larynx in the neck), and mucosa. The intrinsic muscles alter the position, shape, and tension of the vocal cords and can bring them close together, spread them apart, or stretch them in length.

The Resonators

     The tongue, palate, oral cavity, nasal cavity, sinus cavity, chest cavity, pharynx, and other anatomical structures act as resonators for singers; they are mostly responsible for vocal quality. The vocal cords themselves produce only a “buzzing” sound; the resonators are necessary to create music and speech. When we begin talking about “placement” of the voice, we will mostly be dealing with the resonators, and finding out how to use them to their best advantage.
     A common method of finding “good” placement is to sing while smiling inwardly. This raises your cheekbones and allows the vocal sound to enter and resonate inside the area called the “mask” (you’ll feel vibrations in the teeth/lips, cheekbone, nasal cavity, and possibly the forehead.)

· Your sinus cavities are where you’ll resonate your highest notes.

· Your nasal cavity, your teeth/lips, and the upper pharynx (this three–some is referred to as “the mask”) is where your head voice lies. This area is also important for high belting.

· The oral cavity, soft palate, and middle pharynx are where you'll resonate your chest voice. If you bring your head voice down into your lower notes, it will also "sit" here.

· The upper chest cavity (which will make your breast bone vibrate) and lower pharynx are where much of your chest voice singing resonates.

The Power Tool

     What we typically call the diaphragm, or our “support system,” is the power source for singing. Actually, the anatomy of the “support system” is quite complicated and not completely understood even by medical experts. The purpose of the support system is to “generate a force which directs a controlled air stream between the vocal folds which is necessary for vocalization to occur.” The principle muscles that help us breathe in are the diaphragm (a dome–shaped muscle that extends along the bottom of the rib cage), and the “rib muscles.”
     Many of the muscles used for expelling breath are also in the “support system.” These muscles either raise abdominal pressure, forcing the diaphragm upward, or lower the ribs and breast bone, thereby compressing air in the chest.  The chest and back muscles are also involved.


For more detailed medical information about how singing is created, visit the Links page.

(c) Copyright 2002 by Kristina Seleshanko.