I couldn't let this blog be out there without a little bit of vocal science. Because sometimes if you have the science-stuff then you can work more effectively with the arts-stuff! The Yin and Yang of singing.

The Larynx

The structure of muscles, cartilage and bones that work in harmony to create our unique voices - also known as the larynx. There are other structures that work in conjunction with the larynx to make out unique sounds but we'll focus on the larynx here.

No one person is exactly alike - yes we tend to have the same structure - but the physiology of it varies as much as the rest of our bodies. Not even identical twins have the same structure of vocal anatomy - there are very small differences that make it possible for every human to sound slightly different when they speak or sing. 

The Five Functions of The Larynx...

1. Your larynx provides the pathway for airflow to and from your lungs

When you breathe in and out (respiration), your vocal folds are in the open position, which looks like a V. When you speak, hold your breath, or when you swallow, your vocal cords close up completely (phonation). Without this movement, we’d be inhaling our food into our lungs, and getting air into our stomach - two things we really don’t want! 

Vocal Fold Function. Image Credit: © Alila Medical Media

2. Your larynx keeps everything out of the lungs except air

When you consume something, you swallow the food or drink and it automatically goes down to your stomach. But what happens when it accidentally goes the other way? You choke. 

Your vocal cords have completely closed up and rejected anything that isn’t air to keep the lungs clear & healthy. The same happens when you’ve got a cold or cough - your vocal anatomy works hard to get rid of any mucus that shouldn’t be in your lungs. So it makes you cough! You inhale, your vocal cords close and the pressure from your lungs blasts them open and they slam together again, causing the excess mucus to “flick off” and help keep the lungs clear.

That’s why you might get a croaky voice when you’ve got a cold - the combination of mucus and coughing has probably caused your vocal cords to get a bit puffy and dry.

3. Your larynx lends you the strength to cough, bear down or lift

Do you remember the last time you lifted something heavy? You inhaled, braced yourself and lifted it up to move it. And that’s a normal response, but did you realise that your vocal tract and lungs helped you to lift that object?

As you inhale, you fill your lungs with air, and then when you brace to lift, your vocal cords and larynx close off to keep that air in your lungs. That “huh” sound is what I mean. Go on, try it now, inhale and brace yourself - there you go.

Keeping air in your lungs slightly increases your core strength - so you have the ability to push against the weight you are trying to lift. And that’s why you get a big old exhale of air when you set the heavy item down - your need to breathe has overtaken your need for strength!

(This same action happens when you need to go to the loo, or if you’re pregnant and about to give birth, this is where you get your extra strength from to bear down!)

4. Your larynx is the origin of sound and speech

I deliberately put this one at number four, because in the grand scheme of our body’s function of keeping us alive, making sound is not at the top of the list. If we could make sound and not be able to regulate airflow or keep debris out of our lungs, we wouldn’t last very long!

There is a LOT of science to unpick here in the production of sound and speech, but I'll keep it simple. As you exhale, the air rushes past your partially closed vocal cords at high speed, causing them to vibrate. The vibration is what makes the sound, and we use many other parts of our head and neck to create what we understand as 'speech' or 'language'. Try it now - inhale and make an 'aaah' sound - that's the basic function of sound production! And language evolves from communities, which is why humans have such a variety of languages, cadences and frequencies in our vocal capabilities.

As a human, when you speak, you use a certain range of pitches that is most comfortable for the way your vocal anatomy is built. AMAB (assigned male at birth) folk tend to have deeper voices because their anatomy is built a little bigger and heavier. AFAB (assigned female at birth) folk tend to have higher voices because their anatomy is built a little smaller and lighter. Trans folk who take hormones will also likely experience a change in voice too - especially AFAB to Male - when their vocal anatomy grows. AMAB - Female trans folk may need a little help in finding a higher pitch of voice, but it's totally possible because we all have the ability to make sounds beyond those 'comfortable' frequencies, we just have to learn how to do it!

5. Your vocal anatomy has the ability to create hundreds of sound frequencies - more commonly known as singing!

And, as much as I’d like it to be the first thing our bodies want - singing is the least important function of the vocal tract. It’s another evolution of sound - we have the capabilities to make hundreds of sound frequencies but more importantly, we have the capacity to consciously control those frequencies. And we just call it 'singing'!

So next time someone tells you that you can't sing - ignore them. If you can make sounds beyond your normal voice, you can sing. You might just need a little help refining your skills!

I really do believe that the human voice is a literal marvel; from such tiny bits of anatomy come the largest scope of sounds that we can control and use to our advantage. And that these sounds have evolved into something we use for every day communication.

So there you have it! A little bit of vocal anatomy and and intro to the five functions of your larynx. Cool, huh?

Once a voice nerd, always a voice nerd.

Over and out!