• Sarah McBrady

The Anatomy of Your Voice

ALL of us know and admire people who can sing with confidence. They have good control of their voice, they have power, they have range, they have it all. They simply start singing and beautiful tones just seem to come out of theirs mouths effortlessly. How do these vocalists do it? And more importantly, can we learn how to do it too? Before we get into that, it is very important for you to have a basic understanding of how your voice works.

PHONATION (Sound Production)

Phonation remained a mystery for centuries for the simple fact that it happens inside our bodies and completely out of sight. We cannot see it and we cannot even feel it. Fortunately, the progress of technology has permitted us to gain a complete scientific understanding of how the voice is produced. However, it is unfortunate that this newly acquired knowledge has not been taken into consideration when approaching Vocal Development.

There is a lot of controversy, confusion, mistaken ideas and sometimes even misguided practices when it comes to Vocal Training, however there is something that all vocal professionals agree on ... Technique is crucial to Vocal Health. Any singing technique or process of vocal training must be founded on the natural actions of the vocal muscles, so I as mentioned before, it is very important for us to have a basic understanding of how the singing voice is created.

The 3 Stages of Voice Production

First, it is important to know that singing is both a physical and mental activity. All of us can hear catchy melody lines and songs that we like and play them in our heads. Ever had a song stuck in your head for days? I know I have! This ability comes to us naturally and does not require us to have special skills, unfortunately when we try to produce these sounds physically, through singing, that problems often start to occur. In order to understand why these problems occur and how we can deal with them effectively, we first need to learn about the three stages of Voice Production: vibration, resonation, and articulation.

Stage 1: Vibration

Vibration is created by the movement of the two elastic, multi-layered vocal folds most commonly known as the vocal cords. The innermost and largest layer of the vocal folds is called the thyroaryenoid muscle, and the part of this muscle that has the potential to shorten and relax the vocal folds during vocalization is called the vocalis muscle. Surrounding the thyroaryenoid muscle is the mucosa—layers of collagen fibers (connective tissue)—with different degrees of pliability and stiffness, which give the vocal folds enormous potential to alter their length and thickness as well as to vibrate freely during vocalization.

The vocal cords/folds are housed in the Larynx, also called Voice Box. The Larynx is a structure made up of cartilage, muscles, ligaments, membrane, and tissue. It is located approximately in the centre of your throat (locate your Adam’s apple - yes, women have one too - with your index finger and you’ve found it!).

The function of the larynx is to protect the vocal folds. its cartilaginous parts can glide, rock, and pivot to open and close the vocal folds and modify their length and width.

The Vocal Folds:

The vocal folds serve a number of purposes besides creating vibration for sound production. They close during swallowing to prevent food and liquids from entering into your windpipe, they also close to create the necessary breath pressure build up when we push or move heavy objects or when women give childbirth.


When you breathe normally without speaking or singing, your vocal folds remain separated and allow for the free passage of air into your lungs when you inhale (breathe in), and for the carbon dioxide to be expelled when you exhale (breathe out).

During inhalation, the muscles in your chest cavity expand and a sheet-like muscle below your rib cage, called the diaphragm, extends downwardly into your abdominal area in order to create even more space in the chest cavity. As a result, a pressure imbalance occurs between the inside of your chest cavity and the outside of it, which forces air to flow into your lungs when you inhale.

During exhalation, by contrast, other chest muscles (internal intercostal muscles) and abdominal muscles force air from the lungs and out of the body. It should be strongly noted that during exhalation the diaphragm is NOT engaged, it is, in fact, thoroughly relaxed.

Phonation (Voice Production) is ONLY initiated during the exhalation phase of respiration. As phonation starts, the highly elastic vocal folds begin to move toward each other and ultimately meet in the middle of the glottis — the space between the two vocal folds. Imagine an inflated balloon for a moment. By stretching the lips of the balloon, you can reduce or even stop the air from escaping. The lips of the balloon, in this analogy, are similar to your vocal folds during phonation when they move toward each other and restrict the flow of breath.

The interference of free-flowing breath through the glottis has the immediate effect of creating a pressure build up below the closing vocal folds. The release of sub-glottal breath pressure is short-lived because as soon as the pressure is released, the vocal folds snap back together — only to have this cycle repeat itself again. Another reason why the vocal folds snap back together quickly during phonation is an effect called the Bernoulli Effect.

The Bernoulli Effect is the scientific principle that draws the vocal cords together. In fact, the Bernoulli Effect is all around us - It is the main principle of lift which causes airplanes to fly and tennis balls to spin. The vocal folds are also drawn in by the Bernoulli Effect - the breath that flows between them during phonation causes a drop in air pressure in the glottis, which sucks the two vocal folds toward each other and closes the glottis. The Bernoulli Effect is also repeated continuously during phonation. The rapid opening and closing of the vocal folds (between 60 to 200 undulations per second) represents the vibration phase in phonation and produces sound waves, sometimes called compression waves.

Once created, compression waves travel up and away from the larynx to various areas of the “vocal tract”— open areas above the vocal folds, which include the lower and upper throat and of course, the mouth. Sound waves that emanate directly from the larynx contain the fundamental frequency or basic pitch of your voice and its overtones.

Stage 2: Resonation

The vocal folds produce sound waves that form the core of your voice, but they are not responsible for the final sound produced. The quality of vocal resonance can be quite variable because the vocal tract is highly adjustable. The primary cavity resonators for the human voice are the laryngopharynx (the throat area right above the larynx), the oropharynx (the throat area at the back of the oral cavity, including the soft palate), and the oral cavity itself. The nasal cavities also play a role in resonation, especially with certain consonant sounds like m and n.

The pharynx is composed of very powerful constrictor muscles, which, in addition to guiding food down the throat during swallowing, also move and adjust their width and length in a variety of ways to allow for resonant vowel sound production. The soft palate is also composed of highly flexible muscles that are very important to resonance tuning.

The oral cavity is the most adjustable structure in voice production. The most important aspect of resonance creation is the formation of the various vowel sounds that make up our speech and singing. A vowel sound is a particular configuration of salient resonances resonances of which the larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, soft palate and to a much lesser extent, the nasal cavities, all participate in creating. Every vowel has a unique vocal formant structure and every language has its own particular ways of resonating their vowels.

Stage 3: Articulation

Now that vibration and resonation have created the tonal substance of your voice — vowel sounds — the articulation stage comes into play.

Articulation gives final shape to your voice by creating the words and phrases that make up the content of your singing and speaking voice. This process occurs when the articulators, the tongue, mouth, cheeks, jaw, hard palate, soft palate, alveolar ridge, nasal passages, teeth, lips, and in some cases, the larynx, and pharynx, work together, first to create consonants, and second, to unite the consonants together with the vowel sounds.

Consonants are parts of your speech that are created by breath expulsion directed through the articulators (please see above). Consonants like p and k require higher airflow in comparison to v and z. When consonants are created, different parts of your articulation system become involved, for example, the nasal cavities perform a crucial role in producing the m and n sounds. All consonants must utilize one or more articulations to become useful in speech and singing.  A speaker or singer pronounces words, which are particular units of vowel and consonant combinations. The ease or difficulty with which a person speaks or sings is based, in part, on how well he blends together vowels and consonants.

One of the major problems is that consonant formation can sometimes interrupt the smooth production of vocal resonance. Because the core of vocal quality is carried in vowel sounds, it explains why that certain languages are easier to speak and sing than others. For example, the Italian language has been called the “language of song” because Italian words are constructed in such a way that the vowels are always emphasized, while the potentially interrupting consonant sounds tend to be minimized. Because of the vowel-consonant harmony in the Italian language, there is a nearly continuous flow of resonant sounds, capable of an abundant variety of vocal coloration and expression. At the other end of the spectrum, Chinese, is among the most difficult languages in which to sing. In order to sing well in Chinese, the words have to be sung almost unnaturally, so as to give more weight to the vowels and less to the consonants.


Now that we understand how complicated vibration, resonation, and articulation are in voice production, we may pause to wonder how anyone could sing without many years of arduous, repetitive training. And yet many us can sing — and some of us really well— without having had any training at all. This could only mean that for people who can naturally sing well, there is an automatic coordination between the mental and physical aspects of voice production. But what about the rest of us? Could we too come to know the fun, joy and wonder of singing? And then, of course, there are those of us who are talented singers but would love to become fantastic singers? Is there a way to pick up where nature has left off? Can we really take our voices to higher levels? The answers to all these questions is YES! Absolutely!

For more information about the Vocal Coaching I offer, please visit my website, www.sarahmcbrady.com or email me at sarah.mcbrady@outlook.com.

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