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The Whole Voice Part 1: Physical and Mechanical Elements

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This is the first of a four part series focusing on the voice through four levels of our being:

Part 1 - Physical/Mechanical

Part 2 - Emotional/Physiological

Part 3 - Mental/Psychological

Part 4 - Spiritual/Energetic (includes integration)

PART 1 - Physical/Mechanical

Your voice is the ultimate instrument. Ever notice how when someone telephones you that you sometimes automatically know who it is by the sound of their voice? Even if you place a master impersonator next to the person they are imitating, you can hear the difference. The voice is the one thing that is unique to each and every individual. No two people sound exactly the same.

A master musician learns to take care of his instrument because the entire body affects the voice on all levels.

The nearest instrument to the voice is bagpipes. That instrument fills with air much like our lungs do upon inhale. The column of air created by our inhale then travels through the pipe structure (trachea, larynx, vocal folds and pharynx) until it reaches the cords. The cords control and compress the air for sound and pitch, which should then be coming out of the mouth at a steady rate of speed.

In the human voice, the bones of the ear, nose and throat conduct the vibrational resonance throughout the entire structure. Our skeletal/muscular structure is of paramount importance. Posture and structural maintenance is essential for good singing. It's not possible to cover all body systems in depth in this series, but it is possible to give you a basic overview. In this first part, we'd like to take you on a very basic mechanical tour of the main organ structures essential for singing:

  • Ear
  • Nose/Airways
  • Voice Mechanism

All body systems play a large part in your voice and we will refer to these in the series. Let's begin with the ear:

To produce sounds - speech and/or singing - You must first learn how to change your acoustical perception by learning how to listen to your voice as others hear you (from outside yourself) because of resonance. This resonance creates overtones that make the voice sound higher from the outside. If you continue to listen from the inside, you will be deceived because the sound is muffled. However, from the outside, the sound is free.

The larynx can only emit sounds it can hear via the laryngeal nerve. We take in air through the nose and "down" to the body for circulation and life. We take in sound through the ear, which conducts the vibration and is transmitted through the rest of the body via the 8th (VIII) and 10th (X) cranial nerves. We vocalize by "pulling up" the air and sound through the larynx and shape it through the pharynx and mouth into our unique timbre.

The primary function of the

middle ear
chambers is the transmission of sound to the auditory receptors of the
inner ear

Outer Ear

  • Auricle (trumpet)
  • ear canal
  • ear drum (tympanic membrane)

Middle Ear

  • Tympanic cavity
  • Auditory Ossicles (Hammer malleus, Anvil incus, Stirrup Stapes)
  • The Eustachian/Auditory tube routes to and from this cavity. This controls and balances air pressure

    Inner Ear: The Hearing Mechanism

The bony labyrinth called the cochlea because it is like a snail shape, also contains a membranous labyrinth with fluid inside it. It has an upper and lower chamber. The Organ of Corti (inside the cochlea) is the hearing sense organ that consists of cells, hairs and neurons, which conduct impulses to produce the sensation of hearing along a membrane (the Basilar membrane) that lies between the two chambers. Sound is created by vibration that occurs in air, fluid or solid material. Sound waves must be of sufficient amplitude to initiate movement of the tympanic membrane and have a frequency that is capable of stimulating the hair cells in the Organ of Corti at some point along the Basilar membrane. This is not the same width and thickness throughout its length. Due to this fact, different frequencies of sound cause it to vibrate and bulge upward at different places along its length. High frequency sound waves vibrate the narrow part and low frequencies vibrate the thicker, wider part. This means that specific groups of hair cells respond to specific frequencies of sound.

Pitch is perceived by stimulation of the cilia (sensory projections) on the hair cells that are attached to the area that bulges upwards.

Loudness is perceived when the upward bulge moves higher which further bends and stimulates the cilia. Fluid will move across this area to dampen the effect and protect the hearing mechanism.

Therefore the ear and sound works like this:

  • Vibration hits the eardrum, is passed along by the middle ear and into the inner ear where it becomes sound waves.
  • Sound waves circulating around the cochlea, move the basilar membrane and cause the cilia to bend.
  • This movement of hairs stimulates neurons to transmit electrochemical impulses into the brain and it is both the vibration of the Basilar membrane and the actions of the brain that determine our PERCEPTION of sound. Speech is composed of many frequencies mainly in the 400 - 500 Hz range. The ear can hear an incredible frequency range from around 20Hz to 20,000Hz. It is not equally sensitive to all frequencies though and the greatest sensitivity is in the range 1000 - 4000Hz. Pitch and volume issues can therefore be directly related to listening and hearing problems.

    The Airways

Therefore in caring for our voice physically in singing, we must understand our airways to create a solid foundation on which to breathe so that the vocal cords can coordinate both the air and vocal sounds into songs. The quality and volume of air we take in will determine the efficiency of our ability to breathe correctly and sing to our fullest potential.

The Voice Mechanism

The larynx or voice box is a triangular shaped complex structure of cartilages, connected by ligaments and moved by various muscles. It is between the pharynx and trachea. Its largest part, thyroid cartilage manifests as the lump on the outside of our throats, which we call the "Adam's Apple".

Larynx muscles are divided into two parts: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic means they originate in/on the larynx and extrinsic means they attach/insert into the larynx from another structure. Contraction of the extrinsic muscles can move or displace the larynx as a whole. Muscles in both groups assist in breathing, swallowing and vocalizing.

It is the larynx that contains the elastic vocal cords/folds, and has two functions:

  1. to prevent food from entering the trachea: This happens by closing the glottis (the space between the vocal folds through which air passes) with the epiglottis (a thumb-like looking muscle attached to the back of the tongue). When swallowing, the tongue pushes the epiglottis back and down while the arytenoid cartilages squeeze the laryngeal inlet shut to prevent food from going into it.
  2. to produce sound: The opening and closing of the airways is vital in producing speech and sound. Sound is produced by the vibration of air as it passes through the vocal cords/folds. The two vocal cords/folds are membranes that run backwards inside the larynx. Normally they remain open and still during breathing. When air is expired through the glottis and the vocal cords/folds are drawn together with laryngeal contraction, also called adduction, the passage of air will make them vibrate and produce sounds.

The posterior cricoarytenoid muscles (between the cricoid and arytenoid cartilages) open the glottis by adducting the true vocal cords/folds. The lateral cricoarytenoid muscles close the glottis by adducting the true vocal cords/folds.

The faster the air passes through the vocal cords/folds the louder the sound. The closer the cords/folds are drawn together the higher the note.

The looser the cord, the lower the note - much like a rubber band, the more the cords stretch for higher and higher pitches, the smaller the opening between them. The stretch of the cords is altered by the laryngeal muscles tilting the small, posterior laryngeal cartilages and arytenoid cartilage. (See diagrams above).

The glottis can be varied in shape and size to produce different levels of pitch. The size and shape of the nose, mouth, pharynx and bony sinuses will determine the quality (timbre) of the voice. Changing the pharynx shape controls the production of vowel sounds.

It is wise to note that for children the larynx changes shape as they grow so the quality of the voice also changes as they grow.

Therefore "physical" voice production is a complex matter of co-coordinating sound through the ear/brain with the breathing muscles, the vocal cords/folds, the lips and the tongue. The laryngeal nerves connect the speech centre, in the cerebral cortex with the larynx. The ears transmit sound to the brain, the vocal cords produce a wide range of musical notes and the quality of sound depends on the larynx, the shape of the chest, mouth and sinuses for resonance.

This essay first published June 28, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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