The Ins and Outs of the Vocal Cords
Updated: Feb 2
Reading about the voice and how it functions can be incredibly mind numbing. The literature about the way our voice works is often very complicated written by scientists, for scientists. In this article I'm going to try and keep things as simple as possible. The mechanics of the Vocal Cords/Vocal Folds doesn't have to be complicated!
(To supplement and or reinforce what you read today I've also done a podcast episode all about this topic so take a listen to that here to help you out. Trust me I know this stuff can get confusing)
We use our voice everyday and what I've found to be fantastic for my students is that once they pick up the gist of how their voice works they usually start to feel things happening in real terms. So enough of the wishy washy conceptual ideas of how you should sing. Let's talk about the voice properly using the real terminology and the processes of the Larynx and Vocal Folds.
Your voice like a machine. It's got a series of moving parts. It takes one thing and makes it into something else. Specifically, it takes air and turns it into sound.
When we train to sing we're training this machine to operate more efficiently, effectively and consistently in order to create a better end result in our singing voice.
So what are the components that make up this machine?! Simply put:
1. Your Lungs & Breathing Mechanism
2. Your Larynx & the Conversion of Air into Sound
3. Your Resonators & the Refinement of that Sound
Today we're focussing on Part 2 of that process. We're going to get pretty heavy with terminology here. It's not important that you memorise these names. I've included them for those that are interested. The important thing is that you're aware that they exist and what they do.
Your Vocal Folds are housed inside your Larynx. Your Larynx is fairly easy to see & feel. It sits partway down your neck and if you have a more prominent "Adams Apple" you can see the front of it. If you cant see that then you can find it by placing your first finger across your neck approximately an inch beneath your chin then swallow.
That little bump you can feel is the Thyroid Cartilage. Like you've just experienced, it moves when we swallow and also when we speak, sing and yawn. The front of your Vocal Folds are attached to this little guy. They stretch back in a V-shape across your windpipe (Trachea) and attach to two little moving pyramids called the Arytenoid Cartilage.
When we breathe in the Vocal Folds are in this open V-shaped position. The Vocal Folds are made up of 3 layers. At the centre they're more solid and made of ligament. That ligament is surrounded by muscle and the muscle is surrounded by soft tissue. So essentially your Vocal Folds are hard on the inside and get softer on the outside.
The important bit is the muscle in the middle. This muscle gets its name from where the Vocal Folds are attached. In the immortal words of Billy Ray Cyrus, Thyroid at the front Arytenoid at the back. So we call this muscle the Thyroarytenoid Muscle (or more commonly referred to in the singing community as the TA Muscle.)
On the outside of the Larynx there's a second muscle that's vital to mention when we're talking about the Vocal Folds. This is the Cricothyroid Muscle (or the CT Muscle.) This muscle is attached to the Cricoid Cartilage and the Thyroid Cartilage (Adams Apple). The Cricoid Cartilage sits just beneath the Thyroid Cartilage.
So what's the point of all of this?
The TA muscle and the CT muscle are really important in the vocal process because they control the length, thickness and tension of the Vocal Folds. The TA muscle can tense up to shorten and thicken the folds. When the CT muscle tenses it stretches and adds tension to the folds.
The length, thickness and tension of the Vocal Folds are all factors that control the pitch of the sound we create with our voice. There's an article to come soon all about pitch and how to navigate your voice when we get into the tricky notes higher in your range. But for now... back to the Vocal Folds.
Now we've got a firm understanding of the layers of the Vocal Folds and where they're attached, let's talk about how they produce sound.
The Arytenoid Cartilage at the back of your Vocal Folds move together to close the folds. The open V-shape position they're in when we breathe in changes so that the folds can touch as we breathe out.
The closure of the Vocal Folds at the top of your windpipe causes a build up of air pressure, when we start pushing air out, that eventually forces them to pop open. This repeated pattern of the Vocal Folds popping open and closed is what creates waves of energy, as the air pressure is released, that we hear as sound.
That was a bit of a whistle stop guid to the Vocal Folds If you have any questions feel free to e-mail me email@example.com
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