The human voice is created by the interaction of several different parts of the anatomy including the respiratory system, the larynx, the vocal cords, and the mouth and throat. Just like any other musical instrument can be categorised into a certain type, voice is a wind instrument.
This article is a comprehensive approach which explains the anatomy and the mechanics of sound production in detail. Understanding the anatomy of the voice can help singers and speakers to develop proper technique and avoid vocal strain or injury apart from other advantages few of these techniques provide.
All musical instruments are categorised as per the manner in which the instrument produces the sound. For example, a guitar falls into the category of ‘Stringed Instruments’ whereas drums would come under ‘Percussion Instruments’ that are rhythm based.
Likewise, a wind instrument is defined as a musical instrument that uses air to produce sound. Here sound is created by passing air through the body of an instrument. Wind instruments are also called air instruments.
Voice is a part of the human anatomy and so are the integral workings of the voice as an instrument. Therefore, the voice is a wind/ air instrument.
Vocal Cord Anatomy
Parts of the Voice Anatomy
Respiratory system/ Breath support:
The respiratory system also known as breath support includes: the chest muscles, windpipe, ribcage, lungs & diaphragm. The lungs and diaphragm provide the power source for the voice. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and air is drawn into the lungs. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and air is pushed out of the lungs through the trachea and into the larynx. In other words when we fill our lungs up with air our ribs move out – the big sheet of muscle which is known as the ‘diaphragm’ also expands. We use the air we exhale to produce the sound of our voice. The illustration below shows the position of the diaphragm during inhalation and exhalation.
Diaphragm position during Exhalation & Inhalation
Phonatory system includes the larynx or “voice box” where sound is produced includes: vocal folds also known as vocal cords & larynx. The voice box is located at the top of the trachea at the back of the throat. There are two pipes here, one for food and the other one is the air tract also known as the trachea or windpipe.
Larynx contains the vocal cords which are two folds of tissue that vibrate when air passes over them producing sound. The larynx also contains the epiglottis, a flap of tissue that closes off the trachea when we swallow, preventing food or liquid from entering the lungs. Refer below the cross- section view of the Larynx and detailed
In the vocal cords anatomy, the vocal cords are responsible for the production of the pitch of the voice (how high or low you can speak or sing). These cords are made up of two muscles that stretch across the larynx. When we speak or sing, air from the lungs passes between the vocal cords causing them to vibrate and produce sound.
The pitch of the sound is determined by the tension of the vocal cords and the amount of air passing through them. The longer and looser the cord the lower the pitch. Like the strings of a guitar the pitch is dependent on the length of this vocal cord and its tension. Singers are able to voluntarily control this muscle as per their need. The illustration below demonstrates the state of the vocal cords during breathing & speech.
Resonatory System/ Resonators
Resonatory system also known as the “vocal tract”, includes: throat, nasal passages, sinuses, and mouth. The sound that your voice makes can often be changed while it passes through hollow areas in your body. These spaces of hollowness are called Resonators. These spaces are your skull, the chest cavity, behind the nasal cavity and your mouth.
More than often singers utilise techniques to access natural acoustics by using their in-built resonators. In other words, resonators are volume tools in our bodies. The levels of singing can be easily manipulated by judicious use of resonators. The final quality of the sound is affected in this.
Once sound is produced by the vocal cords, the tongue, lips, teeth alveolar ridge, hard palette, soft palette, jaw and nasal cavity, all play a role in shaping the sound and producing different vowel and consonant sounds. Thus they are called the articulators as they help give shape to the sound that we just produced.
For example, we would not be able to say ‘love’ without using our tongue – an articulator or the word ‘blue’ without our lips – an articulator and so on. The upper palate of the mouth is known as the hard palate and further back is the softer palette. Behind this lies the uvula which opens and closes to stop the passage of food into the nose, also used to pronounce certain words.
How is sound created/ produced as our voice?
In the technical process of sound creation the following processes take place in sequence:
Vocal folds or vocal cords within the larynx in the throat are attached to the largest of the laryngeal cartilages known as the thyroid cartilage or Adam’s apple. During exhalation of air from the lungs, when air passes through these vocal folds they vibrate causing sound to be produced. The type of vibration determines type of sound wave for your voice.
Further knowledge of the vocal anatomy gives us the freedom to use it to our advantage. Below is the illustration of the cross sectional view of the vocal cords during breathing and speaking, notice the difference.
Timbre/ Texture of voices: The texture of a voice can vary from hoarse, raspy or soft depending on the vibration of the vocal cords in how symmetrically and regularly they are vibrating. To understand this better let us briefly understand the parts of the anatomy of voice or vocal anatomy as we know it.
One of the most important aspects of understanding the anatomy of the voice is understanding the concept of resonance. We have already learnt about resonators & the resonatory system above.
The buzzing tone created by the vocal folds gives way to resonance producing the ‘human voice’. Resonance is the phenomenon of amplification of sound waves. The shape and length of the vocal tract, the structures or cavities that the sound waves may bounce off of – influences shaping of the tone or texture of the voice. Resonance that occurs toward the front of the face is ideal.
If you take a breath and hum on a steady tone for a few seconds, you can experience this sensation of resonance in the front of your face. In contrast, if you growl, you can feel that the resonance is farther down, in the back of your throat.
Finally, once the sound waves reach your mouth, you use your lips, teeth and tongue to shape the sound (articulation) into speech. A well balanced system helps production of the best optimal quality of the voice. If a voice develops problems and vocal sub-systems are out of balance, it affects the overall quality of the voice. Thus it is very important for professional singers and voice actors to train their voices for quality performances without exhausting or straining their voice.
The creation of the sound voice anatomy itself is a process. Effectively by training our muscles and controlling our breathing we can achieve higher levels of performance as a singer or a vocalist.
Now that we have an understanding of the different parts of the vocal anatomy we will elaborate on the concept of Phonation.
Phonation refers to the process of producing sound by the vibration of the vocal folds in the larynx (voice box). During this process the vocal folds come together and air from the lungs causes them to vibrate. The frequency of these vibrations determines the pitch of the sound produced.
Phonation is a crucial component of speech production and can be modulated to create different sounds and intonations. The muscles in the larynx can be adjusted to change the tension of the vocal folds, altering the pitch and tone of the voice.
In addition to speech production, phonation is also important for singing, as it allows for the creation of a variety of different musical tones and notes.
To understand the application of voice anatomy we have to understand the integral process in a Breath Cycle which involves 4 different phases. The 4 primary phases of breath cycle in anatomy of voices are:
2. A very brief air suspension period
4. Recovery – tension release in breath muscles
The diaphragm which is a dome- shaped muscle underlying the lungs, separating them from the abdominal contents. When the diaphragm contracts, it descends creating a vacuum within the lungs. Air then flows in and fills the lungs. As the diaphragm descends it displaces the contents of the abdominal cavity. This helps in breath control and dynamic control for singers. In many cases singers assume that ‘singing from the diaphragm’ means singing with pressure from the abdominal area which is not the case.
2. Very brief suspension:
A very short suspension prior to exhalation allows a transition from using muscles for inhalation to using muscles for exhalation. In daily breathing processes there is often no real suspension rather an immediate shift from inhalation to exhalation. This brief pause sets the stage for necessary breath support durng singing.
After inhalation, the glottis naturally closes in a relaxed fashion. If less-experienced singers engage in drawn-out suspension exercises, however, they tend to tense laryngeal and neck muscles and close the glottis too tightly. This may inadvertently encourage a hard onset – a form of glottal attack that inhibits singing. It is encouraged to keep the glottal closure relaxed and to avoid tensing laryngeal and neck muscles to maintain steady breath control. Below is a cross-section view of the larynx – position of the glottis during Exhalation and Inhalation.
Breath-support means delivering the right level of breath pressure to the vocal folds. After inhalation and brief suspension, the ribs and abdomen are expanded slightly outward and we are poised and ready to sing. There are two main muscle involved in achieving breath support.
Two main muscles contract during exhalation:
- Internal rib muscles (internal intercostals)
When these muscles contract they move the abdominal contents upward raising the diaphragm and pushing air out of the lungs. The internal rib muscles also help in modulation of breath. It was found that singers with the best tone and most consistent vibrato used the abdominal muscles more than the intercostals.
It is advisable to resist the collapsing of the abdominal musculature and the ribs as much as possible until the very end of a phrase using exhalation muscles for fine control of breath pressure. The inhalation and exhalation muscles must be in balance to accomplish this.
Recovery is the last phase and said to be a conscious part of the breathing cycle. In this phase the muscles need to relax after singing each phrase so that they can recover and perform efficiently for the next. A good singer is said to have this under control and is able to judge breath pressure in accordance to length of phrases. This includes the laryngeal muscles, which are involved in creating resonance (such as those of the pharynx and mouth), and the muscles involved in articulation of vowels and consonants (such as the tongue, lips, and jaw).
In the absence of a rest period tension will build and might strain the vocal cords, particularly while singing high-pitched notes or long phrases. This provides a brief needed rest and recovery. In a choral setting it is advisable for singers to take adequate time for recovery when they are stagger breathing.
Overall the knowledge and understanding of the ‘Anatomy of the Voice’ gives us the awareness of how to use the voice as an instrument judiciously. Other than the advantages mentioned above, singers are able to sing longer without straining their voices and even modulate dynamic levels using various breath support techniques based on concepts explained above.
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