What Happens When We Sing - The Science Stuff

Science? Yuk. I’m a singer! I don’t need to know about the science bit, I just want to sing.

Yep. That’s how I felt too! I’ve been singing all my life and it’s always been a huge passion of mine; a therapy; a friend. I know where you’re at right now. You want to forget the science and love the art right?

Let me tell you – you’ll never get the very best from your art until you understand the science. I truly believe that.

It wasn’t until I started to learn about the mechanism of the voice and how it works within the body that I truly began to understand how I can develop my own voice and get the most from it.

Now I’m NOT saying you ought to be Einstein, or you need to study every paper by Dr Ingo Titze (world renown voice scientist and GENIUS – read something of his and you’ll see what I mean!)

I am however suggesting that a simple understanding of your instrument will help you to embrace its full potential. Perhaps even debunk a few myths. Maybe give you some confidence because you know what’s happening physiologically.

So let’s have a brief look at what exactly happens when we sing.

The Power Source

It all starts with the breath. We often think it’s all about the vocal cords (which we’ll come to in a moment), but without the air flow moving past the cords there’ll be no sound produced. The breath, combined with the musculature support system of the abdominals, the back, the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) is what gives our sound it’s power. We can’t underestimate how important this is for our singing!

As we breathe in, the diaphragm contracts downwards to enable more space for the lower lungs to be filled. You may notice this also causes the abdominals to relax outwards too. As we breathe out, or sing, the diaphragm relaxes back up to its original position as the lungs release the air. It’s important to understand that the diaphragm does this every day without your interference. You don’t need to force it to move and you certainly never need to “breathe into the diaphragm” or “sing from the diaphragm”. If you’ve worked with me you’ll know this is something I teach because focusing in this area can result in unwanted tension in the body, and we may also be missing 70% of our support mechanism in the abdominal, back and intercostal muscles.

It’s also important to note here that you don’t need to “take a large breath” for singing. Taking in a breath like this can result in tension of the shoulders and throat and we may also tense and constrict the vocal cords to try to keep the air in. Singing is all about controlling the exhale; you do NOT need to take extra breath in the inhale to sing a longer note or gain more control of your voice. This is a whole other blog in itself – but for now just trust me on this one!

The Source of the Sound

You guessed it, the vocal cords. These are tiny muscle fibers which live in your larynx (or voice box), suspended in the throat, also by muscles. I like to think of these suspensory muscles like a baby door bouncer where the baby is the larynx. They’re supporting the little dude and keeping him happy and safe, free to bounce up and down without forcing, straining, or pushing (ahh). However, if we move the door frame what happens? The beautiful balance in those muscles is compromised and the baby will fall.What does this teach us about singing? POSTURE. If we slouch, push the chin forwards or cave backwards; do anything which compromises our upright design it has a direct affect on the source of our sound; the vocal cords. Check your posture, okay?

Anyway, I digress. The breath travels up through the vocal cords which vibrate at a certain frequency (the pitch). This vibration creates the sound waves and is therefore the source of our sound. There’s lots of other fun science stuff I could add here about the vocal cords, but as I’m writing a blog and not a book I’ll leave it there.

The Sound Amplifiers

The next stage of our singing happens above the larynx, in what we call the vocal tract. What’s that? Well, essentially it’s the throat and mouth, where those sound waves we just created resonate before leaving our mouths in song and entering our ears.

We may think all the colour and tone in our voice comes directly from the vocal cords. But try talking like a robot. On one pitch, in your best robot voice, say “Hello, I am a robot”. Now – you were able to shape those sound waves into different vowel sounds to create those words, yes? You didn’t do that with your vocal cords! By moving and manipulating the space in our throat and mouth, moving the tongue and shaping the lips we’re able to ‘colour’ the sound in different ways and create all manner of different sounds on one pitch.

Amazing when you stop to think about it huh?

It’s these resonating spaces, along with the articulators (tongue, teeth and lips) which move and shape to create the words of our song. And indeed speech. It’s the final puzzle piece to our vocal mechanism.

Phew! That’s a lot to get your head around isn’t it?

There are many benefits to getting your head around this as a singer. Knowledge is power, and when we know what we’re working with we’re better equipped to care for and develop our voices the way we’d like to without risking any damage.

For many singers, learning the importance of the breath and the support mechanism, the direct correlation between posture and good vocal tone and the ability to change colour and tone of the voice by adapting the vocal tract enables them to find new ways of vocalising without pushing or straining. It takes the pressure off the vocal cords themselves and allows them to look at the voice as a whole mechanism.

Was this useful? Do you feel you have a better understanding of your voice and how it works? Is there anything else you’d like to know about the science of the voice? Any questions, pop them below. I love learning about this stuff, I love writing, and I love helping singers just like you, so it’s win, win, win!

Ryan Eaton