How It Works: The Larynx

When I was learning to play the viola in 6th grade, I had to learn the names of the parts of the instrument (i.e. pegs, f-holes, neck, etc.) and build a basic understanding of how it worked (i.e. pulling the bow across the strings made the sound, placing your fingers on different places on the fretboard, changed the pitch of the notes played.)

Most singers know very little, however, about the parts of their instrument or how it works. Which, I guess, isn’t that odd since vocalists are the only instrumentalists who work with an instrument that they cannot watch work.

We must use our imaginations and our “sixth sense” (the way we sense someone behind us) to “feel” how the larynx works. A lot of singers have an incorrect understanding of what their vocal anatomy looks like or how it works. So, first things first …

What is the larynx?
Your larynx, sometimes called the voicebox, is a tube-shaped collection of bones, cartilage and muscles that support, contain and control the vocal folds. Your larynx is in your throat and sits on top of your trachea (aka windpipe). Your vocal folds are inside the cartilage of the larynx and attached behind the Adam’s apple. (Imagine a V whose point is attached there.) In men, the larynx is about the size of a walnut and is larger than in women. (This is why the Adam’s apple protrudes in men.)

The laryngeal framework is suspended from the hyoid bone (a tiny horseshoe-shaped bone) and is NOT attached to other bones of the skeleton. (It is “free floating” like your kneecaps.) To feel your larynx move, place your hand gently on your Adam’s apple and swallow. Your larynx will move up then down.

The job of the larynx
Believe it or not, the larynx has a number of functions and phonation (speaking and singing) falls low on its list of priorities. In fact, the number one job of the larynx is to keep foreign objects out of the airway.

Think of it as the gatekeeper to the lungs. The epiglottis (a “flap” of cartilage at the top of the larynx that covers the top of the larynx when we swallow) acts like a switching station and sends air to the lungs and food to the stomach.

Luckily, phonation is another function of the larynx and we use its ability to act as a valve and to control the amount of air pressure in and the release of air from the lungs when we sing. (And, when we lift something heavy. *smile*)

So … how do we sing?
We make sound by joining the vocal folds together over a stream of air. The edges of our vocal folds vibrate rapidly together to create the start of a vocal sound. We change the pitch of this sound by using the muscles of the larynx to shorten or lengthen the vocal folds*.

We can also make changes to the quality of the sound by thickening or thinning the vocal folds. Controlling these muscles is like blinking, sure we can consciously control their movement, but most of the time we don’t.

*What happened to vocal chords?
In viewing the larynx with scopes and strobe lights, scientists realized that we produce vocal sound when the vibrating edges of two folded vocal muscles join and separate very rapidly. So it is simply more accurate to call them vocal folds.

I highly recommend that EVERY singer, from casual to professional, take some time to learn how her voice works. You can find a ton of information online and a good singing instructor should be able to walk you through what the larynx looks like and how it works.

Becoming smarter about your voice is one of the easiest (and fastest!) ways to sing better.

Trackbacks & Pings