About the Voice
The voice may be the most popular and the most misunderstood instrument on the face of the Earth. You can’t just pick up a guitar and play a song without first taking a few lessons. But you can sing a song without ever taking voice lessons. Of course, most people aren’t very good singers. Just like any other instrument, there’s a technique to singing that you have to learn before you can sound good. However, unlike other instruments, the technique behind singing lies almost entirely in human physiology.
In many ways, the human voice acts a lot like a woodwind instrument. The lungs supply air, which passes through the vocal cords. The vocal cords act like a sort of “reed,” with the air making them vibrate at certain frequencies. These frequencies become sound waves of a certain pitch. Finally, the sound waves are passed through the mouth, where the lips, tongue, and even teeth further modify the sound waves, just like the keys on a clarinet.
That’s the basic idea behind how the voice works. But anyone who takes singing lessons can tell you it’s actually far more complex than that. For one, the vocal cords aren’t actually cords at all. They’re vocal folds, two tightly folded mucus membranes that stretch across the larynx (also called the voice box). When the vocal folds are relaxed, they retreat to the edges of the larynx and allow air to pass through freely. This happens when you inhale.
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When you exhale, the folds stretch across the larynx, restricting the air’s passageway. Restricting the passageway causes pressure to build up, and the air has to squeeze through the vocal folds. This, in turn, causes vibrations. These vibrations are sound waves. Think of them like ripples on a pond. Before reaching the vocal folds, the air was a steady stream. After passing through the folds, the stream is broken up into small ripples, or waves. The size of a sound wave is called its frequency, and frequency determines pitch.
So what determines the frequency of these sound waves? It’s actually the vocal folds themselves. Thicker, longer vocal folds make for large, slow-moving sound waves. These sound waves have a low frequency, and thus a low pitch. Short, thin vocal folds, on the other hand, make for quick, small sound waves. These sound waves have a high frequency and a high pitch. It turns out that men generally have thicker vocal folds than women. This explains why men’s voices are usually deeper than women’s.
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This also means that the size of your vocal folds also determines your voice type. Your voice type is, in general, the range of notes you can reach. If you’re a soprano, your voice has a pitch that allows you to sing very high notes. If you’re a bass, your voice has a pitch that allows you to sing very low notes. Intermediary types like baritone, alto, tenor, etc. mean your voice has a pitch that allows you to sing notes that fall somewhere in the middle. Most people are one of these intermediary types.
In summary, your vocal folds, or vocal cords as they’re more commonly known, determine the pitch of your voice. This is achieved by causing the air passing through the folds to transform into sound waves of different sizes. The pitch of your voice, in turn, determines what notes you can reach without straining.
But the sound waves don’t stop there. They keep on traveling through your throat, and up into your mouth. The mouth is a sort of built-in microphone. After passing through the narrow passage of your throat, the sound waves enter a much larger space -- your mouth. Entering this larger space causes the sound waves to spread out and start bouncing off the inside of your mouth. This causes them to multiply. When you multiply a sound wave, it gets amplified, meaning it sounds much louder. That’s why you’ll see that professional singers open their mouths more than we normally do just talking. Creating more space allows the waves to get louder and project farther.
The mouth also acts as a modifier to the sound waves, just like they keys on a clarinet or the pedals on a piano. Just like in speaking, singers use the tongue and lips to form the sound waves into words. You can also use your tongue to increase vibration in the waves, or use your lips to add a “breathy” sound into your singing.
So you can see why learning to sing takes just as much training as any other instrument. There are a lot of different parts that you need to acquaint yourself with and learn to control. And that’s exactly what vocal training does.
Beginning voice lessons start with developing good habits and familiarizing yourself with your voice. Some of the most basic exercises in voice lessons involve working on your posture and your breathing. As you can imagine, singing takes a lot of breath. You have to learn how to stand and sit correctly so you can maximize the amount of air that passes in and out of your lungs. Then, you have to learn how to breathe in a way that allows you to inhale while you sing and never run out of air. The breathing exercise seen below uses a little song to work on your breathing. By singing the lyrics to this song, you’re reminded on how to stand, and forced to use correct breathing to sing it well.
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Once the basics of posture and breathing are covered, you begin acquainting yourself with your own unique voice. You’ve probably heard vocalists singing alongside a piano scale. This helps you find your range, and learn how to vocalize each individual note in your range. Beginner voice lessons also include working on correct mouth positions. As we’ve mentioned before, your mouth plays an important role in amplifying and modifying the sound waves from your vocal folds. Learning the different positions of the lips, jaw, and tongue allows you to learn all the different ways to vocalize notes.
More advanced voice lessons involve expanding on your natural-born voice. The most common method is extending your range. After years of rigorous vocal exercises, you can actually modify the pitch of your voice. As the diagram below shows, professional singers have a much larger range than amateurs. This allows them to sing a wider range of notes, and perform more difficult songs.
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Other advanced vocal lessons include adding “flair” to your natural voice. The most common of these is vibrato, a subtle change in pitch that makes the voice sound like it’s vibrating. You hear vibrato most often in opera. Other advanced modifications include things like trill, which is a sort of rolling sound; aspiration, which makes for a “breathy” sound; and even yodeling.
Advanced vocalists will often train in a particular style. Each style trains the voice to sing a certain way. For example, opera training teaches you to sing extremely difficult longform opera songs. A capella training teaches you to use your voice to sound like other instruments and sing without a backing band. Choral singing teaches you to harmonize with a large group of people. Of course, there are thousands of different singing styles all over the world. Singing is as old as humanity itself. Consequently, each culture has a unique repertoire of songs and a unique way of singing.
Learning to sing opens up a whole world of musical possibilities. This is because no other instrument is as wide-ranging as the voice. Sure, anyone can try their hand at any song, but as we’ve seen, it takes training to use your voice to explore different forms of music. Voice lessons teach you about your own innate musicality, and help you expand on your natural-born talents. No other instrument can say the same.