Kirkeiner Music Studio

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How Singing Works - borrowed quotes from Dr. James Burns

The ABC’s of Do Re Mi’s

The tough part about understanding how your voice works is that 99.9% of singing happens inside your body. Dr. James Burns, laryngeal surgeon (or “voice doctor”), breaks down what he calls this “most complex task” into three parts.

Good news: These are a lot less scary than what you would read in an anatomy book!

1. Breath: The Air in There

If your body were a computer and singing were a software program, the breath would be like the battery that keeps the hardware going and allows the program to run. Breath, Dr. Burns says, “provide[s] the power for the singing voice.”

Think of each time you fill your lungs as a recharge. Your body uses this power (the air) to produce sound as you exhale. As the air escapes your body, it allows the muscles inside your throat to bend, stretch, and, eventually, make some noise. And that’s just one breath. Think of how many you have to take if you want to get through a whole song.

2. Phonation: Good Vibrations

Here’s something that might sound crazy: Did you know that your vocal chords (those “folds” of muscle that hang out between your chin and your Adam’s apple) are actually horizontal, as in parallel to your tongue?* It’s good to get that picture in your head so you can start to understand phonation.

“Phonation” may sound complicated, but don’t worry, it isn’t. Dr. Burns explains that phonation is what happens when your horizontal chords “close against each other” and vibrate. This process is so fast that when you begin to sing, the vibrations can’t be seen with the naked eye. All of this moving and shaking has to make some noise, right? So basically, phonation is just a big word for “vocal sound.”

*An amazing fact about your chords: They don’t stay in a fixed position. They can stretch and get thinner (as you sing high) or contract and get thicker (when you sing low).

3. Resonance: Is There an Echo in Here?

What happens if you sing a note in your bedroom closet? Now, what would happen if you sang that same note in your school auditorium? You don’t need a physics degree to figure out it would be a lot louder the second time around. Sound needs to go places if it wants to have an impact. The same thing is true inside your body.

The sound from the vibrations of your vocal chords has to go somewhere, otherwise it would sound pretty pathetic. Lucky for you, your body has special “mini-auditoriums,” or resonators where the sound can bounce and play around before it exits your mouth. These little echo chambers inside you include the space around your nose (your nasal cavity) and your chest. The chest resonator is a popular one— that’s where “Broadway belting” vibrates best!