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Vocal Anatomy4


Why do some singers cut through a mix loud and clear while others struggle to be heard? The difference is tone. Some people are born with an instrument which produces a full spectrum of harmonics; the vocal version of a grand piano versus an upright. These harmonics, or overtones, ring simultaneously in a series above the original note you're singing. It's not only the number of overtones present but the volume 11111k1015l of each frequency which gives a voice power and projection. The size and shape of your internal cavities determines which overtones are amplified and which are snuffed. Unfortunately, singers are stuck with an instrument created by a genetic lottery. Technique, however, is also an important factor of tone. A great musician can make an inferior instrument sound good. So, for those not blessed with a Steinway voice, adjusting the way you sing can greatly improve your tone.

The characteristics of sound are so consistent we call them laws. There are many examples of these laws shaping our daily lives. For instance, low frequencies travel in long, slow waves which penetrate walls and piss off neighbors. High frequencies are fast waves which excite the ear and are perceived as loud, instigating many fights between singers and guitarists. Low end requires lots of expensive power and large cabinets to amplify; high end needs very little. A smooth surface will reflect sound, giving it more resonance and making us believe we have talent as we sing in the shower. A coarse surface, on the other hand, will absorb resonant tones, which is why blankets and carpets line the walls of our rehearsal spaces.

These same laws apply inside the body. The space above the larynx, called the pharynx, is a crucial component to a big vocal sound. In last month's lesson Anatomy 101, I explained that this cavity is lined with constrictor muscles which reduce the diameter when stressed and expand the area when released. If the larynx is raised and the pharynx is tight, there will not be enough room to amplify rich, low overtones. Muscle walls within the throat also become coarse as they tense, and so the high, projecting, overtones are absorbed before they have a chance to exit. Think of how a speaker and its cabinet work together. A speaker (the larynx) will sound papery thin if placed in a small enclosure (a tense throat) as opposed to a large box (a relaxed throat). Then, think of the lifeless sound of a stereo in a heavily carpeted room versus the bouncing harmonics at a high school dance. No matter what you were born with, a booming voice requires your throat duplicate the properties of a gymnasium with freshly polished floors.

No question: more tone is better. Any engineer will tell you it's easy to subtract from a vocal sound but impossible to make it more than what you're producing. The absence of overtones makes a voice bland and difficult to hear. Guitars, keyboards and cymbals all compete in the same harmonic range and block out the subtle tones of the voice. This is another frustrating law of sound. If two instruments are producing the same frequencies, the louder of the two will be all the ear registers. Guess who wins the volume war between guitar and voice? However, the wider your harmonic spectrum, the better your chances of popping through any holes, or notches, in the band's overall sound.

I know it feels like a step in the wrong direction to relax when your voice sounds thin. A more normal response would be to sing louder. Overdriving the larynx, though, usually triggers all the wrong behaviors in the throat. It's ironic that a desire for a bigger sound is what inspires the push, creating the very tension which robs the voice of precious overtones. A more productive solution is to achieve independence between the larynx and the rest of the body. While it's true all laws are meant to be broken (or at least tested), understanding why your voice sounds the way it does gives you options. Since there is no plea bargaining with nature, if you want a bigger voice you've got to obey the laws and relax.

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