The Role of the Vocal Cords in Singing


I find that many singers are confused about the precise role of the vocal cords (also known as the vocal folds) in singing.  Very few have given much thought to their role and those who have are almost invariably incorrect in their assumptions.  That is because discussion of the vocal cords themselves is usually left out of standard voice teaching.  I know that I never heard a teacher of mine address the cords specifically until well after I had finished graduate school and moved to New York City.  But understanding the role of the cords is an important part of understanding the voice, so singers should make definitely the effort to learn more about them.

Every musical instrument has three parts to it:  the actuator, which provides the necessary energy to create the sound waves; the vibrator, which moves and creates the all-important sound waves; and the resonators, which amplify and color the sound.   This way of conceiving of a musical instrument is easy to understand for a guitar, for example:  the actuator is the arm and fingers, which strum the strings; the vibrator is the combination of different strings, which create sound waves when strummed; and the resonator is the empty space inside of the guitar’s body, which adds warmth and volume to the sound of the plucked strings.

For the voice, the system is a little more complicated, because it is completely inside of each singer’s body and can not be seen.  The actuator is the air stream, which is controlled by certain sets of muscles in the torso – the abdominals, back muscles, intercostals muscles and pectoral muscles.  The vibrator is the vocal cords, which meet together across the width of the trachea and oscillate in reaction to the air stream coming from below.  The resonators are all of the open spaces above the vocal cords, including the pharynx, mouth and nasal cavities.

Therefore, the vocal cords are vibrators and they have a very specific function of creating sound waves.  They need to fulfill only that function and not try to take on other functions.  The vocal cords are designed to vibrate in response to air flow, but are not the providers of energy for the voice – the torso muscles that control the rate of the air stream are responsible for that.  Many singers believe they can “lean in” to or push on the vocal cords for dramatic effect, a bigger sound, etc., but that is untrue.  Attempting to interfere with the functioning of the vocal cords in that way actually results in either too much air pressure building up below the cords, too much air moving between the cords during phonation or unnecessary tension in the larynx.  All of these end up interfering detrimentally with the resulting quality of sound and have wider-ranging effects on both the rest of the vocal technique and the quality of vocal sound.

Therefore, the vocal cords need to be left alone to vibrate easily and freely with unnecessary tension.  How the cords vibrate changes drastically in accordance to the quantity and rate of the air stream from the lungs, the actuator.  That is why it is imperative for healthy singing that breath resistance or support be carefully understood and incorporated into a singer’s technique.  Flexible, energized breath resistance is one of the best ways to effect and improve the functioning of the vocal cords.

However, there are a few important ways that the cords need to function for healthy singing and it is possible to train these into the technique:  to have a healthy cord closure, utilize the thin edges when phonating and incorporate coordination for the ideal amount of vocal weight for each note, ensuring there is the requisite weight in the bottom parts of the voice for a full sound (particularly for lower voices) and shedding weight before moving into the higher parts of the voice.  These are not done through pressing or pushing, but instead through specific exercises that gently train the vocal cords.  Practicing repeatedly and consistently enough to incorporate these new healthy habits is up to the singer.

Healthy cord closure helps the cords adduct in order to vibrate in close enough proximity to each other that no excess air escapes between them.  This allows for the healthiest functioning and vocal sound.  In a previous article, Clarity of Tone in the Professional Singing Voice, I discussed cord closure in detail and described two exercises to help train it into the voice.  Both exercises should be done gently, so as not to introduce excess tension, and with normal breath resistance/support.

The thin edge function of the voice is essential for a healthy, unified voice.  It allows just the top part of the vocal cords to vibrate without the mass of the whole cords.  With the thin edge function, registration is improved and high notes are much easier and freer.  I offered two exercises for the thin edge function, the cuperto and the thin edge exercise, in two previous articles, Color and Chiaroscuro in the Professional Singing Voice and Vibrato in the Professional Singing Voice.

There are a number of different ways to approach ensuring that a natural weight is present in the bottom range of lower voices.  Achieving the laryngeal tilt and releasing the tongue will help many singers significantly, but not all.  Others need to think of an “uh” vowel under the real vowel, to visualizing singing out of the back of the throat, the pre-vomit reflex, etc.  It is a tricky area that truly needs to be worked individually with each singer, so that the correct amount of weight is being added without making the voice too heavy and losing the thin edge function of the cords themselves.


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