Vocal Physiology for Singing

The area of vocal physiology covers the parts of the body involved in producing sound with the voice. Generally when we think of the voice we think of primarily the larynx. (Which on this site will be what is meant when we refer to the “voice” – the voice box) Or if we have no experience with thinking of the voice we think of the mouth, because that is where we see movement when someone talks. So unconsciously that is typically where we think of the voice. But the parts of the body that go into making the voice work, which is what we are concerned with, cover a much larger area than just the larynx or the mouth.

We will refer to this complex system of body parts, the vocal physiology, as the Instrument. The Vocal Instrument consists of three components that are shared by most sound producing musical instruments, and one additional component that is unique to the human voice. These components can be categorized by the function they provide to the overall action.

First there is some kind of material that can vibrate when activated. This can be called the Vibrator. The second component is some kind of Activator responsible for setting that vibrator into motion. In the case of wind instruments, the category the voice falls into, this is air pressure. So we need some kind of air compressor. The third component for any instrument is a Resonator to amplify the vibration sound from the vibrator.

I find that it is helpful for people first learning about vocal physiology, to look at other instruments and identify these components in them. A familiar wind instrument is the saxophone. The Vibrator is the reed, the Activator is the person’s breathing system and the Resonator is the tube/body of the instrument.

We can also use string instruments for comparison to our own vocal physiology. For example a guitar consists of strings for Vibrators, the player’s fingers or pick act as the Activator instead of air pressure, and the hollow body acts as a Resonator to amplify the vibration of the strings. We can look at the example of an electric guitar for comparison. It has two of the components, but it lacks a Resonator. It uses electrical amplification instead of acoustic amplification, which is what Resonance is. If we play it without the amplification we can hear how limited the sound of only the strings are. A violin functions in essentially the same way, except it uses a bow to set the vibrating string in motion.

Another wind instrument that has even more in common with the voice is a trumpet, along with all brass instruments. These use the player’s lips as a vibrator, which are activated by the breath pressure from the breathing system. The lips are connected to the mouthpiece, which extends into the resonator of the tubes of the horn to amplify the lip vibrations into tone.

These examples give us something familiar to refer to when we start to identify the vocal physiology that fulfill these roles for the vocal instrument. The Vibrator for our voice are the Vocal Folds, which are located inside of the Larynx. The Activator for the Vocal Folds to vibrate is the air compressor of our Lungs and Breathing Muscles. The Resonator that amplifies the vibrations from the Vocal Folds is the Pharynx or throat cavity.

Now, in addition to the standard three components that make up sound producing/musical instruments, the vocal instrument has the unique fourth component of consonant Articulators. Vowels are essentially different forms/shades of the resonance, but consonants are an element that don’t exist in any other instrument. They provide the ability to articulate words with the beautiful tone produced by the rest of the instrument, adding the distinctly human element of communication with words in combination with purely emotional sounds that cannot be duplicated by any other instrument.

So to review, we have a Vibrator; which is the Vocal Folds inside the Larynx. We have an Activator; which is the air compressor of the Lungs and Breathing Muscular System, to provide air pressure, which causes the Vocal Folds to vibrate. And we have a Resonator; the Chest, Pharynx, and the Cavities of the Head. Finally the Human Vocal Instrument has the added component of the Articulators; which includes the Mouth cavity, Tongue, Lips and Teeth to create consonant sounds to distinguish words.