The Physiology of Singing
This big crooner has it made. Like us, he uses air to produce music through voluntary vocal manipulation, but he’s got an advantage. Sound travels a lot easier through water than it does through air. Without a microphone, his singing can be heard by other whales thousands of miles away. Most of his songs are love songs, like ours are, though in humpback whale culture there’s no Ella Fitzgerald. Just the males sing, and all of them in the same area will sing the same song with only small variations between individuals.
I entitled this chapter The Physiology of Singing, but I’m going to touch on anatomy, psychology and acoustics too. I’m determined to make it brief, fun and not too boring. I did some sound effects work for a series called Bill Nye the Science Guy. I know it can be done. I wish Bill were here to do it.
The answer to the question of what it is we are doing when we sing is not resolved. We know a lot about the structures and how the parts fit together. That’s anatomy. We also know what the structures look like when they make different kinds of sounds. The dynamic processes, how the parts move, that’s physiology. The problem is that our vocal cords look like those in plenty of other species. If you ended up at Dr. Moreau’s place and he put a dog’s vocal cords in your throat, they would work fine. There’s a lot we are still trying to figure out about what happens when we sing; why it’s musical.
Keep it down, fellahs. It’s not one of those. This is what it looks like when a doctor looks down a throat with a laryngoscope. The bottom of the V is the front of the throat. The open V-shape means the person is breathing in. In order to make sound, the two arms of the V have to be able to close. If they don’t close completely and evenly, the person’s larynx (voice box) will make raspy, breathy sounds instead of a focused, clear tone. When the cords are closed, allowing air stored below them in the lungs to escape upward makes sound by vibration of the tissue. It works the same way as blowing through a kazoo or a tissue-paper comb does. It makes a BZZZZ. The all-important difference is that the vocal cords are doing it inside the throat, surrounded by the air-filled chambers of our lungs and nasal passages (pharynx) and sinuses in the head and our bones AND because we have a sound hole (just like my guitar) called a mouth for the sound to come out of. That is resonance, and it turns a “bzzz” into a tone.
From here on, the arguments begin. There are three schools of thought regarding how to teach singing (vocal pedagogy). At one end are those who think singing is all a matter of mechanics. They say you have to get the right parts in the right position at the right time, and correcting problems is a matter of focusing on any parts that aren’t working well. At the opposite end are ones who assert that good singing is determined by creating a mental construct of the correct tonality. For these it’s all about the channeling of emotion through choices in interpretation of a piece of music. The third group occupies a middle ground, and combines elements of the two extremes. I’ve had teachers of all three types. I learned different useful things from each kind, so I can’t tell you which is best. I think it’s like “the method” in regards to acting. The right one is whatever works for you.
The single most important thing to learn in order to sing properly is control over breath. Controlled breath is what allows a singer to:
1.) Stay on pitch (frequency),
2.) Produce variations in loudness (amplitude),
3.) Choose tonal colorations at will, and
4.) Hit higher and lower notes (range).
Singing requires much more air than speaking. Older schools of thought theorized that voluntary diaphragmatic and costophrenic (rib muscle) control would dictate good tone and projection, but later studies have largely disproven them. What matters most is being able to take in enough air, being able to hold it and release it under control, and having your resonating chambers in proper condition (sinuses, throat and lungs free from excessive mucous, but still properly lubricated).
The first, best thing you can do to increase your singing power is to practice sitting up straight, taking in a long, slow, deep breath, holding it for several seconds, then letting it out as slowly as you can.
Try it right now. Yes, you in the back too!
Big…breath…IN. Hold it. While you mentally count to five, try to focus your awareness not on the chest expansion most of you will be aware of, but on the pressure beneath your voice box. Now let it out as slooowly as you can while counting how long it takes. To sing well, you should be able to count to 30. If you are out of breath before 30, you know you will need more practice. You can perform this exercise anywhere throughout your day. Given even a few days practice, you will notice an increase in your lung capacity; how much air you can take in. You will increase your rate of oxygenation, the amount of the good stuff that gets into your bloodstream and eventually to every cell in your body. Singing requires good breathing, and good breathing is vital to improving your quality of life. You won’t be counting to 30 while holding a note for quite awhile, but if you keep it up you’ll be able to do that too!
Once you can control the air passing through your vocal cords, you’ll next need to learn how to use your mouth, to shape a “round” tone. Once you have tone, we can get into ways to interpret a song for a desired effect.
“Soup of the evening (sniff), beautiful, beautiful sooooop!”
Coming Up Next – The Round Sound Lost and Found