What makes your voice unique?
How the Human Voice Works
The human voice. Much like fingerprints, our voices are unique and help to identify us. Some of us pick up accents and speech patterns and sound very similar to family members. To this day, my sisters and I pretend to be each other to try to fool my parents on the phone. But they can always tell us apart.
That’s because the human voice is so unique. But why do we all sound different? Today, we’ll be taking a tour of the amazing systems that make up the human voice: the respiratory system, the phonatory system, and the resonatory system. While these three category labels were taken from The Temple Head & Neck Institute, most vocal experts give a similar list.
This is the powerhouse of the voice because it’s where volume originates from. According to Temple, this system includes the lungs, ribcage, chest muscles, diaphragm, and windpipe. In other words, it’s all the parts that work together to help you breathe in and breathe out. Many professional speakers and singers learn to breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, to help control the steadiness, strength, and volume of their voices. Try this exercise from The Cleveland Clinic to practice diaphragm breathing.
This system includes the larynx, the glottis (the opening between the vocal folds), and the vocal folds. When you are swallowing or making vocal sounds, the glottis closes. However, it opens to allow breath through. That’s why it’s really difficult to talk while inhaling. Go ahead, give it a try.
So after you take a full breath courtesy of the respiratory system, the glottis closes to prepare to make sound. As air pushes against the bottom of the folds, they open up and vibrate, starting from the bottom to the top. As the breath pressure dies down, they also close again from the bottom to the top. This vibration is what helps to produce sound. It’s not like a guitar string, though. It’s more like an incredibly rapid cycle of opening and closing.
How slowly or rapidly your vocal folds open and close is tied to the pitch of your voice. The Voice Foundation says that most men have vocal folds which open and close (cycle) about 110 times per second. On the other hand, most women have vocal folds which vibrate closer to 180-220 times per second. This leads to a higher pitch.
Finally, we have the resonatory system which is responsible for the uniqueness of each human voice. This system includes the throat, nasal passage, sinuses, and mouth. These parts work together to help each person articulate words differently.
Some people produce sound deeper in the back of the throat. Say “Argh” like a pirate might. Feel the rumble in the back of your throat? Others produce sound more in the front of the face. Say the word “Chicago,” but try to center the sound in your nose. Now try to say it but move the sound deeper into the back of your throat. Does the placement of that sound change the way you articulate it? Most definitely! Aside from just the placement of the sound, you can move your tongue and lips in different ways to pronounce words differently.
So that’s why we all have unique voices. The force or weakness of the air we use, the speed of vocal fold vibration, and the individual ways of placing and articulating sound all lead to infinite possibilities for producing sound.
So the next time you hear the voice of a loved one, or turn up a song when your favorite singer comes on, remember what you’ve learned about the human voice. It’s an amazing system because of the intricate biology of so many parts working together. But it’s also amazing because the human voice is ultimately the tool that we use to shape and change the world through the power of speech.
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You may have a voice disorder if you have a problem with pitch, volume, tone, and other qualities of your voice. These problems occur when your vocal cords don’t vibrate normally.
Your voice is the sound that air makes when it is forced out of your lungs and passes over your vocal cords. Vocal cords are the 2 folds of tissue inside your larynx, also called the voice box. The vibration of those cords is what produces speech.
Examples of voice disorders include:
- Laryngitis. Laryngitis is when your vocal cords swell. It makes the voice sound hoarse. Or you may not be able to speak at all. Acute laryngitis happens suddenly, often because of a virus in the upper respiratory tract. It often lasts just a few weeks. Treatment is to rest the voice and drink plenty of fluids. Chronic laryngitis is when the swelling lasts for a long time. Common causes include a chronic cough, using inhalers for asthma, and GERD. Treatment of chronic laryngitis depends on the cause.
- Vocal cord paresis or paralysis. The vocal cords can be paralyzed, or partially paralyzed (paresis). This can be caused by a viral infection that affects your vocal cord nerves, an injury to a nerve during surgery, stroke, or cancer. If one or both of your vocal cords are paralyzed in a nearly closed position, you may have noisy or difficult breathing. If they are paralyzed in an open position, you may have a weak, breathy voice. Some people will get better over time. In other cases, the paralysis is permanent. Surgery and voice therapy may help improve the voice.
- Spasmodic dysphonia. This is a nerve problem that causes the vocal cords to spasm. It can make the voice sound tight, quivery, or jerky, hoarse, or groaning. At times, the voice may sound normal. Other times, the person may not be able to speak. Treatment may include speech therapy and injections of botulinum toxin to the vocal cords.
What causes voice disorders?
For normal speech, your vocal cords need to touch together smoothly inside your larynx. Anything that interferes with vocal cord movement or contact can cause a voice disorder. Many voice disorders can be cured with treatment when diagnosed early.
Voice disorders can be caused by many factors. In some cases, the cause of a voice disorder is not known. Possible causes can include:
- Growths. In some cases, extra tissue may form on the vocal cords. This stops the cords from working normally. The growths can include fluid-filled sacs called cysts, wart-like lumps called papilloma, or callus-like bumps called nodules. There may be patches of damaged tissue called lesions, or areas of scar tissue. In some people, a band of tissue called a web can grow between the vocal cords. Other growths include a small area of chronic inflammation called a granuloma, and small blisters called polyps. Growths can have many causes, including illness, injury, cancer, and vocal abuse.
- Inflammation and swelling. Many things can cause inflammation and swelling of the vocal cords. These include surgery, respiratory illness or allergies, GERD (acid reflux), some medicines, exposure to certain chemicals, smoking, alcohol abuse, and vocal abuse.
- Nerve problems. Certain medical conditions can affect the nerves that control the vocal cords. These can include multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, Parkinson disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Huntington disease. Nerves can also be injured from surgery or chronic inflammation of the larynx (laryngitis).
- Hormones. Disorders affecting thyroid hormone, female and male hormones, and growth hormones can cause voice disorders.
- Misuse of the voice. The vocal cords can be stressed by using too much tension when speaking. This can cause problems in the muscles in the throat, and affect the voice. Vocal abuse can also cause a voice disorder. Vocal abuse is anything that strains or harms the vocal cords. Examples of vocal abuse include too much talking, shouting, or coughing. Smoking and constant clearing of the throat is also vocal abuse. Vocal abuse can cause the vocal cords to develop calluses or blisters called nodes and polyps. These change how the voice sounds. In some cases, a vocal cord can rupture from vocal abuse. This causes the cord to bleed (hemorrhage), and can cause loss of voice. Vocal cord hemorrhage needs to be treated right away.
What are the symptoms of a voice disorder?
If you have a voice disorder, your voice may:
- Have a quivering sound
- Sound rough or harsh (hoarseness)
- Sound strained or choppy
- Is weak, whispery, or breathy
- Is too high or low or change in pitch
You may have tension or pain in your throat while speaking, or feel like your voice box is tired. You may feel a «lump» in your throat when swallowing, or feel pain when you touch the outside of your throat.
How are voice disorders diagnosed?
If you have a voice change that lasts for a few weeks, your healthcare provider may send you to see a throat specialist called an otolaryngologist (Ears, Nose and Throat specialist or ENT). An otolaryngologist will ask you about your symptoms and how long you’ve had them. He or she may examine your vocal cords and your larynx using certain tests. These may include:
- Laryngoscopy. This lets the doctor view the throat. With indirect laryngoscopy, the healthcare provider holds a small mirror at the back of the throat and shines a light on it. With fiberoptic laryngoscopy, a thin, lighted scope called a laryngoscope is used. The scope is put through your nose down into your throat, or directly down into your throat.
- Laryngeal electromyography, or EMG. This test measures electrical activity in the muscles of the throat. A thin needle is put into some of the neck muscles while electrodes send signals from the muscles to a computer. This can show nerve problems in the throat.
- Stroboscopy. This test uses a strobe light and a video camera to see how the vocal cords are vibrating during speech.
- Imaging tests. X-rays and MRI can show growths or other tissue problems in the throat.
How are voice disorders treated?
Treatment for a voice disorder depends on what’s causing it. Treatment may include:
- Lifestyle changes. Some lifestyle changes may help reduce or stop symptoms. These can include not yelling or speaking loudly, and resting your voice regularly if you speak or sing a lot. Exercises to relax the vocal cords and muscles around them can help in some cases. Warm up the vocal cords before extensive periods of speaking. Stay hydrated.
- Speech therapy. Working with a speech-language pathologist can help with certain voice disorders. Therapy may include exercises and changes in speaking behaviors. Some of these may include maneuvers that time deep breaths to power vocalizations with adequate breathing.
- Medicines. Some voice disorders are caused by a problem that can be treated with medicine. For example, antacid medicine may be used for GERD, or hormone therapy for problems with thyroid or female hormones.
- Injections. Your doctor can treat muscle spasms in the throat with injection of botulinum toxin. In some cases, your doctor can inject fat or other fillers into the vocal cords. This can help them close better.
- Surgery. Your doctor can remove some tissue growths. If cancer causes the growths, you may need other treatment, such as radiation therapy.
- Voice disorders are caused by a variety of reasons and affect the ability to speak normally.
- An otolaryngologist should evaluate changes in vocal quality.
- There are many different treatment options and each depends on what is causing the voice disorder.
- Don’t abuse your vocal cords by yelling or speaking loudly for long periods of time.
- Therapy is directed at exercises that improve vocal cord function and strength and also allows for adequate rest periods.
- If your job relies on the ability to use your voice then keeping it healthy is an important long term goal.
- Stay rested, drink plenty of water, use a microphone, warm up your vocal cords, don’t smoke, learn proper breath flow, and seek care when there are changes to the voice quality.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Find a Doctor
- Diseases of the Ear Nose
- Diseases of the Throat in Children
At Another Johns Hopkins Member Hospital:
- Howard County General Hospital
- Sibley Memorial Hospital
- Suburban Hospital
Find a Treatment Center
- Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
- Pediatric Otolaryngology (ENT)
Find Additional Treatment Centers at:
- Howard County General Hospital
- Sibley Memorial Hospital
- Suburban Hospital
Some singers have amazing sounding voices this is because they have great vocal tone. So what is vocal tone and how can you use it to make your voice sound richer and more natural?
So let’s take a look at what makes your unique vocal tone. Everyone has a unique vocal tone, just as everyone has a unique finger print. Everyone’s has the potential to sound amazing but due to stress, articulation tension, bad posture, incorrect breath support, weak resonance, incorrect vocal squeeze and lack of effort, the voice can end up sounding weak and hollow.
Another reason for bad sounding vocal tone is due to a learnt habitual sound. This often comes from from parents or peers. In the past, I have taught students come along with their mum or dad only to notice that they have the same sounding voice, with the same tensions in them. The child has copied the parent’s bad vocal habits. Nuts right!
The Two Parts of Vocal Tone
Vocal tone can be broken down into two parts. The first part is resonance and the second part is vocal squeeze (also known as vocal focus or glottal compression). You will never have complete control over your tone until you can control these two parts. So let’s take a closer look.
The Effect of Vocal Focus on Vocal Tone
The vocal folds can make a bright sound or a light, airy sound. There are also many variations in between.
Practice this bright sound by pretending to be a laughing witch. Here is an example of a bright vocal focused sound where the vocals come together firmly.
In the audio clip below I Start by saying AH (as in the word car) as a reference. I then pretend to be a cackling witch. Then finally I add a little cackling witch into the AH. Listen closely, and you should be able to hear that the final AH is brighter now, although I kept the resonance in the same place.
When I made the witch sound the resonance does shift but I then put it back for the last AH sound:
The Light, Airy Vocal Focus
Practice a light, airy sound by imagining that you are talking softly into someone’s ear or thinking falsetto. Here is an example of this light, airy sound where the vocal folds come together lightly.
I start by saying AH as in the first example above then I think of talking softly into someone’s ear. I focus my mind on the focusing of the vocal folds (how tightly they are squeezing together). Then finally I say AH again with a bit of this tone in it.
Practice the above two sounds until you can do them at will. It will take practice to tap into your imagination for this, but it’s worth it so keep practising. If you hold back at all the exercise will not work, imagine, imitate that sound! Recording your voice down can be helpful here for zoning in on the sound.
Remember that there are many settings in between so work on mixing in different amounts. The end goal of course like all skills that you learn in singing is to give it up to emotion. In other words, allow the emotion to control the vocal folds when you sing.
The Effect of Resonance on Vocal Tone
Resonance will add darkness, lightness to a sound.
The higher the soft palate, the lower the larynx and the darker the tone. You can get this by thinking of the beginning of the yawn (I call this the pre-yawn as air is sucking in silently before the tension section).
The lighter the tone, the higher the larynx and lower the soft palate. You can get this by thinking light happy face. For this to work, look in a mirror and allow the face to change to a happy face, not a great big fake smile! Lol, just a light happy expression.
Have a listen to my dark and light resonance:
Play around with your dark and light resonance. Once you can do them both in isolation work on moving from one to the other as all the shades in between are also used in natural singing and speaking for that matter.
Vocal Tone Play
Now that you can isolate your vocal focus and your resonance it’s time to bring them together. Play at imitating every and any sound you can. This will help you to learn to mix resonances and vocal focuses.
You now know the two parts that go into making a great vocal tone!
Remember that any emotion that you can embrace and sing will automatically adjust the resonance and vocal focus for you. But it’s a great skill to know for when you are warming up the voice and need to focus on one specific coordination.
The ultimate goal as always is to learn this stuff then step away from it and let it happen. This takes time and patience.
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If you would like to make sure that you’ve isolated your resonance and vocal focus correctly then taking a lesson with me might be a good idea.
Before you work on your vocal tone you should make sure that you have good breath support first. You will find lots of information about that on by breathing for singing article.