Singers often know little about the anatomy of their instrument. This blog describes the larynx – commonly called voicebox – which houses your vocal folds, including its structure, muscles and function during singing.
The larynx (commonly called the voicebox) is an organ made of cartilage, muscle and bone that houses your vocal folds. It sits above the trachea (wind pipe) and is located about midway in the neck. The most visible part is a protrusion in the neck formed by the thyroid cartilage and commonly referred to as the Adam’s apple.
Your larynx has two main functions:
- Protect your airways by making sure nothing unwanted goes down into your lungs
- Make vocal sounds
What is the larynx made of?
Take two minutes to watch this great little video that demonstrates how your larynx is put together.
How did you go with this video? Don’t worry about trying to remember complex anatomical names. From the video, you can see eight small pieces of cartilage and one bone which are joined with muscles, membranes and ligaments to hold it all together. It is called the voice box because it forms this box shape that protects the vocal folds and allows the sound to resonate.
Muscles of the larynx
Two families of muscles are connected to your larynx.
- Intrinsic (inner) muscles are found inside the larynx and are responsible for controlling the vocal folds,
- Extrinsic (outer) muscles are attached above and below and responsible for adjusting the vertical position (posture) of the larynx within your neck
This means that your larynx has a relationship with the rest of your upper body, including the neck, throat, tongue, jaw, chest, and it rarely functions as a separate unit. Your sound as a singer is greatly affected by the position and tensions in the other muscles in your upper body.
Application to singing
Have you ever tried to play an instrument with your eyes closed? Does seeing your instrument help you learn how to play it? Singers are at a disadvantage because they never get to see the instrument they are playing. This can lead to frustration, built up mythology and inefficient methods for creating vocal sounds. The muscles inside the larynx cannot be felt and are not under our direct control. Muscular sensations you might feel during singing are probably in the jaw, tongue, neck and throat.
Your vocal tone and movements of the vocal folds are controlled by several sets of paired muscles inside your larynx. For example:
- to breathe in, your vocal folds must move apart or abduct to open the airways
- To make a vocal sound, the adductor muscles bring the vocal folds together so that they vibrate and resist the air
- Inside (in the belly of) your vocal folds lies your vocalis (thyro-aretenoid). When this muscle contracts, it causes the vocal folds to shorten, bunch up or thicken. This muscle creates the chest register tone.
- Attached to the outside of your vocal folds is the crico-thyroid (CT) muscle. When this muscle contracts, it stretches and thins your vocal folds. This muscle is responsible for adjustments of pitch and also creates your upper or head register.
The ideal position of the larynx during singing is a hotly debated topic. Classical singers are famous for keeping a low position which helps produce darker more rounded vowel sounds. Some contemporary teachers say the larynx should be free to go wherever it needs to. Others prefer a neutral position. The technique taught by Total Voice Studio teaches you to sing with a neutral or stabilised posture, which means we aim for minimal interference from the swallowing (extrinsic laryngeal) muscles and allows the intrinsic muscles to do their work more efficiently.
Singing with a stabilised larynx means that we don’t “reach” for high notes or depend on volume for pitch changes. It is just one of the co-ordinations needed to maintain a healthy and functional voice technique.
For those who want to know more
- Larynx in Wikipedia
- Singer’s body on Total Voice Blog
- Columbia University’s Interactive Anatomy – very cool but requires Flash (so doesn’t work in Safari)
- The Voice Council – What is a Lowered Larynx?
- Dayme, Meribeth Bunch (2005) The Performer’s Voice: Realizing Your Vocal Potential. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.