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4 Things Singers Need to Know About Their Voice Box


Dr. Rachael Gates, author of ‘The Owner’s Manual to the Voice’ explains how we can get hands on with our singing instrument.

1. What is your voice?

Voice box, vocal mechanism and vocal apparatus are terms commonly used to refer to the larynx (“LARE-rinks” literally “throat” in Greek), which is the cartilaginous structure in the neck that houses the vocal folds (A.K.A vocal cords).

Unlike other instruments, the voice cannot simply be lifted from its hard case, examined and adjusted, fixed, cleaned, and tuned up. Nor can it ever be put away for safekeeping.

In fact, the voice box is not primarily a musical instrument.  Its many roles prevent it from ever being at rest.  From assisting in swallowing, protecting the airway, and helping to lift heavy objects, to assisting with phonatory functions including sophisticated musical capabilities.

2. Where is your voice?

Put your fingers on the front of your neck. Can you feel a bump? Your instrument lies directly behind that bump. The bump is made of cartilage and, like an instrument case, is designed to protect the two tiny bands of vibrating tissue we call vocal folds.

The bump tends to stick out more distinctly on men than on women and is commonly referred to as an Adam’s Apple. Its actual name is the thyroid cartilage.

Now feel for a steep little dip at the top of the bump called the thyroid notch. Your vocal folds attach just behind and below that thyroid notch.

You may have difficulty when first trying to find the thyroid cartilage. On some female necks, another cartilage protrudes more obviously than the thyroid. This cartilage is the cricoid which actually sits just below the thyroid.

What may further confuse you is that the cricoid cartilage dips slightly in the front and you may mistake this dip to be the thyroid notch. To avoid mistaking the two drag a finger down along the underneath of your chin until you reach the top of the neck. Gently massage until you locate the V-like dip of the thyroid notch.

Thyroid means “shield” in Greek. The tough thyroid cartilage is shaped like a shield and literally shields the vocal folds from impact. The thyroid is the largest cartilage of the voice box or larynx.

3. How big are your vocal folds?

You may be picturing the vocal folds taking up the entire inside of the neck. Actually, your vocal folds are unbelievably tiny.

Adult male vocal folds can span 17-25 mm in length (average 6-9 mm thick) and adult female vocal folds 12.5-17.5 mm (average 5-7 mm thick). To visualize this, draw a “V” across a quarter for a low bass voice, a “V” across a nickel for the average male, and a “V” across a dime for a female with a high soprano.

The vocal folds span your airway, extending horizontally in a “V” just above your windpipe / trachea. You might be surprised to learn that your trachea’s inner diameter is only about 2 cm.

So all the air passing in and out of your body not only travels between the vocal folds but also through a pipe that would accommodate little more than your index finger!

4. Is your voice destined for beautiful singing?

A great voice is a combination of natural born physiology, training, and musical instinct. Aside from the slight length and width variant that generally distinguish a male’s vocal folds from a female’s, all vocal folds are essentially alike.

It’s a person’s ability to coordinate their breath and vocal folds combined with that person’s resonator shapes and sizes, as well as their ability to be musical that factor into a beautiful voice.

In other words, if you could somehow exchange your own larynx with your favorite female, your voice may sound slightly different, but still not like her due to your unique oral, nasal, laryngeal and pharyngeal cavities.

Finally, our voices, like every other part of us, are wired up to our brain. Even if you were to have your favorite singer’s exact anatomical structure, but still have your brain controlling the muscular motion, you would not be able to sing exactly like her.

My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

Ruth Anna Mendoza Ruth Anna Mendoza - How Deep Is Your Love

Ruth Anna’s voice is freely produced and shows promise. In spite of braces, her diction is clear. She communicates sincerely and, while her home video had no glitz, it was polished and a professional submission that was well-prepared. In the future, she should submit something that is memorized and have at least a small audience to give her a stronger, more alive, performance. This voice will not tire. but I would recommend that she takes lessons to improve breath and dynamic singing.

Why I chose Ruth Anna Mendoza as a Finalist

I chose Ruth as a finalist because of her promising voice and sincere delivery.

  • Dr> Rachael, you are truly one of the most beautiful ladies with a physiognomy that makes my vocal chords shudder and sing !
    Sunshine blooms forth in your radiant smile
    A smile for which many would run a mile!
    My vocal chords are sent into wild fibrillation
    As I ponder upon your words of vocalizing wisdom!
    Oh that I could re-construct my own voice
    To be like that of my singer of choice.
    My heart has the music, the emotion and drive,
    But life’s other concerns when I sing, seem to make my voice dive.
    I think of those two little bands in my throat,
    Vibrating away amid a mucus moat.
    I cough and I splutter the cavity to clear,
    Hoping beyond hope that somone out there,
    Will forget Frank Sinatra, and those of his ilk
    And instead hear my voice as if ’twere laden with silk.
    For the physiology I was born with, cannot be changed
    Oh! if only everything about it could simply be re-arranged.
    Then with my own music and song I might aspire
    To sing as if carried by a Heavenly Choir.
    Yet all is not lost, as I have found amelioration,
    Thanks to my Voicelive GTX I can make magic vocal creation.
    My “Lonesome Polecat” rendition in three voices no less,
    ‘Rouses smiles as my audience is driven to reminisce…
    About 7 Brides for 7 Brothers and the brothers lament.
    Oh for the vocal drive of Howard Keel and his men.
    The one thing my voice does, if not for the throng,
    Is to grant me an outlet for my own music and song.
    And so I guess, we must all, simply accept,
    Not everyone is blessed with a voice hard to forget.

    Thanks for the sunshine of your smile !

    Poppa Madison