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Down and Dirty with the Larynx

Dear Leontine,

I’ve read that it is advantageous to have a low larynx and noticed that when I reach for a high note, I often tighten my throat and my larynx also moves up. I sound more consistent when I can get my larynx to stay in one place. Therefore, I want to understand if I can have more conscious control over this process.


Dear Ashley,

If you lower your larynx too much, you will find that you start sounding quite “classical”, which may not be your desired effect.

Play around with singing the same pitch with both a low and a high larynx.

You will find that it sounds almost as if you are singing a different pitch, even though you are not.

A very high larynx will make you sound “Disney”; a low larynx will make you sound more mature and, if you take it to an extreme, give you a lot of vibrato.

I think it will help you if we look a little more deeply at the theory—and then I will share a practical suggestion at the end.

The primary function of the larynx is to close when we swallow, stopping food from going down our windpipe.

When you swallow, your larynx rises—if you hold on to it gently, you will feel it.

The parts of the larynx which “close” are the false folds; these are a pair of thick folds of mucous membrane that offer protection and sit slightly superior to the more delicate true folds (red and “fleshy”).

The true folds vibrate to produce sound when you sing.

Now, when you sing high pitches, as you have correctly observed, your larynx rises.

As the larynx is programmed to start closing in order to prevent you from choking on a swallow; the larynx does not know the difference between an impending swallow and a high note!

Although this is most irritating, the good news is that the second most powerful maneuver for the larynx, after the swallow, is laughter.

Unless you have a tight, constricted laugh, laughing retracts the false folds.

If you imagine very hard silent laughter, you will find that there is a feeling of “space” in your throat—practicing this “retraction” is important, especially on high notes.

One way of practicing it is to hold your ears closed, and to breathe in and out of your mouth; if you are relaxed, you will hear your breath moving in and out.

Now imagine hard silent laughter, and you will find that your breathing becomes silent.

This means that your false folds are quite retracted— a good place from which to sing.

Retraction takes a little practice, and if you are normally quite constricted, it can be require much effort and ache slightly.

Although your larynx has to rise on a high pitch, it is absolutely possible to keep it in a slightly more neutral position as you go higher in your range.

The lower your larynx is, the longer the tube or space between the larynx and your soft palate is.

Essentially you are turning yourself from a piccolo into a flute; the sound will be warmer and rounder.

Good luck with experimenting!

Leontine Hass
Director, Advanced Performers Studio

Questions for Leontine Hass can be sent to the VoiceCouncil editor: editor@voicecouncil.com

  • Jon_Hunter

    Great advice, Leontine. Retraction is often considered a veritable panacea for vocal issues – it certainly counters the False Vocal Folds trigger to constrict when the larynx is high (e.g. when singing high, as Ashley described).

    Other FVF triggers where active retraction may be helpful include loud or effortful singing, shouting, ends of phrases (i.e. end of breath), stressful/emotional situations (stage-fright!), and even very low notes.

    It's worth mentioning that Retraction does alter voice quality slightly, due to the increased laryngeal space, making it 'fuller' or 'sweeter'. This resonance may not be suitable to the genre being sung (e.g. some pop, or rock) and therefore only employed when FVF constriction gets in the way of the note coming out. Or explore the degree to which you retract for greater control (rather than an on-off switch, think of it like a dial).

    Either way, it's in any singer's best interest to know what both Constriction and Retraction feel like, and to have the tools to deal with any undesired effect either state of the FVFs might be contributing to.

    Regarding optimal larynx height, explore sirening the melody (sirening = humming on an 'ng' sound, like at the end of the word 'sing'). Do so reasonably quietly with minimal effort and note where the larynx goes on your high notes. Any deviation from this 'optimal' height should be based on aesthetics (i.e. what you want to sound like) and, as Leontine describes, raising your larynx higher will strengthen the higher harmonics in the sound, lowering it will strengthen the lower harmonics – just like the treble/bass balance on a sound system. And only vary the larynx height as much as you can maintain stability of the note.

    The flute/piccolo analogy is a good one. I'd suggest though that rather than thinking of the tube being from larynx to soft palate, instead it is from the vocal folds (larynx) up towards the soft palate then round the corner into the mouth ending at the lips. The lips can also play a significant role in treble/bass balance (i.e. resonance). Explore this yourself by sustaining a note and alternating between relaxed lips and pushed forward or pulled back (as if into a smile). You might also be able to think of singers who employ their lips in one of these ways. Often classical singers employ protruded lips to assist a 'fuller' or 'darker' sound.

    Cheers, Jon

  • I have never before heard this explained so clearly, either from a voice coach, or from a book. I can't wait to try out your instructions!

  • This exercise is very frusrating for me. I have been trying it for a year or so since reading it in Baxter's or Vendera's books. But I can´t feel any move up or down when singing: I actually feel it backwards and frontwards. I need to open wide my mouth when hitting my upper notes and this makes me sort of pulling my neck's sides outwards. I find this very confusing. ????

  • chrismonk

    this was very well said and very easy for me to understand thank you very much i cant wait to try this out!

  • brettjlee

    leontine, great article I am a little confused but will do some research and I am certain a dumb aussie like myself can be educated.
    Loook forward to all the articles and am learning more and more about what I have taken for granted for years
    Lots of assistance for me
    many thanks
    Brett J Lee

  • Celeste Khanna

    I have been hearing about singing qualities and wonder if you can shed any light on this. i am very confused by what exactly is 'cry' 'sob' 'speech' and belt and how to recognise them in singing
    Thanks Celeste

  • t’s important that the singing voice coach is teaching you and not just trying to get you to sound like a carbon copy of someone else. I think this is a fear that a lot of people have. Rest assured, a good teacher will teach you how to make your voice sound the best that it can.

  • Sharyns

    Absolutely spot on Jon! I have been teaching my students this for years, and am amazed so many voice teachers have not bothered to learn or understand this knowledge which has been available for around the last 30 years or so thanks to medical science and dedicated voice clinicians!

  • cman

    I havea special case for you… when i swallow my larynx goes up higher than normal, it goes nearly to my chin, i have noticed that my father’s side of the family has this trait but my mother’s does not…

  • To avoid larynx cancer or chronic laryngitis, it is important to take
    laryngitis seriously. If you already have laryngitis, you need to give
    your vocal chords enough time to rest. For a number of days you can
    refrain from smoking, talking, singing or even breathing from your
    mouth. Passive smoke or secondhand smoke can also irritate your throat
    and worsen the condition.

  • Many people don’t even have a clue about the importance of the larynx
    when attempting to sing well. Just by reading this article, you’ve given
    yourself a little knowledge will help you start singing better.

  • You too can learn how to sing high notes in any song, but you have to be willing to put in the time and effort. A good vocal coach can help you identify what “your” high note is now and what it can be in the future. The same coach can also help you manage your breathing and phrasing so that when you are ready to hit it, you will have the power at the ready.

  • Stephen Morrison

    the larynx is extremely important.. first of all when singing those higher notes the larynx should Slightly go up.. I want to say that again SLIGHTLY go up. Some people sing with a lower larynx and when it comes to those higher notes there necks tighten up and it sounds like their are in pain. Find where your high notes are so you can Naturally lift the larynx up.. THE POINT IS TO NOT LEEVE THE LYRINX IN ONE PLACE AND CONTROL IT.. but let it happen naturally!

  • I recently learned that this is akin to the way a Lion creates its deafening and reverberating roar that literally terrifies anything on the receiving end of it.
    So Leontine, tell me how do I position my larynx to change this “Dog” into a “Leo” to warmly and roundly vocalize my audience into emotional submission?

    Ps. I promise to judiciously Bubble and throat coat and breathe diaphragamatitittitcally as well!

  • For a number of days you can refrain from smoking?????

    You surely mean “drop the killer habit altogether” do you not?
    Surely no singer in their right mind would indulge for so many obvious reasons as to how it adversely affects their pride and joy..their “Voice”, probably the most delicate of all bodily mechanisms: and their overall health?

    Have you heard that Melbourne Australia civic authorities are looking at banning city smoking altogether?

    After all………..if you have excessive exhaust from your motor vehicle you can be fined or have it forcibly taken off the road.
    Smokers are not only air polluters: which we all have to suffer the effects of. Many of them think nothing of creating and leaving a pile of “fag ends” wherever they sit or park their vehicles. It is without doubt a habit that is a scourge in so many ways to society.

    “Ban the Fag” is what I say.
    Whoops there goes any possible Phil Morris endorsement for my music!
    Aaah what the heck anyways!