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The Theory Behind the Vocal Tone You Want

The Theory Behind the Vocal Tone You Want
Great teachers across the world rely on the scientific understanding of the voice that researchers like Jo Estill and others forged -says Joan Lader.

When listening to another singer, you may have wondered, “How can I get my voice to sound more like that?” The answer may lie with an understanding of tone qualities, such as belt, twang and speech.

We asked speech therapist and singing teacher Joan Lader to explain just what is going on when singers produce different qualities with their voices.

Not only is she one of New York’s undisputed “rescuers” of Broadway performers and film stars, Joan Lader worked closely with the late Jo Estill in the 1980s.

She credits this work as her basic foundation in both the training and the rehabilitation of many types of singers:Your vocal folds produce the sound, but tone can be altered by manipulating the different structures of your vocal tract

Achieve The Tone You Want

Your vocal folds produce the sound, but tone can be altered by manipulating the different structures of your vocal tract.

These structures allow you to change your tone to create a speech-like quality on an R and B tune or an operatic ringing sound on an Italian art song.

Whether subconscious or deliberate, the subtle movements of these structures give your voice its range of pitch and tonal quality.

The Structures Are Behind The Sound

Take a look at the thyroid cartilage in the diagram below.

When your thyroid cartilage tilts slightly forward, your vocal folds become longer, thinner and tenser, affecting both pitch (raises pitch) and the sweetness of a sound.

Your various voice qualities are determined by the structures in your vocal tract:

Joan Laders Anatomy Diagram

Note: Velum = Soft Palate (Image used with permission from Mary Klimek and Kim Steinhauer)

The Estill Training System

Jo Estill was the creator of the Estill Voice Training (EVT) system.

This system teaches isolated control of individual anatomical structures within the voice production system (“figures”).

The EVT system also provides “recipes” for producing different voice qualities.

The Estill Training System... teaches isolated control of indiv

Estill’s Six Voice Qualities

Jo described six voice qualities: belting, twang, falsetto, sob, opera and speech.

For each voice quality, Jo described the movement of the larynx, the muscles surrounding the larynx, the sensation of space in the larynx and throat, and tongue position in the mouth.

Jo’s recipes for the various voice qualities involved onset and offset, thick and thin vocal folds, position of false vocal folds, thyroid cartilage (vertical or tilted), cricoid cartilage, (vertical or tilted), aryepiglottic sphincter, size of the vocal tract, position of the velum, tongue position, jaw position, lip position as well as anchoring of head and neck and torso.

Each quality is comfortable in a particular range, but the brilliance of the EVT system is that you can train to produce these qualities throughout your entire range.

Jo’s understanding of Belt

In the case of belting, for example, she found that the cricoid cartilage (see diagram above) was tilted. Learning to control the cricoid, therefore, is a part of her teaching and is essential when learning to belt.

There were other aspects of belt she described: onsets were glottal or smooth, anchoring was essential, tongue was high and resistance at the level of the larynx was low.

Jo Estill’s Journey

Jo Estill began singing at a young age, but after many years of performing, she wanted to understand and explore the vocal production system to find out how she was producing various sounds.

In 1981, X-Rays were taken of Jo’s vocal tract as she sang in four voice qualities. She then observed the changes in the anatomical structures of the vocal tract.

Just as there are many genres of vocal music, there are many qualities and styles of singing

Empower Yourself Through Control

Just as there are many genres of vocal music, there are many qualities and styles of singing.

In the “Estill playground,” we start with the six qualities mentioned above. Although each quality is comfortable in a particular range, with training, they can be produced throughout one’s range.

With control over the structures of the voice, the singer is empowered to make choices. In other words, the goal is to provide confident use of the voice in a vocally healthful manner. Longevity is the long-term goal!

Voice Research Continues

In the decades after Jo conducted her research, our understanding of the human voice has continued to evolve.

Today, great teachers across the world rely on the scientific understanding of the voice that researchers like Jo Estill and others forged. In fact, many seemingly different vocal methods across different genres are rooted in this same foundation of science and art. Jo referred to it as craft, artistry and performance magic!

With the help of a skilled teacher, knowledgeable in current voice research, you can harness the physical structures of your vocal tract to produce all the qualities you desire in a healthy way.


For the past 33 years Joan Lader has been in private practice in New York City working with singers and actors with injured voices as well as training elite Broadway, Opera, Pop and Rock singers. She has been a frequent guest lecturer at Columbia University, The Voice Foundation in Philadelphia, The Pacific Voice Foundation in San Francisco, NYSTA, Berklee College of Music, and The Commercial Voice Conference at Vanderbilt University. Read More About Joan Lader.

  • Firewaliker

    Not a good title. Theory Behind Getting to the Natural Tone of Your Voice.

  • Hi Joan, good article. Yes, “tone” or “sound color” is created by the acoustics that any individual’s voice produces naturally, or through manipulation with the articulators. Well done.


    I am free to chat with anyone that is interested in the TVS Method of training.

  • FL-Wolf

    Unless you sing live to the guitar, without any amplification, you should utilize electronics. In my case, after using just about every unit I could afford, I ‘reduced’ myself to my Bose ToneMatch unit, together with the Bose L1 S1. I used to have several settings, one for each song type and speed, but meanwhile I have one setting that I use for all songs and my voice sounds great, from singing “Always on my mind” to “Shake, Rattle & Roll”. The compressor and limiter settings, together with some reverb & delay, allow me to have a strong voice without having to force myself singing.