What’s the Deal with the Tongue?

Dear Dr. Jahn,

Someone just told me that I have to relax my tongue when I sing. I’ve been reading VoiceCouncil stuff for a couple of years and I think I understand that my throat and neck should be relaxed – so what is the deal with the tongue?

-Hannah

Dear Hannah,

I will answer this based on what I know medically, but you may also want to direct this question to a good vocal coach for an answer from the technical perspective.

The tongue is a large muscle, actually a complex set of muscles that allow the tongue to move in any direction, and assume many different shapes and positions in the mouth.

When the muscles tense, at least three things happen that can affect singing negatively:

First, the increase in muscle tone causes a reflexive increase in muscle tone in neighboring muscles, including those of the jaw, neck and the larynx. In neurology, this phenomenon is called “reinforcement”. This increase in tone means you are singing with greater tension and more effort. Increasing muscle tone in the vocal muscles specifically raises the larynx, tilts it forward, creates a posterior gap between the vocal folds, and reduces the resonating space above the vocal folds. The voice sounds muscled, thinner and less resonant.

Second, when the muscles of the tongue contract, the tongue bunches up, particularly in the back. It looks like a big lump, or ball. One of the tricks singers need to learn is to keep the back of the tongue flat, against the floor of the mouth. This opens the oropharynx and allows the voice to come forward, rather than covering it in the back. It also increases the size of the resonating space in the back of the mouth.

Finally, a tense tongue is less flexible and agile, and this may impact your articulation, especially for consonants that require tongue tip mobility.

But most important is really the first point: uncontrolled and purposeless tension anywhere in the vocal tract causes reflexive tightening and harmful muscle effort in other parts of the vocal tract.

Anthony F. Jahn, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)

Dr. Jahn welcomes your questions. You can send these to editor@voicecouncil.com

This discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice that you should obtain from your own physician.