Online Vocal Anatomy & Physiology Resources For Singers

The internet is full of wonderful (free) resources for singers and singing teachers. But sometimes it might be difficult to filter out the “good stuff” from the massive amount of links that are being shared on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. And unless you happen to be very organised in keeping track of your internet bookmarks, many great links tend to get lost somewhere down the road.

Here I have collected some of my favorite online resources for singing teachers and singers who want to learn more about the anatomy and physiology of the voice. The list is far from being “complete”, so if you have more quality online resources on vocal anatomy and physiology you’d like to be added to the list, please mention them in the comments below.

The resources below are listed in alphabetical order:

 

Anatomia

Anatomia is an electronic resource developed at the University of Toronto, designed to assist medical and dental students with understanding of functional human anatomy. The site is a wonderful learning tool and contains a tutorial section on the anatomy of the larynx in 3D, a digital dissection of the larynx, video laryngoscopy, and self-evaluation tests (basic and advanced levels).

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Anatomyzone

Anatomyzone is a website with free video tutorials on the anatomy and functions of the body. Especially interesting for singers and singing teachers are the 3D videos on the respiratory system, including tutorials on the ligaments, membranes, mucosa and muscles of the larynx, as well as the videos about the musculoskeletal system.

 

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CVT Research Site

The CVT Research Site is the number one internet resource for anyone interested in Complete Vocal Technique related voice research. Being an Authorised CVT Teacher myself, I am very excited about this site and keep referring to it a lot. The site presents the ongoing research and debate that forms CVT, and describes how CVT is being tested, discussed and developed. On the site you will find:

  • Illustrations and descriptions of the larynx and how the voice works
  • Definition of terms and a glossary
  • Sound examples from the CVT Sound Library
  • Descriptions and the sound of Neutral, Curbing, Overdrive and Edge, including the transitions between the modes
  • Description and sound of effects
  • Laryngeal recognition of the vocal modes and effects
  • Laryngograph waveform recognition of the vocal modes and effects
  • Endoscopy and high speed videos from CVT research
  • Extensive data and test results
  • CVT-related papers and proceedings
  • List of Conferences & Abstracts on CVT-related subjects presented at conferences since 1996

With the CVT research site, Complete Vocal Institute aims to make the data, research and knowledge easily accessible for everyone interested in voice research, and for anyone who wants to understand and study the human voice. The site is continued to be developed on a regular basis. A very handy feature are the notifications that readers can automatically receive whenever a page on the research site is updated. All old versions of any page will also be stored, and researchers can link to the exact version of any article or page so references can be used in scientific work.

This video gives you a little glimpse into the CVT research done by Cathrine Sadolin and Julian McGlashan:

 

Get Body Smart

Get Body Smart is an online human anatomy and physiology textbook. What I especially like about Get Body Smart are the tutorials with interactive animations that help you learn about the functions of the human body, and the quizzes that come in handy if you want to check your knowledge on the subjects! Although it might be tempting for singers to just study the anatomy of the larynxpharynx anrespiratory system, remember to also have a look at the functions of the rest of the body, such as the muscular system and skeletal system too. 

…it’s all connected!

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Music video: Better Man Than He by Sivu

I love this music video and keep referring to it as a vocal anatomy and physiology resource, because not only is it informative and interesting for “vocal nerds”, but it’s also connecting research with art and shows us the human instrument in action during singing. If you’re interested in learning more about the nasal passage and sound colour in singing with this video, check out a mini-lesson that I wrote inspired by the video.

 

Vocal Process / Build Your Own Larynx

Jeremy Fisher and Gillyanne Kayes from Vocal Process in The UK have tons of valuable resources available for singers and singing teachers. One of my favorite resources from Vocal Process is the ‘Build Your Own Tilting Larynx‘. In all its simplicity, this paper larynx can help you or your students learn many things about the larynx and its functions. The model is available as a free PDF template download, and you might also want to check out the video with building instructions:

 

3D View of Diaphragm

This simple video shows the movements of the diaphragm during respiration. I have found it a helpful learning aid for singers who need visual feedback or who are eager to know about the “logic” behind things:

 

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The Nasal Passage and Sound Colour in Singing: Better Man Than He by Sivu

This anatomy and physiology resource for singers and singing teachers is a real piece of art! The music video for “Better Man Than He” by British singer-songwriter Sivu is created with MRI-images of Sivu singing. The video gives you a fantastic glimpse into the complicated movements of the vocal system during singing!

Inspired by the video, I wrote a little “anatomy lesson” for all you singers and singing teachers. In this lesson I’d like to zoom in on the soft palate, uvula and nasal passage. These parts, how they move, and how that in turn affects the sound, sometimes tend to create confusion in singers. So let’s study them with the help of this marvelous music video!

 

 

THE HARD PALATE, SOFT PALATE AND UVULA
The “roof” of the mouth is a bony area called the hard palate. It extends into a soft, non-bony area: the soft palate. The soft palate forms a muscular arch and ends in the uvula, a small piece of soft tissue that hangs down from the end of the soft palate. The soft palate and the uvula are movable.

NASAL PASSAGE
The doorway between the mouth and the nose is called the nasal passage, or nasal port. This doorway can be opened or closed with the uvula. When we swallow, muscles draw the soft palate and the uvula upward, which closes the nasal passage and prevents food or liquids from enter in the nasal cavity.


FINDING THE SOFT PALATE / UVULA AND NASAL PASSAGE IN THE VIDEO
At 0:15 in the video, look at the tongue. It is a big muscle filling up almost the whole oral (mouth) cavity. On top of the tongue there is something hanging down, touching the lower back part of tongue. This is the soft palate relaxing. Notice how the “tube” of the vocal tract reaches straight up towards the nasal cavity, when the soft palate and uvula are drooping down. The nasal passage is now open, allowing the air/sound into the nose. Your nasal passage is open for example when you say “ng” (as in “sing”). In fact, ALL sound comes out through the nose when you say “ng”, because the soft palate is down and touching the tongue, blocking the sound from entering the oral (mouth) cavity. Try this: say “ng” and pinch your nose. The sound and breath stops.

OPENING AND CLOSING THE NASAL PASSAGE
When Sivu proceeds to singing “lo-lo-lo…”, you can see the soft palate pulling up and back onto the back wall off the pharynx. The uvula closes the nasal passage, which in turn stops the sound from going into the nose. If you could pinch his nose now, the sound would not change at all, because all of it is coming out through the mouth.

Now Sivu continues singing the lyrics “you can end this anytime you want to”. Notice the soft palate/uvula moving back and forth, opening and closing the nasal passage. This is what is happening all the time when we speak or sing. When we speak or sing words that contain nasal consonants such as “n”, “m” or “ng”, the nasal passage is open. If the nasal passage would be closed all the time, we could not produce nasal consonants and it would sound rather strange!

When we sing (or speak) vowels, we have a choice: the nasal passage can be either closed or open.

The nasal passage is open for example at 03:03. Notice how the soft palate is relaxed and hanging downwards. You see both cavities, the oral (mouth) cavity and the nasal cavity, are open. The sound now comes out of the nose as well as the mouth, and becomes nasalised in character. Remember the nose pinching test? If you sing a vowel sound with an open nasal passage, the sound will not stop but it will change sound color.

Can you follow it so far? 

Here’s the video one more time, to make it easier for you to read the lesson and play the video as you read on:

 

THE NASAL PASSAGE AND SOUND COLOUR
Some singers use an open nasal passage to affect the sound colour.

At 01:14 when Sivu sings “doom”, the nasal passage is open. If you listen to the vowel sound in the word “doom” you can hear that it is nasal.

Compare this to when he sings “lo-lo-lo…” at 0:17, where the soft palate has pulled up, and the uvula is closing the nasal passage. Now the sound cannot travel up to the nasal cavity, and it is coming out only from the mouth. When the nasal passage is closed, the sound becomes more powerful and the sound colour darkens.

How much the sound should be nasalised in singing is an artistic choice.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
You might think, “So if nasality is an artistic choice, why would I bother practicing singing with a closed nasal passage?” Remember, if ALL your vowels are nasalised because you are unable to close the nasal passage with the uvula all together during singing, we are not talking about a “choice”!

It makes a lot of sense to practice closing and opening the nasal passage, because this will give you more control over your instrument and more options in sound. If you cannot close your nasal passage when you are singing, you could lose a considerable amount of resonance. The oral cavity is bigger than the nasal cavity, so it is a more efficient resonator. There are also other benefits of gaining control over the nasal passage, such as breath efficiency.

I hope you enjoyed this anatomy lesson!

Although I chose to use the music video as a teaching tool, please do also watch it for pure enjoyment. Enjoy the music and singing of Sivu, marvel at the artistry of director Adam Powell who created the music video, and the wonders of the human voice!

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

If You Can Talk You Can Sing?

Some of you might know the Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance”. Is this true or is it one of these things that idealistic singing and music teachers post on their classroom and studio walls?

I have to admit: years ago, when I was teaching music in an elementary school, I too had a banner like that on my classroom wall… And my reasons for having such a banner in my classroom were mainly based on the idealism of a young, enthusiastic music teacher. Years have passed since I taught in that particular classroom, and in the meantime I have spent a lot of time studying the voice, the anatomy and the physiology of the voice, the principles of healthy sound production, and the techniques behind specific sounds. I’ve worked with singers of all levels, from children to adults, and from beginners and “tone-deaf people” to professionals and recording artists. So it’s time for a reality check. Would I still have such a banner in my studio?

Yes. But with a little correction. I firmly do believe that anybody with healthy vocal folds can talk and also sing. And…now comes the ‘but’: Singing is an ability that needs to be developed like any other ability. So let’s rephrase the proverb:

If you can talk you can (learn how to) sing.

 

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Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections via Photopin

Understanding How The Voice Works

I don’t believe anybody would come to think of asking a person (adult or child) to play a song or a scale on a musical instrument without having learned HOW to play the instrument first. Yet, when it comes to singing, an attitude is often assumed that ‘you either can do it or you can not’. And subsequently: if you can’t do it, you better shut up and let those who can, do it.

Singing in tune is often the main aspect we focus on when we define if a person can sing or not. I do agree that singing in tune is an important goal in mastering the ability of singing. But there are other aspects that need to be taken in consideration as well, even before we consider the aspect of singing in tune (and how it is done).

Just like we need to learn how to play a musical instrument, we need to learn how to play our instrument (the singing voice). In order to do this we need to understand how our instrument works so that we can work with it instead of against it. Understanding how the voice works will also help us understand what singing in tune is, how it can be done, and what we can do about not singing in tune. We need to understand the techniques behind the various sounds, so we can learn how to use our instrument, make different sounds with it and control it. We also need to develop awareness (and later on, control) over aspects such as pitch, melody, rhythm, dynamics, and so on.

Singing Careers And Fame Belong In Other Discussions

The ability of singing can be developed with the right instruction, in a positive learning environment, through successful experiences, through trial and error leading to new insight, by practicing in the right way, and last but not least: by singing. The more time we spend exploring the singing voice and making music, listening to and learning from other singers, the more we learn about the language of music, the deeper our understanding becomes.

If you can talk you can (learn how to) sing…but not everybody will have careers in singing. And not everybody with singing careers will become famous singers. A singer can be famous in one country, and completely unknown in another. Some singers become world famous, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their singing skills. Singing careers and fame belong in different discussions. But one thing is for sure: everybody has the possibility and the right to learn how to use their singing voices, to enjoy singing and express themselves through singing and music.

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Six Reasons Singers Should Know How Their Instrument Works

Why is (basic) understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the voice important for singers?

Knowing the names of the muscles and cartilages that we use while singing is not going to make you a better singer. It is quite possible to sing even without knowing the name of a single muscle! But some basic understanding of how the voice works can be useful for a variety of reasons. Here are six of them.

 

1.If you know how the voice works, you can work with it instead of against it.

This will speed up your learning process. The voice responds directly to what you do. If an exercise is done the right way, you will notice the effect of it immediately and you can be sure you are on the right track.

2. It makes it easier for you to understand singing technique.

This will help you become faster at recognizing and solving vocal issues and problems, like reaching high or low notes, solving unintentional vocal breaks, wobbly notes, not enough air, vocal strain, and so on.

Some singers and teachers are afraid of ‘thinking too much’ about what is happening in the body during singing. Sometimes singers looking for solutions to their vocal issues are given advise like “just let the voice do what it naturally wants to do”.

But just like we cannot learn to play the piano, flute, or any other musical instrument by “letting the instrument do what it naturally wants to do”, we cannot learn to sing just by “letting the voice do what it naturally wants to do”. And we definitely cannot solve vocal issues without looking into the functions of the instrument, our voice.

3. It will help you understand what singing in tune is and what to do about pitch problems.

When talking about singing skills, many people focus firstly on singing in tune. Unfortunately, still today a lot of singers with pitch problems are told that there is something wrong with their ears. Others are being told they are tone-deaf and should better just shut up.

Singing in tune is a coordination between hearing the pitch and being able to reproduce it. Being able to produce the right pitch has often more to do with singing technique than it has to do with our ears. If you know how the voice works, you can actually do something about not singing in tune.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

4. It ensures us that what we do is healthy.

Singing should always feel comfortable. If it itches, scratches or hurts, this is a sign you are doing something wrong.

All sounds can be produced in a healthy way. Even sounds that sound loud, sharp, metallic, rough or ‘unhealthy’. But only teachers with extensive knowledge of the voice can teach you how to produce these sounds in a healthy manner.

5. It helps you separate fact from fiction. 

Singers are bombarded with (well-meant) vague advice like “sing from your diaphragm”, “sing in the mask”, and so on. It does not mean all the advice is bad. Sometimes pictures and mental images can be wonderful tools for learning. However, some of the advice given to singers is plain fiction, and there exist a lot of myths and misconceptions about the voice.

Understanding how the voice works and how different sounds are produced in the body helps you distinguish between good, well-intended but vaguely presented, and plain bad advice.

6. It protects you from people in the industry who do not have (sufficient) knowledge of the voice.

Just because somebody is a teacher, coach, producer, or has worked with famous people, it does not automatically make them experts on the voice. These people might be good teachers and have some good advise and tools to share with you, but it does not mean they have sufficient knowledge or are updated in the developments in voice research and vocal pedagogy.

Research is constantly developing and we keep learning new things about how the voice works. Be aware that even some coaches and teachers can be “lazy” and look for the easy way out, or for quick solutions to success. And some teachers, again, think that they already know everything they should know, and are unwilling to learn about new developments or keep developing themselves. Nobody can of course know it all, and not all singing teachers need to be experts on solving all technique problems – there are plenty of other things to work on in singing besides technique! Teachers can, however, make sure they keep developing themselves, try to stay updated, and are honest about what they do know (or don’t).

Make sure you check the backgrounds of your teachers to find how they have trained and what kind of teaching experience they have, and whether they seek further (ongoing) training. Also be aware that lot of products are sold based on pseudo science or wrong information about the voice. Always make sure there has been research done to back up whatever method you might be interested in learning more about. And remember that famous people being associated with a method does not equal research.

 

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

This article was originally posted on my blog katjamariamusic in April 2012