The Absolute Weight of the Voice

One paper I read a few years ago (I will post the article’s information when I find it again) stated the obvious: Regardless, of fundamental frequency, the net weight of the voice is constant. The voice doesn’t become suddenly “lighter” when we go up in pitch nor heavier when we go lower. For some of you, this may sound radical, because that is all you ever heard. Let us be more exact! The vocal folds change shape with changing pitch/vowel combinations. The folds are 3-dimensional. They can change in length (horizontal), in depth (vertical) and width (medial/closure aspect) if we are looking at the singer’s frontally (the way the singer traditionally faces the audience).

What we call weight is the way we experience medial tension (or how tightly the folds close). Yet a part of the paradigm is that the folds must close firmly. I’ve been hearing this for a long time and honestly, following that advice only contributed to my less than superlative former baritone incarnation (I was always a tenor but trained as a baritone). Here’s the kicker! My favorite singer in those days was the great Domingo, whose phonation mode became increasingly about “fold closure.” In my experience, fold closure is the easiest way to get glottal resistance as to avoid leakage–especially when there is no knowledge or consideration that the y-axis (vertical contact area) contributes greatly to glottal resistance. Appropriate resistance produces the high overtones we need for vowel clarity and for the singer’s formant. In a spectrogram, the singer’s formant (the ring of the voice) manifests as a cluster of harmonics combining the influences of formant-resonances 3, 4 and 5.

A strong glottal resistance is needed to produce strong harmonics. However, a medial squeeze is not the only way to get a strong resistance.

In Journal of Voice, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2018, Li, Scherer et al. concluded that the vertical contact area, controlled by the activity of the vocalis muscle produce a deeper, bulgier fold cover that approximates the folds more closely. There are even experiments and theories that suggests that the folds might only need to come close enough to each other to create the desired acoustic results. That can only happen with “relatively deeper folds.”

I say relatively because the folds do not have a constant depth for all pitches. The folds become less deep as pitch rises but the question is how deep/shallow relative to the pitch in question? The right depth and length combination produces conditions for a softer closure and above all:

An isolation of the fold cover. When the folds are lengthened and appropriately deep, the muscular layer of the folds become stiff enough to isolate the fold cover to vibrate freely–Zhang et al.

Therefore, we must avoid the false narrative that more closure and less fold depth is the path to a strong glottal resistance. It’s one path! That path is closer to a pop singing strategy than an operatic one. A medial squeeze is easier and gives immediate results of a type. But those short term results are also the ones that produce limitations later. An appropriately deep, long and gently closed folds is the path to flexibility (morbidezza). The larynx is then able to relax down to a low position without being pressed down. That part is simple.

A tone that is relatively pressed, even a little contributes to a higher larynx, which makes the transition to the second resonance area (F2) rather difficult. In that case, one must make a concerted effort to push the larynx down to lower the 1st Formant resonance to facilitate the process of the second to take over.

Guess what? A lot of singers have successful careers doing exactly that. So I’m not saying it’s not possible to have a little squeeze and be successful–especially singers with relatively thin fold covers by nature. The lighter voices!

As a dramatic tenor I don’t have the option of pressing. I must do it the best way possible. Teaching the folds to stretch and not lose too much depth is not easy. Some singers grow up with relatively good habits and can prosper with very little intervention. Rarely the case with dramatic voices–especially dramatic tenors! Our ultimate success as dramatic singers in the world of opera depends greatly on the good fortune of meeting a teacher who matches our needs. And since I personally do not like to rely on luck, and I was not fortuned with wonderful vocal balance in my youth, I figure being as much informed about the voice is the best way to even the odds.

Be informed!

8 thoughts on “The Absolute Weight of the Voice

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  1. Kashudomaster, do you have a list of singers raging from really pressed with little depth to no pressing with lots of depth? Thank you!

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    1. Hi Tsquare, that’s a good challenge. I make a rule of commenting negatively on active professional singers. But I found a clip of a 15 tenors singing the end of the Faust aria. There’s enough variety to make the point. I’m looking for comparable clips for other voice types.

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  2. So kashudomaster, what should i do to control fold depth for a certain notes? Like how to increase it or decrease it at will? I know this is probably best with training but would it be okay if i just ask the main points? Thank you.

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    1. Another good question! The key is to start in a comfortable low note (or other part of the range) that feels deep and relaxed. I recommend the low range only because the folds tend to be appropriately deep in the lower range (but a low note can also be thin if it’s not a regular part of the singer’s practice). The goal is to maintain that level of relaxed depth as pitch rises. A low larynx is related to fold depth. Deep folds create conditions for the larynx to just relax. But if the vocalis muscle (deepens the folds) is weak, lowering the larynx will require help, usually in the form of tongue depression. Not desirable! I’m working on some videos I hope to release soon.

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  3. Thanks a lot for your reply. I have just one more question. You said that the vocalis muscle helps to deepen the fold contact, but at the same time it should be stiff to generate the outer layer vibration. So it does 2 jobs or 1 job? I have not yet to understand the connection between those 2 details. Thank you once again.

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  4. Hi Tsquare (Tee Square), your question goes to a very interesting characteristic of singing (indeed any physical activity). In actual singing, the different functions are not isolated. It is an organic process whereby one function influences every other in an active or passive way. To your question: the vocalis muscle’s (indeed both TA muscles, vocalis and mucularis) primary function is to deepen the folds. However, it also opposes the Cricothyroid (CT) which lengthens the folds. This vocal struggle (lotta vocale, in Italian–a term used in the Bel Canto) results in stiffness in both muscle groups. However, the CT is outside of the vocal folds, while the TA group (vocalis and mucularis) are inside of the folds. When they become stiff from interaction with CT, the fold cover becomes free to vibrate without the mass of the muscle portion of the folds–like a flag and a flagpole. If the flagpole were as flexible as the flag, they would move together with the wind. The relative stiffness of the flagpole allows the flag to play with the wind, creating that wave motion.

    via GIPHY

    The only difference with the folds is that the breath source comes from below, so the wave motion would go upward not sideways because the air source (breath pressure from the lungs) comes from below. In addition, the two folds would be closing and opening like when you blow air between two sheets of paper.

    So depth alone is not enough. Without the opposition from CT, depth would not matter because the result would be weighty because the fold cover could not be isolated from the body (muscle) of the folds and the tone would sound substantial but dull.

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  5. Thanks a lot for the reply. I guess i’ll have to keep going on my journey to find the balance between the muscles like you talk about.

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    1. There’s no quick fix. The science is a guide but sensations are the key to singing. These functions must be translated into healthy sensations that reflect good habits and lead to balance. That’s why we cannot learn through books or writing alone. But the writing and science are good guides to understanding how the different sensations interact!

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