The Larynx: High, Low, Depressed…What’s Right?

I have a very close colleague who often says a low larynx helps in the achievement of a rectangular fold posture. In my experience, this is true. Achieving a low larynx seems to induce activity in the TA (Thyro-Arytenoid) muscle pair responsible for deeper fold closure, resulting in what is called rectangular fold posture (if the ability for deep fold closure is already trained). First let us define rectangular fold posture!

For a given pitch, the folds may take on three possible shapes:

  1. Convergent: /\ (each side of the /\ represent the vertical edge of each vocal fold meeting at the upper edge).
  2. Rectangular: | | (in this simple model, the two vertical lines represent separated fold edges, which would look like one vertical line when they come together).
  3. Divergent: \/ (each side of the \/ represent the vertical edge of each vocal fold meeting at the lower edge).

The different modes of phonation relate to different states of balance of the vocal struggle (lotta vocale, in traditional Italian technique) between the two main muscle groups (the Crico-Thyroid or CT and Thyroid-Arytenoid or TA). Convergent suggests that the CT group overpowers the TA such that the folds do not meet at the deeper vertical aspect. Rectangular suggests that the muscles achieve some level of balance (note that the deep closure of the folds does not guarantee ideal posture of the CT because the third leg of the phonation triangle is fold closure. More on this later). Divergent suggests that the TA group has overtaken the CT group to the point that the folds do not meet on the upper edge (nevertheless the folds are being stretched but the deepening is exaggerated).

For a given pitch (Fundamental Frequency), the folds are expected to vibrate a specific number of times per second, releasing a specific number of compressed puffs of air every second that strike ambient air molecules, which by a domino effect end up striking our eardrums at exactly that frequency. If the rate of vibration is 440 pulses per second we hear the pitch A4 (middle voice for female singer, high voice for male singer). That note may be sung in many different ways. From a fundamental acoustic point of view, that pitch depends on how much mass participates in the vibration and how much tension there is on that mass. Imagine a violin’s E-string! It is called an E-string because that is its optimum vibratory state when it is tensed appropriately on the violin. But if it is loosened, it will be lower in pitch and if it is tensed too much it will rise in pitch. But its mass is constant. The fundamental difference of the vocal folds as a pitch making instrument is that the vocal mechanism can set itself up in many different configurations that vary the amount of vibrating mass and the tension on that mass.

There is an ideal tension and mass for a given pitch!

If we take the simple model of a triangle, there are three parameters on fold posture that determine a given pitch: CT stretching the folds, TA resisting the tension of the stretch and the amount of pressure (Inter-Arytenoid muscles or IA for medial pressure) that the folds apply to each other depending how hard they are made to close (loose, balanced or pressed). In balanced fold closure, the breath compression applied below the folds is released in the production of sound and does not effect the balance of the phonation triangle (in an ideal world. Vocal balance is always in flux). Pressed or loose phonation have a direct impact on how much mass (amplitude) will participate in the vibration since it would impact directly on the amount of time it takes the folds to open and close, which would affect the number of times the folds vibrate each second (the very determinant of pitch).

Simply put, stretch, mass (resistance to the the stretch), fold closure, and breath pressure determine pitch.

I will not deal with the change of mass relative to chest and head voice in this post. I will address this at a later time. However I needed to explain phonation in such a way that we understand that the height of the larynx is not necessarily a function that is independent of fold posture. In an ideal, balanced fold posture, breath pressure/flow would be balanced and the natural weight of the larynx would cause it to achieve its natural, at-rest depth. A pressed phonation mode would cause the larynx to rise out of its at-rest depth and require an additional force to keep it low. The result at the extreme, is an “unsubtle cracking.” We usually accomplish this with the tongue root. A loose phonation would not obstruct the desired depth of the larynx but unfortunately the tone would be dull, lacking in the necessary resistance to the airstream to create a strong sound and would require compensation from outside forces to keep the folds from totally falling away from each other resulting in a “gentle cracking!”

A divergent or convergent fold posture has less available vibrating mass. The tendency in those phonation modes is pressed voice (deeper medial pressure of the folds against each other) to make up for the lost mass. Pressed voice does not always sound as labored as we are used to hearing it. A singer who is aware of the discomfort associated with the pressure of the breath below the excessively adducted folds can release the air pressure by loosening the closure at the back of the folds creating a gap, while simultaneously keeping the excessive adduction along the rest of the folds. The larynx will remain raised from its natural depth but the emission might not sound so extremely forced. It takes experience to hear the difference. The amount of volume/power (sound pressure level) the singer uses will have an effect on the sound since greater volume requires an increase in mass (think of the violin’s bow addressing the string more deeply! The bow becomes a part of the vibrating mass).

Furthermore, the singer’s speaking habits come into play. If the singer speaks with a raised or depressed larynx and/or a loose or pressed closure mode, maintaining ideal posture in singing (even if the singer can identify such balance) will be difficult. Many singers find it difficult to retrain their speaking voice (if it is unbalanced) to match their more balanced singing voices.

My personal experience is that it is better to teach the singer a balanced (i.e. rectangular) phonation posture first before addressing refinements of the open throat. This requires closure along the entire upper edge of the folds and along the entire vertical aspect of the same, which gives both brilliance and richness to the tone (chiaro e scuro–brightness and darkness not either or). Once this is achieved, one can deal with the subtle laryngeal adjustments necessary relative to vowel acoustics. Naturally, the larynx has to be addressed in the case that it is extremely raised.

This discussion should make a singer think:

Wow! This is complicated!

Indeed, it is not easy! I do not need to say how much illnesses that cause inflammation of the vocal folds (e.g. allergies, reflux, gluten for gluten-intolerant singers, etc) would affect fold mass and flexibility.

Blessed are those who come into singing with a relatively balanced set-up. But it is also supremely important to listen to our vocal heroes with a bit of objectivity.

They were/are not Gods!

Even the best of them did not fully understand their instruments. They were always searching for the ideal! This Pavarotti?

Or this one?

To my ears, the difference is not subtle. There are strong opinions about the young Pavarotti and the difference that began to emerge in the mid 70s. You judge. It does not make him a less great singer but how was the sound experienced by listeners who heard both versions? I only heard the later Pavarotti in the 80s. So I cannot really judge, except for the videos. I prefer the earlier version.

One of my favorite bass-baritones ever!

But does the taking on of lower bass parts over the years force an unconscious search for darker colors?

Possibly? Still one of the most exciting male voices I ever heard at the MET throughout his career. But I must say, I prefer the earlier sound. I was a Ramey groupie in my earliest singing days and heard both versions. One may argue that age darkens the voice. But how do we tell a deepening of the voice from the strength to handle greater volume (i.e. mass) and a slightly depressed larynx?

Arguably one of the most beautiful soprano voices in our art form’s recorded history:

1959 studio recording

It seems Tebaldi was always looking for a balance between “velvet and steel.”

1960s

I would say the first version is more velvety and the second steelier. Perhaps the effect of live performance vs studio recording! However, the difference is notable and the vacillation between the two is heard throughout her career. Some say she was inconsistent. Well she, like these previous great singers, was HUMAN. Not a goddess! The steely version sounds to me as if she was struggling with “relaxing the throat.” Laryngeal position seems slightly higher. As explained above, balance is global! A steelier production (medial pressure) can have an adverse effect on laryngeal flexibility if exaggerated.

One of the most celebrated mezzos ever began her career as a soprano:

1962

Did her change to mezzo have an effect on how she thought about timbre (and therefore the depth of the larynx)?

1983

Beautiful either way! But was her larynx high in the Bohème clip? I think not! But others might have a different opinion. Or we may ask another question! Does her search for laryngeal depth required a bit of help from her tongue root, as discussed above? (Note, I am not saying that Horne was a soprano by nature. Many singers have played around with different voice categories. Indeed some singers can be viable in different repertoire that might seem extreme today.)

One more tenor, because this example is very interesting. This is my favorite clip of this great tenor:

1983

The low larynx (la gola aperta–open throat) became the fundamental aspect of Giacomini’s technique as expressed from interviews regarding his technique. The necessity of a low larynx (appropriate to the given singer) is a scientific fact relative to operatic singing. The question is one of measure. Did Giacomini go too far?

2006

This does not take away from the proven fact that this man was one of the great tenors of recorded opera. But it is worth listening to the progression of his career from the 1969 live recording of him singing Cavalleria to his latest concerts at an advanced age in the first decade of the 21st century. More than 40 years singing! Is it necessary to work on opening a throat that is already open? Yes! If not for anything, to help the singer understand the correct measure, so they don’t go too far. Between Pavarotti and Giacomini, we see two interpretations of the open throat. Pavarotti began in the early 1960s with what seemed a very balanced voice but he migrated towards a slightly higher larynx. Giacomini’s fully formed recording of the 1980s as a starting point finds the tenor seeking greater depth. I could theorize on a number of reasons why (That could be a point of discussion in the comments section) but I will stop here. I’d be interested to know your preferences and why!

©27 February 2021

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