Voice Science Terms & Phrases

Get familiar with the science-y way we explain things.

Voice Science Terms & Phrases
Here are Kirsten’s definitions of some terms and phrases we may use in our trainings and Q&As!

Vocal Folds/Vocal Cords
Your vocal folds/cords are “two bands of smooth muscle tissue” that vibrate to produce sound.

Also, it’s not spelled “Chords.” We will call you out on it if you spell it incorrectly. ;-P

“Cord closure”
Cord closure refers to how your vocal cords come together in order to produce a sound. When you experience a “breathy” sound, it means the vocal cords aren’t fully coming together. When you experience a “squeezed” sound, it means that the vocal cords are being forced together too much.

“Lean in the cords”
This refers to the amount of pressure specifically at the vocal cord level. If you need more “lean in the cords” it means that you need more vocal cord closure.

Vocal Register
This refers to head voice, chest voice, etc. More on this in the next section.

Aka your “voice box” or “Adam’s apple.” The vocal cords live in the larynx and the larynx lives in the throat (… and the green grass grows all around, all around). The larynx is also involved in swallowing.

“Balancing the larynx”
Put two fingers on your larynx and swallow. Notice that your larynx moves upward and then returns. Now, yawn. Chances are, your larynx lowered and returned. The larynx can move a lot.

But in singing, we don’t necessarily want it to move much. When the larynx is balanced, singing comes effortlessly and easily.

The most famous yet unknown part of singing: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of your ribcage that controls the lungs. For more on breathing for singing, read my dissertation (not really, but it IS long) on breathing here.

We actually use this term in a few different ways, so you’ll have to use context clues (#elementaryschool) to figure out which one we mean.

Definition 1:

All the things you need to do to create a particular sound. For example: you need a coordination of a narrow vowel, consistent airflow, and vocal cord closure to create a solid mixed voice. (A mixed voice? What’s that? Read on.)

Definition 2:

The relationship between airflow and the vocal cords. We may also use the term “compression” for this. For example, chest voice tends to use a “heavy coordination” or “more compression” because it uses more pressure at the vocal cord level and more airflow. Head voice may use a “light coordination” or “less compression” because the vocal cords are thinner. (More on head voice and chest voice in the next lesson.)

See Coordination definition 2 above.

Vocal Tract
The space from your vocal cords to your lips. The vocal tract dictates a TON about your speech and singing.

The shape of your vocal tract is what makes your voice unique and why you sound different from others. It also determines the vowel you’re creating, the tone or “color” of your voice, and the fullness of your sound.

Your vocal tract is very flexible. For example, you can lengthen your vocal tract by pursing your lips and lowering your larynx. You can narrow your vocal tract by using the pharyngeal muscles. You can further adjust the vocal tract by raising or lowering your soft palate and moving your tongue. All of these adjustments will affect what you sound like at any particular moment.

This is why singing can be so complex, folks!

The fullness of the sound, dictated by the shape of our vocal tract.

Some vocal coaches think pharyngeal voice is a thing, some say it doesn’t exist… what we DO know is that there are pharyngeal muscles in the mouth & throat. When they contract while we are vocalizing, it creates a forward sound – the kind of sound most people look for in contemporary pop or musical theatre.

To some degree, your unique tone is dictated by the biological makeup of your throat, mouth, and sinuses.

That said, you can adjust the tone or “color” of your voice, making it “darker,” “brighter,” “warmer,” etc. A darker tone is often associated with opera and classical music, while a bright tone is associated with “nasal” singing or certain musical theatre. Most contemporary genres of music fall somewhere in-between.

Tone can also refer to placement…

Where you “place” the sound. Of course, it’s intangible, so this all depends on what you feel and the sound that coincides with that feeling. You can “place” the sound forward, back, “in the mask,” “in the nose,” etc.

Soft Palate & Hard Palate
Run the tip of your tongue along the roof of your mouth. Notice where the roof of your mouth starts to get squishy – that’s your soft palate. The non-squishy part is the hard palate. (Again, super formal & technical definitions here.) The raising or lowering of the soft palate can also determine the way you sound.