Style with vocal fry

Vocal Nerds: Style with Vocal Fry

You only need to listen to one episode of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ to receive a masterclass in how to use Vocal Fry. Fingers crossed you will never, ever, do that and so we’ll give you the overview here: what it is, what it sounds like and whether a singer needs to care about it or not.

To Joe Public, it’s classified as that broken, whiny, “I am pretty bored with most aspects of my life,” spoken tone used by (and we hate to pigeon hole) a lot of cool, young Americans, largely of the lady persuasion (duck and cover). To voice scientists, it’s a vocal register also called ‘pulse’ or ‘Strohbass’.

The vocal cords

Fry itself is quite unique in terms of its set up. The thyroarytenoid (TA) muscles is the leader in this setting but it’s activity is still on the lower end, and the stretching Cricothyroid (CT) muscle is not at the party yet.

NOTE: To rewind, for those who haven’t caught our previous articles, amongst other things, pitch production can be described as a balancing act between two main muscles: the TA muscle and the cricothyroid (CT) muscle.

When vocal fry is produced the cords are shorter in length than in other registers. In fact, they are so short and unstretched that they end up lax and floppy. This is why we hear it as a lower pitch. Also, the top of the vocal cords (the vocal processes) are adducted tighter than in other settings by the muscles that open and close them between breathing and phonation. That gives us that quite ‘compressed’ feeling as we produce fry.

VOCAL FRY IN ACTION COURTESY OF OSBORNE HEAD & NECK CLINIC

The air flow

It’s noted that there is low lung pressure and low airflow (how much air pressure we have below and passing through the cords when we sing). These lower pressures and un-stretched vocal cords encourage slow pulse-like oscillations, with low amplitude (basically volume), and also point towards why it might not be the most efficient setting for singers and/or speakers. Voice doctors have also witnessed an increased squeezing of the larynx to create the ‘pulse’. Here’s a video from iSing friend, Dr Reena Gupta, showing the regular to irregular cord patterns on a real life person:
In short, during vocal fry production, everything other than the TA muscle is relaxing just as much Kim Kardashian does… when she’s sunbathing in Monaco for the fifteenth time this year!

Pull on the heart strings

Hopefully you’re still awake after that anatomical barrage. If you are, then let’s talk about why Vocal Fry is a useful tool in the style arena. To begin with, it can bring a vocal into a more emotional place with subtle use. Think Sam Smith or Mariah Carey getting all “sensitive and stuff” on the tender parts of the verse. Sometimes it can give that playful vibe, possibly because of the extensive use of vocal fry by the ‘cool kids’. That’s the Britney Spears approach anyway.

Chest voice

Vocal Fry can have functional benefits to help us build our technique repertoire too. As we’ve already covered above, in fry the vocal cords compress from bringing the arytenoid cartilages and hence the vocal cords, together tightly. This creates a similar setup to the beginnings of chest voice because this level of closure eradicates breathiness. We all know a breathy sound isn’t synonymous with a good chest voice. We’re also in the lower range where the cords are short and thick, which can help to bring about activity in the TA muscle which helps give us that richer chest-like sound. If you happen to have a breathy sounding chest voice then frying into lines or exercises maybe something to try out in the short term.

STEVE TALKS ABOUT VOCAL FRY

NOTE: Notice that you’ll have to glide up to the correct pitch from a fry onset.

Belting

We’ve covered belting in previous articles and fry could help with this high intensity skill also. A similar vocal setup to fry can be performed at higher pitches, and some pedagogies call this “creak”, like the sound of a creaking door. Creak is different to fry because the vocal muscles related to pitch adjustment (the TA and CT) are more involved, but we still encourage a tighter “fry style” adduction and a low enough airflow through the cords to bring about the irregular pulse-like vibrations. This creak approach is a good way to bring about the fundamentals of belting. Try a creaky onset when attempting a belted note and see if you can find the balance.

NOTE: Creak has pitch variability, so try not to take the fry approach and glide up to the belted note. You’ll end up more strained if you do. Create the creaky door onset on the pitch of the note you’re attempting and sing into it gradually until you get a clear tone.

CHRIS TALKS ABOUT VOCAL CREAK

The warning label

Prolonged Vocal Fry usage can produce a number of adverse effects. We mentioned that the setting for Vocal Fry actually makes it pretty darn difficult for us to make sound. And although not everything in life comes easy, this is one of these times when things should be. The squeezing of the larynx required to create vocal fry may not outline any immediate catastrophes, but you don’t need us to point out that that situation probably isn’t going to support free, effortless singing in the long run.

With overuse of vocal fry in speech our ability to sing throughout our entire range could be compromised. This is purely due to fact that by ‘frying’ we are living in the low notes for the majority of our voice use each day. We know voice production is a balance of many things and if, for example, we ignore the higher notes for long periods of time by ‘frying’, the body is likely to get pretty confused when it comes to coordinating the top stuff. So, use it for effect. Use it for short term technique training. Even use it to cash in on a Kardashian tribute act. But above all, use it sparingly.


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Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialise in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.