High, low or neutral – the larynx debate

The larynx in singing

Sure there have been more important debates in history, but we feel the larynx position debate has something to offer beyond world politics. High, neutral or low?

Why do we need to consider our larynx position?

Well, it shapes the acoustic space above it, namely the throat. This shaping is important because it changes how resonance works in our voices, and it changes character and tone. This impacts the singer’s ability to create many vocal qualities, belt for example; but it is also relevant to range and register breaks (the passaggio).

Where is it?

Most of you will know; but for clarity, here’s a picture of a chap giving his larynx a little squeeze *not recommended if you’re squeamish*.

Feeling your larynx
You can feeling your larynx

Once you’ve found the lumpy cartilage half way down your throat, swallow. You’ll know you’re on the right track if the lump rises and falls. It also lowers on a yawn.

This rising and falling shows you that we can control this awesome little lump in the throat. This is great news when we consider just how profound the differences are when singing in either a high, neutral or low larynx position. Each larynx position can also directly offset the problems associated with the opposing position. Unfortunately in vocal pedagogy this has sometimes led to overuse of each position, so both the low larynx and the high larynx have become victims of their own success.

Once you’ve found the lumpy cartilage half way down your throat, swallow. You’ll know you’re on the right track if the lump rises and falls. It also lowers on a yawn.

This rising and falling shows you that we can control this awesome little lump in the throat. This is great news when we consider just how profound the differences are when singing in either a high, neutral or low larynx position. Each larynx position can also directly offset the problems associated with the opposing position. Unfortunately in vocal pedagogy this has sometimes led to overuse of each position, so both the low larynx and the high larynx have become victims of their own success.

Why would we use a low larynx?

Lowering the larynx increases the space in the pharynx (or the throat, roughly speaking) and tunes our resonances to the deeper, warmer tones. For the vocal geeks: we can get lower frequency harmonic boost, and a whole load of other stuff off the back of that. This is a particularly common larynx posture in the classical vocal styles. It’s not as common in contemporary music, but does turn up in pop, gospel, soul and jazz (e.g. Cher, Michael McDonald, Anita Baker).

Technically a low position in the middle range can strongly influence the voice towards the head register, upper range, or falsetto…whatever you want to call it. In essence, away from the chest or bottom register. This is largely due to the influence that resonance has on our vocal fold function. The broad scientific name for this is “Source Filter Interaction”. To learn more about this subject, read this awesome study by Dr Ingo Titze published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Because a low larynx position can influence the voice away from chest register, it has become a commonly used tool for smoothing out the vocal break by avoiding the desire to bring the bottom register up too high; this is, if you don’t override its influence by trying to belt through the break.

For singers who have a habit of raising the larynx and straining as the pitch ascends, the slightly lowered larynx can be used to break this habit and generate some stability and control during singing. This upward movement is due to the contraction of some of the extrinsic laryngeal muscles (aka the supra hyoid muscles) whose function is to raise it when we swallow. Lowering the larynx opposes these muscles during singing and will eventually help to disengage them when you don’t want or need them.

Extrinsic muscles of the larynx ©Bluetree Publishing
Extrinsic muscles of the larynx ©Bluetree Publishing

For extremely high notes the larynx will move upwards, this is natural and is required. So don’t even try and stop it. On the other hand when the voice is in the middle part of the vocal range a lower larynx position is something that needs to be demonstrated initially. As the voice is transitioning through the passaggio we need to make sure we train our ability to avoid our larynx tracking up as the pitch ascends.

It may be necessary to have a coach to help you with this approach, to train your larynx to avoid rising unnecessarily and to developed a decent upper register so you can navigate the break without straining or yelling; this may take 15 minutes or 15 days, in other words it’s very individual. When you have done training the larynx to stop straining up unnecessarily, it is time to change tact and train differently. Move away from the lowered larynx approach, singing this way for too long may cause you to strain in other ways, or impact on vocal strength and range.

Why would we use a high larynx?

If you want your voice to have that varied, contemporary, stylistic sound, you will need to access brighter tones. This is helped when the larynx is in a higher position.

Allowing the larynx to rise at the top end of the range also applies to the classical styles. High tenors and sopranos commonly maintain an unnecessarily low larynx. They too need strategies that allow the larynx to adjust to a higher position when appropriate. This generally goes against a lot of classical teaching. The vocal tract shape needs to match the pitch we’re aiming to resonate, this is achieved by allowing the larynx to raise at some point.

The raised larynx generates a much brighter sound due to the reduced resonating space in the pharynx. Think Michael Jackson or Duffy. It’s a lot like speech quality in its softer form, or that twangy sound often associated with country singing (Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Blake Shelton). To varying degrees the higher larynx position is present in most contemporary styles. That means we must be able to produce it well and without busting a blood vessel.

A higher larynx will encourage certain vocal fold settings and vocal sound that is towards a more chest-like, call-like, or brilliant tonal quality will be created. This is a result of the way sound waves behave as they resonate in the vocal tract. If excessive it might even be too strident and somewhat annoying to listen to.

The high larynx can help reinforce vocal fold closure. This can be perceived as more “chest resonance”, as well as a clearer tone. We believe that raising the larynx is a great tool for developing weaker parts of the range and preparing the voice for fuller sounds. Be aware of generating too much extrinsic muscle activation, it can be overdone. Indications that you are in trouble will be a swallowed or choked feeling in the throat. You need a good vocal coach to guide you, as it’s not easy to figure out how much high larynx is enough and what is too much.

If you already use a brighter, more intense tone in pop singing then you’ll likely be achieving this unconsciously by raising your larynx and that’s fine. It is important to maintain a flexible technique and to ensure the body and mind do not resist the natural movement of the larynx. This is especially true when producing vocal qualities such as Belt.

Low larynx sounds may not be stylistically useful to you, but they are an integral part of a warm down routine as they stretch out the muscles that raise the larynx in a therapeutic way. Many singers have developed chronic external muscle tension from not addressing tension acquired with singing on a higher larynx. This can lead to vocal issues and worse, injury. Be sure to do some low larynx exercises after every gig or session. You could also try this massage routine to release muscle tension.

Does high larynx = the devil?

Some purists might ask: “Why would you want a high larynx?”. Fair enough, a raised larynx can lead to strain, for this reason some singers and singing teachers consider the high larynx devil’s work. Some may consider a twangy, high larynx sound as incorrect or even unhealthy. We think this is total baloney. Of course if there is a genuine straining of the extrinsic muscles, then obviously that needs to be corrected. But if a high larynx is the natural by-product of a stylistic sound, then let’s keep it that way. This will create an amazing and powerful free-sounding vocal colour, and gives the singer a massive advantage in contemporary singing.

The goal is a neutral larynx

We have read this statement in numerous pedagogical blogs. We don’t think it is entirely relevant. The singer needs a certain amount of movement in the larynx to create the shape that produces vowels, we mustn’t stifle that or we’ll sound weird. Anyone looking for a great range and a rich stylistic tone will also be disadvantaged by following this notion. In fact, anyone who is advised to keep his or her larynx only low, high or neutral is probably going to run into trouble somewhere down the line. Freedom from unnecessary tension is the key to sounding awesome. Which emotion are you trying to portray? Which style do you want to convey? Let your voice training facilitate these goals and let’s avoid pigeon holing the larynx into one position. The aim should be to have a larynx that can move when it needs, that will respond to your commands, commands that are best achieved through pure intention and emotional impulse to serve the song, style and musical requirements.


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About Chris Johnson and Steve Giles

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.