Tongue tension in singing

Tongue tension in singing

Tongue tension in singing can cause all sorts of problems for singers. So the Vocal Nerds have some advice to help solve this issue.

For starters

The tongue is a bit weird really. I mean let’s just take a minute to think about what it really is.

The tongue:

  1. is muscle, or rather several muscles grouped together, which is quite strong and never gets tired
  2.  is occasionally furry or hairy
  3. has taste buds *this is the best one*
  4.  helps you chew and swallow
  5. sometimes smells like the “bog of eternal stench” * this is the worst one*
  6. an important acoustic tool for shaping the vocal tract into vowels and consonants.

Being that it’s so active all the time it’s no wonder that it can cause a problem in our instrument from time to time.

However, if you tame this party animal a little it can really work for you in the world of advanced singing.

Tongue tension

It does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. Excess tension in any muscle usually throws a spanner in the works, but tongue tension specifically can interrupt a few functions in our voice. Firstly, it can affect diction. Not only might we sound a bit odd with a tongue that’s not saying the consonants properly, but also our vowel sounds could be impure or distorted. Accents come from different shades of saying a vowel so it’s not necessarily an issue, but if the tongue has distorted the vowel too much it could sound too far from the intended vowel, and also disturb a massively important efficiency function in our voice: resonance. This causes us to lose energy from poor vocal tract shaping, or even bring about unhelpful nasality, which all makes our effort to sing increase.

Secondly the tongue base is connected, via the hyoid bone and other tissues, to the larynx. As the larynx is pretty ruddy important in singing, having the tongue attached to it understandably influences the larynx in negative ways. One of these being larynx position, which needs to be within our control for resonance and tone. For example, a tense tongue can easily pull the larynx up when it moves forward for vowels like “EE”, which could leave us anything from shouty to thin and airy. Another problem could be the space just behind the tongue, and just above the larynx.

In certain singing postures this space needs to be maximised and not crowded by our “mouth muscle” for accurate pitching, otherwise we’re more likely to be flat and lack brightness. So yeah, the tongue is a bit of a **** really.

However, you can get along quite well with a few strategies.

Tongue exercises

There are many weird and wonderful strategies out there. We’d also like to add that most of them make you look utterly bonkers, so get used to that. Here’s a couple to damage your reputation.

The Raspberry

There’s a lot of spit flying during this one. Stand away from the screen, or your mates. You just have to blow a raspberry and sustain it, across any piano scale or glide you like. Keep the airflow low and consistent so your raspberry is more of a slow rumble. Also ensure your tongue isn’t just half out, or pulling in during the exercises. It should be as far out as it will go while still being able to raspberry. Keep the tongue consciously relaxed and be aware of its activity as you span your notes. Don’t go crazy high though, because some level of tongue tension will screw your raspberry up initially. It’s best to stay low and get consistent before you take the longer scales.

Tongue stretch

Put the tongue tip behind the bottom front teeth, and push the rest of tongue out so it curls over your teeth and almost out of your mouth. Hold for 20 seconds. Feel the burn.

Tongue out

This one is an obvious one, but can be used on any exercises. For example, the word “MUM”. You guessed it… say “MUM” but with your tongue out. Keeping it out the whole time, even when you say the “M”. It gives you an opportunity to see whether tone changes considerably when it’s out, like a diagnostic tool. It also gives you an opportunity to sing through passages and breaks without the tongue messing things up.

Don’t even know what this is called

But we’re open to suggestions. This is Dr Titze’s fave. Firstly, feel the bulge of your larynx and leave your finger on it. Now, slowly point your tongue out of your mouth and feel for a raise in the larynx. Most people experience some raising, but ideally we want to break that muscular link if it happens to go up considerably. How do you do that? Here’s how.

Step 1) Say the vowel “UH” with a slightly dark, almost yawny tone, and notice a drop in the larynx. Now make that same larynx drop with actually saying the word out loud. This will be your tool for the next bit.

Step 2) Now, as you poke your tongue out use the larynx lowering tool to send your larynx in the opposite direction to your tongue. Repeatedly move your tongue out and in, again and again, but using the tool to stop the larynx pulling up with the tongue when it goes out.

Step 3) Repeat step 2, but whilst sustaining a single note underneath. It doesn’t have to be high but the way.

Step 4) Repeat step 2, but whilst toggling the pitch up (by a whole note) as the tongue goes out, and down as the tongue goes in.

The ultimate goal in this exercise is to maintain a consistent larynx position whether the tongue goes in and out.

Keep trying, and you’ll get used to the tool that controls your larynx position, and stops the tongue tugging on it.

Tongue positioning in singing

Hopefully the above preparation will make positioning more effective, without it messing up other stuff that we need to be steady. Hopefully. Firstly, experience a relaxed tongue position by just sitting there with your mouth closed.

You’ll, hopefully, notice it sits pretty high against the molars. It’s generally helpful to imagine it sitting there, freely moving, throughout the majority of singing. If it doesn’t rest there when you sit silent, check you actually have a tongue by looking inside your mouth.

If you passed the “owning a tongue” test, then here are a few rough guides to try and help you with your extended range.

Positioning for high notes

It’s pretty common knowledge in the “vowel tuning” world that higher notes get more virility (love that word) if the tongue position creeps forward, a little like whatever you’re singing takes on a shade of the “EE” (as in eat) or “IH” (as in fit) shape. Try saying “EE”, and then the troubling vowel whilst retaining some of the “EE” tongue shape and position to get used to it. Then bosh it out on the note you’re struggling with and see if it makes any difference.

Positioning for middle notes

Keeping the resting shape, a more neutral tongue position might be best. Like that of the vowel “UH” (as in mum), so try blending your sound with the vowel “UH” instead of “EE”.

Positioning for low notes

Who cares. Try that. The tongue position has a massive acoustic advantage for us, but so does the lip, larynx and jaw position. Optimising all of these elements can magnify your skill even more, but advice on those other areas may come in later articles.

The tongue position can also alleviate an existing problem in the short term, which is especially related to the larynx position. If you have a larynx position that sits higher due to style choices (like country or MT) or even because of strain, you may feel a forward tongue to be a great relief and sends you into a much freer and fuller sound.

Conversely, if your larynx sits too low you might feel a forward tongue sends you too hooty or makes you strain to keep a strong sound. In any case you’re YOU-NIQUE and the ideal tongue position may vary between different bodies, skill levels, styles or vocal situations. If in doubt, seek professional help…from a voice teacher, just to be clear.

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.