Vocal fold closure in singing

Vocal fold closure in singing

Here we are with another nerdy piece, and today we’re rattling on about vocal fold closure. The question is to what degree should the vocal folds close? Are they gently closing for delicate sound, or with the force to crush watermelons?

Either way, we can exercise control over the muscles that adduct (that’s the science blurb for close or bring together) the vocal folds. This will help us to create different vocal colours and tones but also will give us some ability to control our efficiency as singers, which is somewhat of a problem these days.

Vocal folds in the open and closed position

Vocal folds in the open and closed position


Why is vocal fold closure control important?

Vocal fold closure is vitally important for singers. To go back to Vocals 101 for a sec, air pressure build up is required underneath the vocal folds to create the vibration needed for sound production. It’s the same as blowing a raspberry, in a way: air builds up behind the raspberry and then it bursts through vibrating your tongue and lips. Then you get your sound. If your raspberry lips and tongue are too tight or too loose then the vibration can become impossible, and sound isn’t created at all well.

You’ll also look a bit weird.

Bit of anatomy

Truly, but we’re going to have to talk about muscles a wee bit. We’ll keep it simple with the main ones though, so just relax and take it in.

  • Arytenoid cartilages – These little cone-shaped fellas are what the vocal folds attach to at the posterior *chortle*, meaning rear, of the larynx. These are important because we initiate our closure by bringing them together with the interarytenoid (IA) muscles. But the IAs don’t do the whole job.
  • Lateral Cricoarytenoid – LCA for the cool cats. Once the IAs have closed, the LCAs engage to close the vocal folds even further. Once those two tykes have done their job, then we need to look at the fibres of the vocal folds themselves.
  • Thyroarytenoid – We mention the TA muscle a lot because it’s the bulkier of the muscles in the vocal folds. It’s also responsible for timbres that most would call “chest voice”, because it’s thick and gives us a rich tone when it’s vibrating. If the TA is active when we sing, then we’re likely to get the bottom two thirds of our depth of cord closure from it.
  • The Ligament – The top third is where the ligaments meet. When they are in vibration on their own they are usually attached to the term “head voice”, as they are thin and flexible and hence give a thinner sound. And if they are also at the party when we sing it finishes off our closure, so we all (hopefully) should get good healthy function of all muscles that close the vocal folds. Front to back, and top to bottom. You’d hope so right?

Check out this site for intrinsic vocal fold muscle actions: getbodysmart.com

We’re not saying it’s bad

If one of those bad boys isn’t functioning correctly then there’ll be a problem with vocal fold closure. And hey, for some styles a little less closure isn’t a bad thing. It’s a necessity. But, for one thing, being able to achieve a good balance of the vocal muscles at any time is a powerful tool in maintaining a cracking voice until you’re a hundred or something.

So how do we train some of these aspects of vocal fold closure? Well, a start is to determine what needs work. Just so you know, we’re definitely not going to attempt to diagnose you via an article. That would be ridiculous, even for gods like us. But here are some tips for you to mess around with:

  • Creak and fry – Popular to the max, are these. Often used as onset exercises to influence how you begin a line, or an exercise. You can use these to primarily influence how the arytenoid cartilages come together, as they kinda enhance the closure there a little. They can also thicken up the TA to give the impression of some chest-like sound in the resulting phrase, and obviously do the bottom third job of the closure.
  • Cry – Like, quite a “complainy” #makingupwordsagain whinge. Like that petulant little so and so. Again helps with the closing of the arytenoids, but the upset undertone is a way of ensuring the ligament is present in the vibration of the vocal folds. Hopefully helping us to get the top third of adduction! Voila.
  • Straw phonation – We’re not getting paid to say it, promise. But on training strong sounds the straw can balance out the problem of excess vocal fold closure, or squeezing. On quieter sounds it can also train the arytenoid cartilages to stay closed to avoid breathiness, as quiet isn’t always breathy.
  • Larynx and mouth position – A raised larynx, and/or an open mouth, can influence more TA and more closure. Not always, but can. The opposite could influence less TA and possibly less closure. So depending on your situation, a hooty whoop or a bratty wail could give you a little extra help on the closure front.
  • Airflow – Too much is usually the case in most of us. After all, we’re all mental right? Constantly wanting to be bigger and louder. However, if we push air and our vocal folds can’t handle the pressure, then they’ll bow open. Only vast amounts of vocal squeezing will be able to deal with high air pressure, and then you’ll sound like a bad Pavarotti lifting a piano whilst giving birth. Not good… and a little surreal. Try relaxing airflow a little by not pushing with the abs, or even just not thinking RAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGHHHH. Kay?

The missed point

As closure comes from so many angles, it should be obvious that the whole voice needs to be on point for you to have comprehensive closure. But sadly it is missed. The bottom (or chest) voice gets the best closure to our ears, so we overuse it to add TA, and closure, to the weak notes on the top. That may be the right thing to do, but there’s a whole other third of closure that the ligament provides. And what sound or voice quality involves the ligament? YES: the upper (or head voice). It can be a bit alien to think that training the lighter head tones of our voice can be the missing key to our full, rich, face-melting bangers. But in a lot of cases, it is.

It’s not our fault if you die!

As always, we have this disclaimer. Messing around with this stuff may help you to partly figure out your problem, or enhance your strengths. That’s great! It’s also worth remembering that a rich closure can provide such a full sound wave that you feel ease, rather than tightness or tension. Even though tension (in the right places) is what has occurred. Keep that in mind, but please, for goodness sake, find yourself a great coach to guide you through the minefield.

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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.