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Welcome to the big debate – high larynx or low larynx? That is the question that’s on everyones lips. Before we get into this potential slanging match, let us bring you in with some soothing music from Eliszabeth. She’s a London based songwriter and is producing some really awesome stuff with a great team around her, including this track, Call Me. Get behind her if you love your Florence, Ellie Goulding and Kate Bush fusion. Find out more about Elizsabeth here.
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The Larynx Debate
I’m sure there have been more important debates in history, but we feel this debate has something to offer.
Why do we need to consider our larynx position? Well, it shapes the acoustic spaces 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 knocks on to being able to create many vocal qualities, like belt for example, but is also relevant to our range and register breaks (or passaggio, for the ones who are more traditional).
Where is it?
Most of you will know, but for clarity, here’s a picture of a chap giving his a little squeeze *not recommended*. Male larynxes will protrude more than females, purely because they’re larger. Once you’ve found the lumpy cartilage half way down your throat, do a swallow. You’ll know you’re on the right track if the lump rises and falls. It also lowers if you yawn.
Why would we have a low larynx?
Both larynx positions have profound effects on the voice. Because each larynx position can directly offset the problems associated with the other, they both become victims of their own successes. This has led to overuse of each one in voice teaching for hundreds of years!
If we talk stylistically, lowering the larynx increases space in the pharynx (or the throat, roughly) and tunes our resonances to the deeper, warmer tones available. For the geeks, we can get lower frequency harmonic boost, and whole load of other stuff off the back of that. This is a particularly common larynx posture for styles such as opera or classical derivatives. It’s not as common in contemporary music however.
For technique, a low larynx position in the middle range can strongly influence us towards the upper register, falsetto, head voice, whatever you want to call it. In essence, away from the bottom register, or chest voice. This is largely down to the influence that resonance has on our vocal fold function. The broad name for this ‘Source Filter Interaction‘.
NB: If you want to go silly on the research, here’s a heavy but awesome study from Dr. Titze on this very theory. Don’t worry if you can’t understand all of the algebra… neither can we! Read around the gibberish and you’ll discover some deep and amazing things about how the voice functions.
Because a low larynx position can influence us away from chest voice, that obviously makes it a common tool for developing the vocal break and avoiding pulling the bottom register up too high. That is, if you don’t override it’s influence by trying to belt through it.
For singers who have an uncontrollable habit of a raising larynx with a raising pitch, the lowered larynx is also useful to break this habit and generate some stability and independence in the larynx. This upward movement comes from the response of the muscles that suspend the larynx, who’s function is for swallowing. Lowering the larynx opposes these muscles during singing and can eventually help to stop them from engaging when you don’t want or need them.
In the extreme notes in the range we can’t stop the larynx moving because it’s needed and natural. Don’t even try and stop it. But ideally, in the middle range and passaggio, a singer must eventually be able to demonstrate a stable larynx position that doesn’t track the pitch as it ascends.
It’s important to have a coach on your team for this approach, because there will be a time when your larynx is happy and doesn’t desperately want to start rising as soon as the pitch does. You may have developed a decent upper register and can allow yourself to slip past the break without straining or yelling, and this may be after fifteen minutes, or fifteen days. Either way, when it’s done its job it’s time to change tact and train differently. Throw away the lowered larynx approach, as holding on to it for too long can create it’s own problems with strain, strength and range. If you want to train in that polished, contemporary and stylistic sound you will have to go towards allowing the larynx to sit a little higher again. Only this time, it’s much within your control!
NB: This even applies to the more classical styles which require a lower larynx position for the signature sound. Opera singers and high sopranos are easily in danger of holding their larynxes too low, and need strategies to allow it to find a better position, which is often slightly higher. This goes against some of the advice that circulates in classical teaching.
For the low larynx examples, tune in to the podcast either in video or audio above.
Why would we want a high larynx?
The raised larynx generates a much brighter sound than it’s low counterpart, because it reduces space in the pharynx and that has a corresponding vocal quality. It’s a lot like speech quality in its softer form, or even that twangy country music sound in its extreme form. In any case, the higher larynx position, to varying degrees, is present in pretty much all contemporary styles. That means we have to be able to produce it well and without effort.
Because of the source filter interaction effects of a higher larynx, it can strongly encourage certain settings in the vocal folds through the resonance. It can influence us towards a sound that’s more chesty, more call-like, or just brighter. It can also reinforce our vocal fold closure, which gives the impression of more ‘chest’ in the sound, as well as stronger tone with less breathiness. This all makes the raised larynx a great tool for developing weaker parts of the range and getting them ready for some fuller sounds. Beware though, some singers have too much activation of the muscles that raise the larynx in singing. This could easily mean that a conscious choice to use a high larynx position plays into this problem, and things get out of hand. You’d need a coach to guide you through what’s working for you in this situation, as it’s not easy to figure this out yourself.
For the high larynx examples, tune in to the podcast either in video or audio above.
If you happen to use the brighter, more intense tones in your singing then you’ll likely be using a raised larynx position without knowing. That’s all good. Low larynx sounds may not be useful to you stylistically, but they are an integral part of a warm down as they stretch out the larynx raising muscles in a therapeutic way. Many singers have experienced chronic external tension develop from not ridding the tensions associated to higher larynx styles. This can lead to all kinds of vocal problems and injuries, so be sure to dig some low larynx exercises out after every gig or session.
The tongue episode is a good supplement to this podcast, because the tongues position complements the larynx position massively. We don’t want a low larynx position that’s being created by a low, backward tongue. That’s really detrimental to singing. If we use a higher larynx position, we must have a strategy to keep the tongue a little more forward. If you want to go and check out that episode, click here.
That’s it for the larynx debate guys. Now, we have a question from a listener.
How do I get my low notes back after singing high songs all night in my function band?
That was from Ian Markx. And it’s a common question! When we sing high a lot we use the cricothyroid (CT) muscle to the max. This muscle is the one that stretches the vocal folds to raise pitch. This can leave this muscle a little too active, which can create a problem in the muscle that gives us our lower notes; the thyroarytenoid (TA). Spending more time in the lower notes post gig is a must if you’re experiencing this problem, which should get the vocal folds relaxing and reconnecting with the bottom of your voice. Exercises could include wider vowels to try and get some of the chest voice setting back. You could also use the very effective group of semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, like the straw (see our straw episode here) or an ‘NG‘ glide. If you have to use a very high larynx in your style, a low larynx exercise might also bring that larynx down from a possibly over-cooked position and give some richness back in the low notes.
You can’t rule out the possibility of vocal damage. That might not mean nodules, but singing high a lot does vibrate the vocal folds many more times per second. That increases the contact of the vocal folds and can lead to more tension, tiredness, abrasion and inflammation. This will absolutely affect the quality of tone in your voice all round. Warming down with semi-occluded exercises is a way of dissipating this potential inflammation, so the warm down for you is crucial! Hope that helps Ian.
That’s all for today singers. Do keep in touch. Share us if you love us too!!
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