Here at The Naked Vocalist, we’re not afraid to whip out the ultra-boring singing terms. In fact, we see it as our duty. However, we wouldn’t whip them out unless they were actually valuable in some tiny little way. PTP (short for Phonation Threshold Pressure) is more than a little bit valuable.
Phonation Threshold Pressure is a fairly easy concept to grasp. It is:
“the minimum level of lung pressure needed to sustain vocal fold oscillation at a given pitch”
Translation – The amount of breath pressure you need to sing those notes. PTP could be high or low, depending on your situation.
Do I need to know this?
Yes you do! One thing that almost every teacher strives for, knowingly or unknowingly, is a lower PTP. Why? Well, if you require high lung pressure to just begin making sound, you’ll need to use even more if you want to be louder or go higher. You’ll also need more respiratory effort from your breathing muscles. This leaves you wide open to straining, vocal fatigue, physical tiredness and even vocal damage.
What makes PTP high?
Every singer begins their life with a higher phonation threshold pressure scenario. That because one of the main reasons for needing high lung pressure to sing is a lack of balance and coordination in the vocal muscles. Essentially, if you don’t regularly exercise and stretch your voice you’re very likely to have a higher PTP, and will tire quicker.
Other common factors that increase the lung pressure and physical effort needed to sing are:
- weak vocal fold closure
- over-pressed or squeezed vocal fold closure
- external muscle tension (because it affects fold closure)
- vocal fold inflammation or illness (because it affects fold closure)
High notes also increase PTP because the vocal folds are stiffer from being stretched to tension. Stiffness means they can’t vibrate as easily and is a natural result of singing higher.
Wear, tiredness and damage on the vocal folds can also stiffen the *usually* pliable vocal fold covers. The same happens with a lack of hydration. In both of these cases, PTP goes up! I know you’ve heard it a million times before, but that’s one of the big reasons for a healthy, hydrated lifestyle.
How can I lower PTP?
I’m glad you asked! It should be top of the list on any regime; to be able to make the same sound, with the same loudness, at the same pitch, but with lower lung pressure. That means you can do it for longer too, so in all senses it’s a must-have!
As part of your warm up, here’s your PTP checklist:
- Am I sufficiently hydrated? – The flexible jelly layer (called mucosa) that covers your vocal folds is the very thing that creates your rich sound. It needs water to effectively convert that lung pressure into sound. If it’s wet, it requires less lung pressure to vibrate. Viola!
- Semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) – There’s one great reason why voice teachers almost always use an SOVT to begin a warm up. It lowers PTP before you get into the open sounds! In fact, any SOVT is going to assist in positioning the vocal folds for good, full closure. Think about gliding on straws, hums, lip trills and voiced fricatives like V and Z.
- Routine stretching – All we need to do here is glide from the bottom to the *comfortable* top consistently. Whichever vowel that creates the smoothest journey to the top is fine. This is as much about warming up as it is reminding your voice, and it’s muscles, that you want to them to cooperate. That you want them all to be at the party, be flexible, but not overpower the system. For example, if either your chest or head voice is too dominant, vocal fold closure will be affected and PTP will increase.
- Vocal fold closure exercises – Although the SOVTs above will have helped a little with this, it’s worth continuing to ensure you can find a good, clear sound on the vowels. Speaking volume will do it for now. Think of an exercise that has cries and whines, like a puppy or whinging kid.
Save your voice… singing quietly… right?
That’s why the mixed voice configuration is researched by Dr. Ingo Titze to have the lowest PTP of all vocal fold postures because the vocal fold closure is pretty much full, top to bottom. That makes it the most efficient, but it definitely isn’t the quietest! It’s also why it’s recommended as an essential setting for singers who have a big schedule; it’s those who need efficiency, and lower PTP, the most!
The long term
The article above goes along the lines of increasing your vocal folds function so that they require less lung pressure to make them vibrate. However, the long term strategy is also important because routine voice training will gradually lower your PTP over time. That can be through the increased muscle coordination as well as good resonance strategies and vowel shaping. That means it’s all going to get easier (wey heeeeeey)!
So, those notions of having to support the living heck out of your voice may (swap ‘may’ with ‘definitely’) need to be revisited as your PTP drops. Progressive breathing techniques like Breathing Coordination and Accent Method all acknowledge how the activity of the breath support muscles become much more subtle over time. Even powerful sounds like belting can feel very low effort once PTP is generally lower. You do not need to force it.
The final word
Phonation threshold pressure can be measured in a clinic. However, all we have as singers is our sound and sensation to go by. In this case, it might take a trained coach to help you hear the effort in your sound, or see it in your body. But, with routine voice stretching and training, you’ll feel that PTP lower and your voice will function with much less respiratory effort. Trust me when I say that feels really good.
On the other hand, if you’re voice usually functions well with a low effort but it suddenly feels tough, you could narrow it down to the vocal folds. If their closure is affected by inflammation or excess tension, then your PTP will go up and you’ll have to push more to create your sound. Be careful in this scenario, because more pushing creates more inflammation, which raises PTP further….
It’s a slippery slope.
Chris is also a writer for iSing Magazine, a founder/presenter of The Naked Vocalist podcast, a voting member of Pan American Vocology Association, and a teacher trainer/vocal coach with the Vocology In Practice network.
All that aside, he's a pure and true music fan with a penchant for Donny Hathaway and songs about heartbreak.