This is the biggest key to what gives our voices “feminine” or “masculine” qualities. Think of it like with wind instruments: smaller instruments like flutes and trumpets produce brighter, brassier sounds, while larger instruments like tubas and trombones produce warmer, deeper sounds. Even though a trombone and a french horn can hit some of the same exact pitches, it’ll sound wildly different simply because the air has more space to bounce around inside of the trombone, so it’ll produce a bigger, more “masculine” sound.
This is because when an instrument plays a note or when a person sings a note, there’s not actually just one frequency. There’s an infinite number of frequencies above the fundamental frequencies, which are known as overtones. When we emphasize those overtones, we get a brighter sound.
Your voice is an instrument. But you can change the shape of it to produce different qualities of sounds, and that’s what we’ll be focusing on here.
Vocal Tract Length
Gently place your fingers on your larynx (Adam’s Apple – or Eve’s Apple, if you prefer) and swallow. You should feel the larynx move up in your throat. Congratulations, you’ve just shortened your vocal tract length! The trick of course is to keep the larynx raised while speaking, which takes practice. A lot of practice. Make sure you drink plenty of water and take breaks so you don’t wear your muscles down.
A lot of muscles work in tandem to elevate the larynx. Primarily, the muscles around the hyoid (the U shaped bone at the root of the tongue), including the geniohyoid, digastric, mylohyoid, thyrohyoid, and stylohyoid muscles; and the muscles surrounding the pharynx (region of the throat behind the mouth, above the larynx), including the stylopharyngeus, palatopharyngeus, and pharyngeal constrictor muscles.
These muscles automatically constrict to raise the larynx when we raise our pitch. Try singing low and high notes and take note of how the larynx moves around, seemingly on it’s own. That’s because we’ve trained these muscles all our lives to lift and lower the larynx to change pitch. But now we want to train them to lift the larynx without changing pitch.
The swallow practice is the main technique, but pay attention to how the muscles work. Since the suprahyoid muscles partially control the larynx, you can achieve some mild larynx elevation by simply lifting the back of the tongue, which we’re going to do in a later exercise anyway. And because the pharyngeal muscles partially control the larynx, you should be able to achieve some larynx elevation by gentlytightening the back of the throat. You should also be able to accomplish the same thing by taking a quick breath in and back (smiling while doing this helps).
So play around with your different muscles. Do base of tongue lifts (up, down, up, down – like your tongue is lifting weights or something) and lightpharyngeal constriction between swallow exercises. Gradually, you’ll retrain those muscles to elevate the larynx on command, and eventually it’ll more or less stay elevated.
Sometimes called “head voice”. This has to do with where in the body that vocal vibrations tend to resonate. There are three distinct spaces where the voice can resonate:
- The Laryngopharynx in the throat (this is often referred to as chest resonance or chest voice because the chest will naturally vibrate if sound is originating from this area, but the sound isn’t actually originating from the chest),
- The Oropharynx right behind the mouth (the oral cavity, or mouth, itself will also vibrate in response), and
- The Nasopharynx right behind the nasal cavity (the nose will also vibrate when this area is engaged).
So when we talk about head voice, we’re wanting to concentrate our vibrations within the nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal cavities. This can be accomplished numerous different ways. And if you’ve already mastered the larynx exercises from the previous section, your larynx should be too elevated to accomplish much laryngopharyngial vibrations, so you’ve already negated your chest voice!
With your mouth closed, say “mmmmmm”. Feel your lips buzz when you hum? Cool, that’s the idea of head voice. Once you get a feel for it, you can try making a “mmmmmaaaaaaa” sound with your mouth open, focusing your breath at the forward part of your mouth.
This is also known as forward resonance. Basically we’re trying to focus our voice into the forward part of our mouth.
To get more nasal resonance, make the “ng” sound like in the word “tongue”, and pay attention to how the back of your tongue lifts and your soft palate (the soft tissue in the back of the roof of the mouth) lowers. Now try to especially focus on that soft palate. Go between the “ah” and “ng” sounds. Your soft palate should lift on the “ah” and lower on the “ng”.
If you lower the soft palate and raise the tongue too much, you may get a nasally sound, since air will be partially blocked off from your mouth and will then be focused primarily into the nose. Maybe that’s what you’re going for – I’m not here to judge. Play with different mouth shapes to find the right combination of nasal and oral resonance for you.