Volume Control

Don’t you wish your voice had a volume control? Imagine if you could just twist a knob on the side of your neck and blow everybody away! I’m dreaming, I know. I just think it’s a crime that the vocal is the focus of every song but the least audible element when bands rehearse. Since the voice is an acoustic instrument, you would think everyone would adjust their levels accordingly. I guess I’m still dreaming. The reality is that singers are routinely overwhelmed by thick guitars, booming basses and smashing drums. Shouting is not the answer, unless that fits your music. In most cases, shouting is counter productive to singing loud. Driving your vocal folds with more pressure than they can handle forces them to split apart and allows air to escape. The throat then braces in response to the leak, narrowing the area around your larynx. The extra muscle activity is successful in absorbing the load but also absorbs lots of overtones in the process. The sound produced from all this effort is distorted and thin, rather than loud and rich. You also wind up with a pair of very swollen vocal folds.

Volume, or amplitude, is measured by the height of a sound wave. The taller the wave, the more sound pressure it delivers. To make your voice loud, muscles inside your vocal folds contract to make them thicker. Like strumming a guitar with heavy gauge strings, the thicker folds require more force to vibrate but produce a much larger sound wave as a result. However, just as heavy strings require greater finger strength; thick folds are less flexible and require more internal strength to control. This is usually where we screw things up and cross the line into shouting. Since we cannot feel the muscles inside the vocal folds, we tend to turn on neck, jaw, tongue and facial muscles instead. This external blockade is what misguides us into overloading the larynx with too much pressure.

To discover what your folds can handle, deny the outside involvement. Open your mouth and sing any pitch. Gradually increase the volume without letting any visible muscles join in. Don’t let your jaw lock, your tongue roll back or your eyes bug out. Don’t be discouraged if this test reveals a weak result. The muscles within the folds are like any other in the body; they can be exercised to handle more load. If you repeat this crescendo exercise daily, you will learn to address the vocal folds with a proportionate amount of pressure. Stick with it and you will be amazed at how relaxed you can be when singing loud. Unfortunately, singing songs isn’t the best way to develop this. When we gig, we focus on our performance rather than form; there are usually a lot of tricks incorporated to get us through a set. The advantage of vocalizing is that we can isolate a target area. We want to stimulate the folds by asking for a little more volume each day, rather than irritate them with the instant demands of competing with the band. There’s no denying that your muscles will get stronger if you hit the road for a while, it’s just often the wrong muscles.

Volume is also a perceived quality. The energy of a high frequency excites the ear more than the slow lumbering wave of a low note, and so high notes are perceived as louder. That’s why it takes less power to drive the horns on a sound system versus the bass bins. For singers, this means promoting higher overtones will make your voice seem louder without working any harder. I’m not suggesting you rewrite your songs to include more high pitches; it’s just another reason not to shout. If unburdened, the throat can contribute a series of overtones, adding brightness which projects the voice. The highest overtone, which occurs between 2,500 and 3,200 Hertz, is what allows an opera singer to be heard above an orchestra without a microphone. To a non-classical singer, the added overtones allow your voice to cut through the mix when singing at a moderate volume, so no one has to turn down. The combination of stronger folds inside a relaxed throat cavity is the best situation of all. It will allow you to choose a dynamic based on the lyric rather than which notes are hard to sing. Shouting every note of a song will numb your audience, like a mother who always screams at her kids. Singers who are able to vary their dynamics and reserve the aggressive stuff for appropriate moments keep the audience engaged. So relax your throat and develop your instrument to handle the load of singing loud without stress, and save the shouting for the band meeting!