What Instrument Are You Playing When You Sing?

Ask any halfway decent guitarist to name the parts of his or her instrument and you’ll get a detailed guided tour. Ask the same question to most singers and you’ll get a blank stare. It’s a shame. Singers rarely educate themselves on the various parts of the body. They fear the knowledge will hamper free spirit. Ironically, this attitude often inhibits vocal ability due to common misconceptions. Many of us maintain a cartoon-like perception of anatomy. We picture, for instance, the lungs to be hollow, balloon-like organs occupying the entire area inside the rib cage. Our muscle behavior is based on these larger-than-life perceptions, causing problems with control.

Singing starts with an inhale. Most people know this action requires the diaphragm but are not aware of its location or how it works. Place your hand over your belly button. This area is NOT your diaphragm; it is the abdominal wall. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that divides your torso, separating the lungs and heart above (thoracic cavity) from the digestive organs below (abdominal cavity). To locate, place your finger at the bottom of your sternum bone (breast plate); the diaphragm crosses directly behind. Notice it is fairly high up inside the rib cage. Now place your hands on your chest, fingers facing up, with the base of the palms on your nipples. This provides a good visual of the size of your lungs. Made of thousands of tiny air sacks called alveoli, the lungs resemble dense sponges more than balloons. They are not muscular and cannot draw in air themselves; they are enlarged as the diaphragm descends (inhale) and reduced as the diaphragm returns (exhale).

When the term “support with the diaphragm” is used, people generally think it means to push. The typical response for fixing a bad note is to tighten the abdominal muscles and drive the air a little harder. That’s actually the worst thing to do. The word support means to “provide for” or to “maintain.” It does not mean to push from the abdominal wall. The diaphragm plays a supporting role in singing by providing a proportionate amount of air. Since every note we sing requires a slightly different pressure, it’s important that the diaphragm is able to move up and down freely. That way, it can make minute adjustments, increasing or decreasing force, in order to support the larynx with just the right environment.

The larynx is in the middle of the throat, sitting on top of the windpipe and is the vibrator of the instrument. Its inside diameter is about the size of a quarter. There are two horizontal flaps within the larynx, called vocal folds, which can partially cover the windpipe and vibrate when air passes through. These folds are similar to eyelids in size and shape but are covered by mucus membranes and need to be kept lubricated. There is a network of muscles in and around the folds that manipulate their tension for pitch change, thickness for volume and their position for a variety of tonal qualities. These muscles operate reflexively, like those of the eye, and work best when provided with an appropriate amount of air pressure.

There is a short stretch of throat above the larynx called the pharynx. It is the main resonator of the voice. Most of us imagine this area as having a large diameter; yet we know better than to swallow a penny. If the value of a large resonator isn’t clear, just think of a speaker cabinet. A small box can never enhance the sound as well as a large cabinet. The pharynx is lined with sensitive muscles that narrow the internal space further in response to contractions of the abdominal wall. The pharynx connects to the mouth and nasal cavities, also important resonators. The muscles of the tongue and jaw are the strongest in the body, and both brace instinctively to provide extra rigidity to the throat. All these closing actions greatly reduce the potential for overtones. Another reason not to over-drive your air pressure.

Every instrument requires a specific touch and the voice is no exception. Visualizing how small the parts of your instrument really are will help balance muscle activity. The goal is to use a minimum amount of force for a maximum amount of control. What I have provided here is a very basic overview. Do yourself a favor and explore an anatomy book. Notice the size, proportion and location of the various parts. The more you know about their functions, the easier it is to allow them to align and work together. Just ask any great guitar player and he or she is bound to say, “When the ax is set up just right, it’s a breeze to make it sing.”