Anyone Can Sing, Pt. 1: The Anatomy of Singing

I believe anyone can sing when they’re given the right tools. It’s especially helpful when we understand the built-in tools we have to work with: our vocal anatomy.

Basic Anatomy. There’s more than just the vocal cords (aka the vocal folds). Other parts of the singing anatomy include the lungs, diaphragm, larynx, vocal folds mouth, tongue, nasal passages, and the accessory muscles of exhalation. This may sound like a lot to learn, but they each flow into one another like the well-designed machines they are.

Bellows

The Lungs and Muscles. If you’ve ever used a fireplace, you know what bellows are. These pull in air when forced open and push out air over the fire when forced to close. Our lungs are kind of like this, filling with air as they expand. The diaphragm, a muscle in our chest, is what pulls open our lungs. And like bellows, once our lungs are filled, we can blow out most of that air forcefully.

Note that I said “forcefully”: with usual exhalation, we only push out part of our lungs’ air capacity. This is due to the lungs’ natural ability to snap back to their original shapes after inhalation but no further.

But bellows can be emptied, and so we can squeeze out our lungs even more (though still not completely) by using other muscles. These muscles are called “accessory muscles of exhaustion” and include the muscles between our ribs and also our abdominal muscles. When these squeeze, our chest becomes even smaller, forcing our lungs to further empty. It’s this extra squeeze that gives our singing voices good, long, and voluminous sound.

Ever since I was a little kid I’d sing as softly as possible. This was because I didn’t want others hear, so even though I sang everyday on the bus, no one heard more than a whisper. Thing is, when I first tried singing louder, I assumed that I should just force air through my larynx and vocal folds. I was unaware of the concept of lungs as bellows.

Vocal Folds. I really don’t believe there is any magical, ideal set of vocal folds (aka vocal cords). This is because they’re part of a larger vocal machine. In addition to the lungs and muscles we talked about, the vocal folds work in partnership with the larynx, throat, mouth, tongue, and nasal passages. The larynx is the tube that connects the lungs to the throat. The mouth, throat, and nasal passages provide a resonating chamber that gives quality to the voice, and this quality is unique to every person. Given the right training, you can take advantage of what makes your voice unique. And the tongue is used to change the shape of the resonating chamber, in particular to form the words we sing. With training, the way we form our words too can be refined.

Stay tuned for more on singing! See Part 2 here.

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