Lingua East

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Tag: vocal folds

The Mechanics of Speech

Remember learning about Rube Goldberg machines? These machines employ a series of mechanical processes that eventually result in an action. Speech production is similar to a Rube Goldberg machine. After the brain figures out what we want to say (which is accomplished through electrical and chemical means), the rest of speech production is surprisingly mechanical.

Voice Production

The Bellows

Maybe you’ve used a bellows to blow some life into a fire. You might have noticed the sound of the air rushing out of the bellows and how it changed depending on how quickly you moved the handles together. Or maybe you have created a squealing sound by stretching the opening of an inflated balloon and allowing the air to escape through the tight but unblocked opening. With a little bit of force and in close quarters, moving air can produce sound.

 

Image: Lisa Ann Yount

Image: Lisa Ann Yount

In speech production, the moving air comes from the lungs. We use muscles, including the diaphragm, to get the air moving. It travels up out of the lungs and into the throat, where it meets the larynx.

 

The Whoopee Cushion

Whoopee cushions are immensely entertaining. That is not just because of the ease with which you can trick someone into thinking they have farted, but rather, because the whoopee cushion creates its comical sound via air flowing through a flappy opening. The vocal chords (a.k.a. vocal folds), are like the flappy opening of a whoopee cushion. Just as you can shift the opening of a balloon or whoopee cushion to alter the pitch of the sound that is created by the escaping air, we adjust our larynx to change the pitch and quality of our voice. These adjustments are made using muscles that move cartilaginous structures attached to our vocal folds.

Image: Jason Meredith

Image: Jason Meredith

Voice is produced as it travels through the opening in the vocal folds on its journey from the lungs. The vocal folds are made of muscle with a flexible, stretchy, flappy cover, like the rubber of a whoopee cushion. The sound that comes out of the opening in your vocal folds is your voice.

The Bottleneck

Have you ever blown air across the top of a bottle to make a sound? You can change the sound a little by shifting your lips, but the nature of the sound that you can make with a bottle depends the most on the volume of air inside the bottle. The more liquid there is (in other words, less air), the higher-pitched the sound will be. An empty bottle makes a low-pitched sound.

Image: Dean Hochman

Image: Dean Hochman

Air resonates in a bottle like the voice resonates in the air-filled chambers of the head and neck (a.k.a. the vocal tract). The sound waves of a speaker’s voice explode out of the vocal folds and bounce around at the back of the throat, in the mouth, and up into the nose. The speaker can greatly affect the quality of the sound of their voice using the muscles of the throat and mouth to position their larynx and the surfaces of the vocal tract.

Articulation

Over the years, people have created duck calls, a type of whistle designed to – like a duck’s own vocal tract – cut through the noise of water to attract ducks. There are a number of duck calls out there, with each design offering a different ducky sound. Key features of duck call designs are the use of vibrating reeds to create the sound when someone blows into the whistle, and the blockages through which the sound waves travel before leaving the whistle. The structure of these duck calls can vary greatly, with different whistles producing very different sounds.

Image: www.patentswallart.com

Image: www.patentswallart.com

Spoken language is a series of sounds that we create using the air we move from our lungs out our mouth (and nose). What makes it so complex is our ability to produce – and understand – a lengthy series of these sounds at high speed. We produce the sounds of speech with our lips, tongue, and the flap of tissue that separates the air in the mouth from the air in the nose.

Different sounds are produced by changing the airflow in the vocal tract in different ways. Speakers can do this by forcing the air through a smaller space (like when a pirate bunches up their tongue to say, “arrrr”), and by blocking the air (like when a diner forces the air out through the nose to say, “mmm” or a thirsty baby moves their lips together and apart to say, “baba”).

Putting it Together: Whoopee Cushion to Duck Call

Around the globe, there are over 100 different speech sounds, and all are created out of thin air[1]. When we speak, we move air from our lungs through our vocal folds, and we manipulate it for each sound. Speakers combine speech sounds in infinite ways to communicate. A listener’s ability to process a series of speech sounds quickly depends on their knowledge of the language spoken and their experience using that language, as well as the speaker’s precision of production. Just as one small change in the design of a duck call can change the sound it produces, a small change in the position of the larynx or tongue can significantly change the sound a speaker produces.

When you know the words you want to say but you feel that your speech production could be more precise, that’s where speech trainers come in. At Lingua East we can help you turn the air in your lungs into speech that people understand. Drop us a line and we’ll help you out. Go on, let them hear your ideas!

[1] While most (such as the sounds in Standard American English) are created using air from the lungs, some speech sounds, such as the various clicks in African languages, are created by drawing air in.

Why Your Vocal Folds are Like Jellyfish, or The Four Kinds of Voice

Your vocal folds are like jellyfish. They’re like jellyfish in that they are surprisingly complex and they move in an interesting way. You can see this in videos recorded with a strobe (so the vocal folds look like they’re moving in slow motion) like the one here.

As you saw in the video, there are different ways you can use your vocal folds to create different types of voice. In general, there are four different ways you can use your vocal folds, and each way creates a different type of voice. The four voices have different pitch and quality characteristics, and to produce each voice, you use your vocal folds and the surrounding muscles and tissue in a unique way.

jellyfishThe first kind of voice is the voice you use when you’re talking normally. In the speech world, this is called modal voice, and singers call it chest voice because the sound vibrations are more in the chest cavity than anywhere else. This voice is loud and clear.

Like trying to tickle yourself doesn’t really work, trying to get to the right pitch when you’re thinking about your voice is not easy. You can use an easy trick to find your ideal pitch. I recommend you do exercise while sitting down. If you try it standing up, your tensed abdominal muscles will make it difficult. First, shake everything out and relax. Then, in as low a pitch as you can before it gets uncomfortable, hold a prolonged “oh”. With your index finger, poke your belly a couple inches above your belly button.

As you do this several times, you will notice that the sound of your voice changes. You should hear your voice rise in pitch as your finger goes in, and fall back to the low pitch you started at as you move your finger away from your body. The highest pitch your voice reaches during this exercise is your ideal pitch. If it helps, try doing the exercise and holding “oh” at your ideal pitch as you move your finger away from your belly.

The second kind of voice is still clear, but it’s quieter than modal. It’s a thin voice, or in the singing world, head voice. When you produce this voice, your vocal folds spend the same amount of time apart as they do together, and have a bit more tension on the outside.

To find your thin voice, there’s a simple singing exercise you can do. Produce a prolonged “ee” at a comfortable, perhaps even low, pitch. Put your hand on the back of your neck. You should feel the vibrations of your voice there. Now, increase your pitch, gliding up to as high of a note as you can while keeping your voice [relatively] smooth. Pay attention to where the vibration goes. You should feel it moving up your throat into your mouth and even higher in your head. Isn’t that cool?

The more you practice getting into each voice, the easier it will be.

The more you practice getting into each voice, the easier it will be.

The third kind of voice is stiff, but you probably know it by its other name, falsetto. In stiff voice, there is a lot more tension in the vocal folds, which are actually apart at the back. Therefore, stiff voice sounds breathy and quiet.

You can get to your stiff voice using the same pitch glides that you used to find your thin voice. When you increase the pitch, you’ll reach a point where you have to shift things around in your throat to go higher. That shift, in case you’re wondering, is you releasing contraction of the interarytenoid and lateral cricoarytenoid muscles and moving your vocal folds apart in the back. After you’ve made that shift and gone higher, you’re into your stiff voice. How does it feel different from modal or thin voice?

The fourth kind of voice is the kind that has been getting quite a bit of mainstream attention in recent years, slack, or glottal fry. Just do a Google search of “glottal fry” and the results will convince you that this type of voice is a fad among young women and it will ruin your life. While shocking search results may be enticing, there is nothing to worry about.* fry is a normal part of voice that speakers of all genders use to varying degrees in different dialects.

There was a great article a few months back in the ASHA Leader about glottal fry. You can read it here.

This kind of voice sounds creaky, and quieter than modal voice. With glottal fry, your vocal folds spend more time closed than they do open, and they vibrate inconsistently. You probably already know how to produce this type of voice: block off the air in your throat by closing your vocal folds and slowly let the air out. Hear the creakiness?

It is remarkable to think about all the things your vocal folds do for you. They help you sing, laugh, pick up heavy objects, and to tell that special someone that you love them. Be sure to treat your voice well. Check out my article on Why You Should Be Kind To Your Voice to learn some tips for keep your voice healthy.

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*If fry is the only thing your voice is doing, then seek help from an ENT, as that could indicate a voice disorder like muscle tension dysphonia or vocal fold lesions.

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