What is a "natural" sound? Part 1: Physiology

After a discussion regarding singers with exceptional range during pedagogy class, a student approached me about the concept of a "natural" sound. What is a singer's natural sound? What makes it natural? Why is it important to know what it is and to seek it out? Her question is one that gets to the root of some of the difficulties of singing and teaching singing. Over a few posts, I’ll cover several things that contribute to a “natural” singing voice.

  1. Physiology
  2. Native language(s) and regional accent(s)
  3. Singing emulated during formative years
  4. Emotions

Let’s begin with physiology. 

First and foremost, a person’s physiology...their body...determines their natural sound. There are three main areas of the body that play a part in a person’s sound.

  • the length and thickness of their vocal folds (the part that vibrates). The thicker the folds, the thicker/heavier the person’s sound. Thinner folds make lighter sounds. Thicker vocal folds are generally found in people with larger bone structures as well as in men (testosterone thickens the folds). Thinner vocal folds are generally found in people with smaller bone structures. 
  • the position of the larynx (the house for the vocal folds) when it’s not being pulled up or down by the muscles that can do that. The higher the larynx, the brighter the sound. The lower the larynx, the darker the sound. 
  • the shape of the vocal tract (basically, the throat and mouth) when it’s not being overly squeezed or tensed into rigidity by the tongue, jaw, and other muscles that surround the throat and mouth. This area is where we form words. Again, in general, bone structure greatly affects the size and shape here. Think of the tone difference between a trumpet and a trombone. 

Now, if we leave all of these elements in their resting positions the whole time we’re singing, the sound will be boring and monotone. We have to move them around and use them in different ways to make words, change volume, change pitch, and convey different emotions. So in good singing training, we contract and stretch as many of the muscles in these areas as possible, like yoga for the singing muscles.  

  • We practice thickening the vocal folds in order to have heavy, loud, and clear sounds.
  • We practice thinning the folds in order to have light, soft, and breathy sounds.
  • We practice letting the larynx rise to make brighter sounds.
  • We practice letting the larynx relax in a low position to make darker sounds.
  • We practice shaping and stretching the vocal tract for the seemingly infinite array of words, accents, inflections, etc. that help the listener connect to stories, emotions, times, places, ethnicities, etc.

However, just like in yoga, we don’t leave the muscles in an over-stretched or over-contracted position for too long. While good stretches and strengtheners are important, imagine trying to function in daily life while in downward dog, tree, or half-moon. The body would have to work MUCH harder in certain areas to keep us from falling over. Some muscles would get tighter/shorter while others got stretchier/weaker over time, depending upon what strange position we were holding for too long. Eventually, we can no longer move in ways the body was made to move. The body can’t find its natural posture as easily anymore because some muscles are too weak and some are too tight.

But, if we do yoga poses specifically to stretch the tight areas and strengthen the weak ones, and help the body coordinate in general, the better the body gets at finding and remembering what its natural state is supposed to be. We can move more easily in more ways. We can move longer without getting tired. Pain and tension release. 

The same is true with the muscles that control and affect the voice. The longer we hold the larynx up or down, the longer we strengthen the folds without stretching them (or vice versa), and the longer we shape the vocal tract in certain ways and not others, the fewer sound options we have over time. We lose parts of our range. We lose our softs or louds or both. Singing begins to feel like a strain. We lose our voice too often. Perhaps we even feel pain during or after singing. 

But, if we stretch the tight areas and strengthen the weak ones, and help the voice coordinate in general, the better the voice gets at finding and remembering what its natural state is supposed to be. As our voice moves toward its natural state...

  • We can making an ever widening array of sounds. 
  • Our range expands. 
  • We can sing softer and louder. 
  • We can sing fast passages more easily. 
  • We don’t get tongue tied. 
  • We can hold notes longer. 
  • We can sing for longer and longer periods of time without tiring.
  • We don’t lose our voice as often. 
  • We don’t feel pain or strain. 

Share your thoughts on the body’s relationship to the natural voice in the comment section below.