Rebecca Sherburn - voice expert

What is Phonation in Singing?

Learn about phonation to help you understand how the voice works

In this video, Dt. Sherburn teaches about Phonation and how important it is to understand how the voice works, with the goal to improve your vocal skills.

Released on April 4, 2018

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Doctor Rebecca Sherburn the Director of Vocal Studies at Chapman University in Southern California. This video is a part of a series presented by Virtual Sheet Music called, "How the Voice Works." In previous videos, we've talked about the fact that every instrument has three main parts: a motor, a vibrator, and a resonator. Today, we're going to take a look at the vibrator in the human voice and its part in singing, a process called phonation.

The vocal folds, which actually do vibrate, are behind the thyroid cartilage, which is part of the larynx. The larynx is located high in the throat right about here in a woman. In a man, it can be lower, which is partly why men's voices are lower, down here behind their Adam's apple. The larynx is made up of cartilage, muscles, and ligaments. The vocal folds are actually ligaments. Here's a huge model. The head that would fit on top of this larynx would be about this big, like a giant. So, it's a giant's larynx. The actual size of the larynx might be about the size of a walnut like that. So, working up from below, this is the cricoid cartilage. It's a continuous ring, the top ring of the trachea. Above the cricoid cartilage, is the thyroid cartilage, that's the Adam's apple. And behind that, are the vocal folds, right here on this model. So, we're now looking through the top of the head, down the throat as if the front of the giant's face was looking at the floor. The vocal ligaments have muscles on either side built to stretch so that we can change pitch. The muscles are missing on this model. We just have these kinds of sad looking leather bands here representing the vocal folds. So, when we exhale, air passes over the vocal folds and they vibrate. The speed with which they vibrate is heard as a specific pitch. Four hundred and forty vibrations per second, the pitch A above Middle C, sounds like this, ah. My vocal chords are vibrating 440 times per second as I sing that pitch. Ah. That's just amazing. If you were to see that in real time, looking at a video of the vocal folds, you wouldn't even be able to see them move, it's just a blur. So, you can see on the model that the vocal folds are fixed in the front, and they open in the back when we breathe. Air passes over them, and they vibrate together as we speak or sing. The vibrating of the vocal folds is called phonation. Put your hand gently on your larynx and phonate, just say something. "Hi. How are you?" Can you feel the vibrations on your hand? They come from the vocal folds hitting very quickly together.

So, how we start a tone in singing is really important, because the way the vocal folds come together will affect the entire phrase. We call the start of tone an onset. There are three types of onsets. In the first, a glottal stroke, the vocal folds begin in a tightly closed position. So, hold your breath as to lift something heavy, close your vocal folds, and then let the air explode as you say, "Ah." Try it again. "Ah." It's kind of like a cough. Like that. Although it can bring more volume, generally, we do not want to start the tone this way because it's harsh in sound, and it can tire the vocal folds, and it's also not really very pretty. So, we rarely use glottals in English, never in Italian, never in French. The exception is the German language. Any word that begins with a vowel in German, can have a glottal stroke. But if you listen to professional German singers, they don't use glottals all the time, and they're fairly gentle with them. Here's the phrase, "Always love me," in German. "Liebe mich immer". So, that was just a gentle separation on the word, "immer" because it begins with a vowel. Here's a real glottal stroke on "immer." "Liebe mich immer". So, you can hear the difference. One is gentle, one's a lot more aggressive.

In the second type of onset, the folds are rather loose. Say an "H," and let your breath flow. Happy birthday. That's a breathy onset. And we don't want to start the tone that way either because it wastes air, it can lack in volume and color, and it can also tire the vocal folds eventually. What we want is the third option, a coordinated onset, and this should feel easy in your throat and sort of hummy or buzzy up in this part of your face, which we call the mask. If you watched the previous videos on breathing, you remember that there are four parts to the breath cycle: inhalation, suspension, exhalation, and recovery. Phonation happens after suspension. We inhale, stay for just a second in suspension, then gently bring the vocal folds together for a coordinated onset, as we exhale, in singing or speaking, then we recover, waiting just a split second before inhaling again. It looks like this. Ah. Here's an onset that's breathy, Ha. And here's an onset with a glottal, Ah. We want the first one, the coordinated gentle onset. So, let's sing some exercises. After deep inhalation and a brief suspension with the throat open, bring the vocal folds together gently in a coordinated onset on the vowel, Oo, ready? Oo. Let's try that again. Ready? Oo. Now let's do the same exercise with a glottal stroke. After deep inhalation, suspend your breath by closing your vocal folds tightly as if you were going to lift something heavy and then let them burst open. It's sort of like a cough. Again on an Oo vowel. Ready? Oo. Let's try that again. Oo. Okay, and finally, let's try a breathy onset. After deep inhalation, don't suspend your breath, rather just let it leak out in a soft sigh beginning with an H, still using an Oo vowel. Ready? Hoo. Let's try that again. Hoo. So, it's pretty easy to feel, and to hear, that a coordinated onset, the first one we worked on, is the most efficient way to phonate. It's the healthiest way to start the tone. And with this coordinated onset, we have the most control over our singing phrase. So, that's it really. Phonation is about onset. Make it coordinated, make it healthy. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Rebecca Sherburn - host, on April 18, 2020 @7:42 am PST
Hi Toni,
So glad this helped you! Thanks for letting us know.
Toni Height on April 17, 2020 @10:08 am PST
I learned new things about what my voice does.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on April 17, 2020 @10:10 am PST
That's great to know Toni! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Please, feel always free to contact us with any questions or ideas you may have, we will be always glad to hear from you, at any time.

Enjoy your stay, and keep up the great music!
Clifford Barcliff on April 4, 2018 @8:29 am PST
Is there a difference between mouth and nasal breathing?
Rebecca Sherburn - host, on April 5, 2018 @9:38 am PST
That's a good question! Some singers breathe through the nose because it helps them feel their breath lower in the torso. It takes longer to get the air in through the smaller passage of the sinus and during that time, one can relax the large muscles of the torso. The only time this doesn't work is when we have music that is continuous, with no rests to take a slow deep breath. Another good reason to breathe through the nose is that it helps prevent the mouth from drying out. Thanks for asking!
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