Understanding and Increasing Vocal Resonance

Amplify and Improve Color of Voice

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Image courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via flickr cc license

Reed instruments are loud enough to be heard over an entire string orchestra because of their efficient use of resonance. But remove their small wood piece called a reed, and the instrument loses its ability to project. Similarly the voice can also be heard over an orchestra, even a full one with added brass and reed instruments. Take away the vocal cords and the voice’s ability to make sound is greatly reduced.

This may lead people to believe the secret to loud sound lies within the vocal cords, but resonance is the true secret to vocal volume. In addition, carefully choosing what overtones are amplified will create a beautiful, balanced vocal tone incorporating both warmth and brightness.

What is Resonance?

Resonance amplifies sound. It also adjusts the color and timbre of the voice by intensifying certain vocal qualities over others. In other words, some resonators make the tone quality of the singer warm and others bright. All increase the overall volume. Vocal cords start sound. And like a well-designed recital hall, the body reflects and increases the sound. Learning to create the best, most efficient space for resonance begins with learning about the main resonance chambers of the human body that singers have an influence over.

Where Does Vocal Resonance Occur?

The pharyngeal cavity is where most vocal resonance occurs.

It consists of the cavities above the larynx including the throat, mouth, and nasal cavities. The names for these three areas are: the laryngopharynx, oropharynx, and nasopharynx. Other cavity resonators within the body contribute to vocal sound, but are not generally thought to be consciously controllable.

The trachea is one example, which some claim can be accessed by listening for a deep rattling sound and grunting. The lungs themselves and bronchi may vibrate sound, as well as the laryngeal cavities themselves. In addition to cavities, surfaces of the body reflect resonance and vibrate like sounding boards. Everything between the chest and head contributes to vocal resonance. Singers have no control over surface resonators, but may feel them vibrate.

What is Laryngopharynx Resonance?

The laryngopharynx is located in the upper part of the throat between the top of the larynx and base of the tongue, and adds warmth to the voice. The space is surrounded by muscle and is tube-like in shape. Singers can change the diameter and length of the laryngopharynx, but not the shape. A high larynx shortens the tube and a lower one lengthens it. A neutral laryngeal position is ideal for singing, making the tube around four to five inches in length. The diameter is reduced or enlarged slightly be engaging or disengaging the muscles on the inside of the tube.

How to Add Warmth and Volume to Voice Using Laryngopharynx Resonance

If your voice is overly bright, then focusing on laryngopharynx resonance will significantly improve your tone.

However, placing too much focus on the area creates a swallowed tone. Learn to resonate using the laryngopharynx by creating a larger diameter inside your throat by lowering the larynx and relaxing throat muscles. Do this by closing the mouth and breathing deeply as if about to yawn. You should feel the back of the throat enlarge and larynx lower. Seek a neutral laryngeal position, not higher and only slightly lower than when speaking normally. Sing a note on ‘ah’ while maintaining the feeling of a deep breath before a yawn. How is your sound and projection affected? If your volume and warmth increase, then you have increased laryngopharynx resonance.

What is Oropharynx Resonance?

The oropharynx is the space located from the base of the tongue to the soft palate. The mouth, tongue, jaw, and lips affect its shape and size.

Lowering the jaw widens the space, and closing the jaw decreases its space. Pressing the back of the tongue against the back of the mouth as in ‘ng’ creates a humming sound as it stops air from passing through the mouth. The oropharynx is where consonants are created. While its adjustability makes language possible; when used as a sole resonator, vocal sound becomes inconsistent or wonky.

What Should I Consider When Apply Oropharynx Resonance to Singing?

The mouth is constantly moving to create words. If singers focus their energy into the mouth, then the result is inconsistent resonance. On the other hand, singers who spend ninety percent of time on vowels and focus vowel resonance in the laryngopharynx and nasopharynx find consistency of timbre and volume throughout the range of their voice and regardless of the words sung. Sometimes vowel resonance created in the oropharynx is referred to as “mouthy singing.” It means a singer neither projects well nor sounds beautiful on a consistent basis. The sound goes in and out creating a ‘wa-wa’ effect. Learn to hold the mouth steady while singing vowels in order to avoid this.

What is Nasopharynx Resonance?

The nasopharynx is made up of the nasal cavities above the soft palate and adds a bright quality to the voice. While singers should avoid singing through the nose by lowering the soft palate excessively, with some air flowing through the nasal cavities vocal sound is bright, beautiful, and projected. High notes are easy to sing and hear. Flaring the nostrils also adjusts the shape and size of the nasopharynx. Many singers learn to raise their soft palate by imitating a yawn, which raises the palate high enough to close off nasopharynx resonance completely. While yawning familiarizes students with the soft palate, carefully avoid raising the palate as high when singing.

How to Add Brightness and Volume to Voice Using Nasopharynx Resonance

Inexperienced singers close off the space almost automatically, particularly as they sing up the scale.

You may test nasopharynx resonance by pinching your nostrils as you sing. Some consonants will feel impossible to sing, because they require large amounts of air to pass through the nostrils. These are: ‘m,’ ‘n,’ and ‘ng.’ If all your notes feel like these three consonants, then you are singing too nasally. If you instead feel vibrations in the bridge of your nose as you touch it, then you sing with nasopharynx resonance. If no sensation is felt, then try to imagine singing into the mask of the face, or the area below the eyes where a Mardi Gras mask touches (the bridge of the nose and upper cheeks). The entire area should feel buzzed or full of vibrations.

Use Your Imagination to Resonate

Resonance is greatly improved by imagining a focused tone. You may envision your sound coming out of your forehead for high notes or out of the top of your head. Pointing the tone or singing into the mask of your face will also greatly affect your vocal resonance. These imaginations work better for some than others. As you learn what works, a friend or voice teacher with a trained ear is vital. Your voice sounds different from within your body than from without, so specific feedback will guide you to create the most beautiful tone quality. Though recording and listening to yourself sing may be better than guessing what you sound like, many students are uncomfortable by significant resonance changes because they no longer “sound like themselves.” A little reassurance from a professional or semi-professional can go a long ways in these cases.

Integrate Resonators

Though you may focus on one area of the pharynx over another as you familiarize yourself with resonance, professionals use all the spaces to resonate. Combining both bright and warm qualities makes a voice interesting and brings out its natural uniqueness. Avoid imitating other singers as your voice may be entirely different than theirs. Though you may successfully sound like someone by altering your resonance chambers, doing so does not help you reach your fullest vocal potential. Over focus on one area of the pharynx is detrimental. For instance, focusing on the laryngopharynx alone can make a singer sound swallowed or too dark. The oropharynx is so diverse that fixating on it causes inconsistent sound going back and forth from loud and soft. Too much nasopharynx resonance makes singers overly bright. Using the entire pharyngeal cavity throughout the range of your voice will provide balance in volume and timbre. Dr. Clayne Robison, a prominent voice coach in Utah, expressed integration of resonance as a “crusty banana” with two black ends. One black end represents nasopharynx resonance and the other represents laryngopharynx resonance. The analogy represents the two being on opposite sides and also provides a somewhat tubular shape similar to the inside of the throat to visualize. When looked at this way, the center of the banana represents the oropharynx between the two extremes. Learn to use the entire pharynx as you sing and the result is lovely, loud, long-lasting, and laudable.

Why You Should Spend More Time on Vocal Resonance

Vocal resonance improves projection, vocal beauty, and articulation. Resonance is like learning to roller skate or ride a bike. It may take some time to master the skill, but once learned it is never lost. That is why it has the most bang for your buck, in terms of effort versus results. Other vocal skills like breath management require muscles to be constantly in shape. Many popular singers have mastered the skill of vocal resonance and avoid having to use other skills by singing songs with short phrases, a narrow vocal range, easy to articulate words, and fewer dynamic variations. If all you want to do is sing simple songs well, then it makes sense to start your vocal journey by understanding and controlling vocal resonance first. To aid in your journey, practice these ten vocal warm-ups to improve resonance.