‘Placement’ imagery can be a useful tool for some singers when discussing a topic like resonance in the voice studio. However, it is important to note voice science does not support the idea that sound can be ‘placed’ anywhere (especially not in an imaginary ‘mask’). More accurately, different types of resonance– AKA different ‘qualities’ and frequencies of sound– are produced via specific configurations of the vocal folds and the vocal tract. The simplest way to understand this is by exploring the source-filter model of the voice:
The vocal folds are, of course, the source of the sound. They are primarily driven by two sets of laryngeal muscles: the thyroarytenoids (TA) and the cricothyroids (CT). When singing with TA-muscle dominant production (sometimes called ‘chest register’ or ‘chest voice’), the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a long closed quotient phase (AKA the folds remain touching for a longer period of time). When singing with CT-muscle dominant production (sometimes called ‘head register’, ‘head voice’, or ‘falsetto’ for men), the vocal folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and there is a shorter closed quotient phase (AKA the folds remain touching for a shorter period of time). TA/CT muscle balance plays a major role in producing specific sound qualities.
The vocal tract is called the filter because it literally filters the sound produced by the vocal folds (boring, right?). It is essentially one long, adjustable sound resonating tube that consists of the throat and mouth coupled together. Any changes to this tube’s shape will result in sound quality– AKA resonance– changes. Here are some examples of specific vocal tract adjustments and their corresponding effects on sound:
- Rounding the lips will darken or add warmth to the sound. Spreading the lips will brighten the sound.
- Lowering the jaw will darken or add warmth to the sound (depending how spread the lips are). A smaller mouth/jaw opening will facilitate a sound with less warmth.
- Lowering and/or moving the tongue back will darken the sound. Raising and/or moving the tongue forward will brighten the sound.
- Lifting the soft palate– AKA the fleshy area just behind the hard roof of the mouth– will darken or add warmth to the sound. Lowering the soft palate will brighten and potentially add varying degrees of nasality to the sound.
- Widening the pharynx– AKA the space in the throat behind the mouth and nose above the larynx– will darken or add warmth to the sound. Narrowing the pharyngeal space will brighten the sound.
- Lowering the larynx– AKA the voice box that can be felt as a ‘bump’ in the front of the neck– will darken or add warmth to the sound. Raising the larynx will brighten the sound. IMPORTANT NOTE: The larynx should not be forcibly manipulated up or down (its position is largely a byproduct of other factors).
The number of possible vocal fold (source) and vocal tract (filter) adjustments is practically endless. This is one of the reasons the human voice is often considered the most complex and adaptable instrument on the planet. Additionally, all of the sound adjustments above can be achieved without ever once mentioning ‘placement’ or ‘placing the sound’. So, the next time you sing/vocalize, try experimenting with some of these adjustments. You might be surprised by the sounds you are able to create!
P.S. Check out the performance by Christina Bianco below for examples of masterful vocal fold and vocal tract adjustments (there is always more than one way to use the voice!):