Violin, Vocal Cords
There’s a theory that the violin was made to sound like the human voice. As a violin player, I can attest to the degree of precision one needs in order to coax out that sound. So what makes the human voice so special? Why, the muscles of the vocal cords! With practice, humans can make some pretty incredible sounds, from falsettos to vocal fry to whistle notes.
There are a total of 6 muscles that open and close when you breathe and talk. They control pitch, tone, volume, and air flow. Since they all have long names, I’ll only focus on two of them in this post: the thyroarytenoid muscle and the cricothyroid muscle. These two muscles change how thick or thin your vocal cord folds are. The thicker the folds, the lower your voice, the thinner, the higher.
The thyroarytenoid muscle runs the length of your vocal cords (up and down) and is responsible for tightening and shortening the folds and allowing air to vibrate as it passes through. This produces your regular speaking voice and any other lower registers.
The cricothyroid muscle is responsible for thinning the folds, creating a higher voice. You use this muscle when you want to mimic chipmunks speaking.
Two examples of voices on either ends of the pitch spectrum are: the vocal fry voice and falsetto voice. If you don’t know what vocal fry sounds like, I suggest watching a clip of Kourtney Kardashian talking. It’s the low crackly sound that she and many other women use at the end of their sentences. This sound is created by tightening the thyroarytenoid muscle till the vocal folds are all wrinkly and smushed together. Air bubbles through and the effect is the vocal fry sound.
Falsetto voices are made by relaxing all the muscles and allow only the cricothyroid muscle to tighten. This creates a high, usually raspy or breathy voice that is more noticeable in men than women. Some men are able to strengthen the cricothyroid muscle so that their falsetto and their regular voice are almost indistinguishable. This is not the same as a castrato, just FYI.
Also, on a side note (get it?), singers like Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande who can sing whistle notes are not using their falsetto voice. The whistle register is not well studied because it’s hard to see what is happening in the vocal cords since the epiglottis closes down on top of the laryngeal opening. It’s hypothesized that this epiglottal closing and the combination of vibrations at the very top of the vocal cord produce the whistle note.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you want to test your thryoartytenoid and cricothyroid muscle, I suggest practicing a bit of yodeling or running scales like a fancy blues singer. Both these activities start with using the thyroartytenoid, then switch to the cricothyroid as the notes get higher and higher. The switch from one muscle group to the other is the break that you hear (purposely, in yodeling). To make that break sound seamless, simply practice (or so I’ve been told). Give it a shot, let me know your results in the comments below!