If I rap on a wooden table or hard surface you can hear the sound quite clearly without knocking on the table too hard. As well, the sound is crisp and bright. If, however, I knock with the same intensity on a pillow or soft surface, you hardly hear anything. As you learned in Grade 3 science class: Hard surfaces reflect sound; soft surfaces absorb sound.
There are two surfaces that are hard enough, and where air can reach in your head to create that resonance in the voice. The first is your hard palate, which is situated at the front of your mouth. The hard palate is made of bone and begins at your upper gum line and runs up about an inch and a half, ending under your eyes. If you take your index finger and place it on the bridge of your nose and then try to touch it inside your mouth with your thumb, you’ll see this is so. The hard palate ends just under the eyes and then the soft palate begins. This is also the highest part of the high palate or the “dome” of the palate.
The second area is your sinus cavities. You have eight of these in the front of your face. There are two large ones on either side of your nose, underneath your eyes, two medium ones between your eyes, and two little ones on either side of your head at your temples. These sinus cavities are holes in bone or holes in your skull, and are entered through the back of the throat.
If you compare your head to a two horned trumpet, the top horn would be your sinus cavities and the bottom horn would be your mouth. They’re joined together in a common neck called your windpipe, which also contains the vocal chords. If you could get your ear up to where the vocal chords tap together to create sound you wouldn’t hear anything. It’s only after you take that vibrating breath and amplify it in those two areas of the head, the sinus cavities and the mouth, that we hear someone talk or sing.
Air comes from the lungs, passes across your vocal chords and then goes up into your sinus cavities to resonates and produce head tone, head quality, or head voice. Some of the same air comes from the lungs, passes across the vocal chords, and resonates off the hard palate to give the singer mouth tone, mouth quality, or mouth voice. This mid-range tone (mouth voice) is a harsh, driven, “yelling”, type of sound, and for that reason the mid-range is called the “yell of the voice.” It’s only after the singer adds the head voice to the mouth voice that it becomes a singing sound, as the sinus cavities add the high end, or the “overtones.” If the singer is singing using both the “head tone” and the “mouth tone”, in essence the whole head or the whole skull is vibrating, and then those vibrations carry down through the hard tissues of the neck into the hollow portion of the chest and we get “chest tone, chest resonance, or chest voice.”
When we sing properly, we sing in “mixed voice.” This means that every time we sing a note, we should be using all three areas of the voice-the sinus cavities, (high end) the mouth,(the mid range) and the chest.(the bottom part of the note) Depending on where we are in our range, we’ll use more of one area and less of the other. For instance, if we were singing our highest note, there might be 50% created in the sinus cavities, 30 % in the mouth, and 20% in the chest. If we sing our lowest note, then the opposite would be true. The point I’m making here is that even high notes should have mids and lows, and low notes should have mids and highs. If you were to walk up to a bass player’s amp, all the knobs wouldn’t just read bass. There would be mids and highs as well. The same holds true for a voice. The exception is falsetto.
Falsetto or “false voice” (by it’s Latin root) is when a male singer “flips” his voice upwards and sings an octave higher into a female range. When a male singer does this, the vocal chords touch each other at either end. Normally they’re attached at one end and open at the other. This touching at either end effectively shortens the vocal chords, speeds up the frequency of vibration, and allows the male singer to sing into a female range. However this also eliminates the bottom and middle part of the note, as all the sound is now vibrating in the sinus cavities. (Note***This happens because the mind aims the sound. More on this in “Aiming the Voice”) This is why it is improper to jump into falsetto to hit a hit a high note, because there will always be a huge difference in sound. You are eliminating 2/3 of the note-the mids and lows, or in essence going from a “mixed” voice to a “false” voice. It’s akin to listening to your stereo at home and then suddenly the bass and mid speakers quit working.
Falsetto however, is used all the time in rock, pop, country, jazz, etc. as an “effect”. When Paul McCartney jumps into “falsetto” it isn’t to hit a high note, it’s for the effect of contrasting a “mixed” sound against a “false” sound. It’s written into the song for just that reason. The same holds true for yodeling where the singer is constantly jumping from a mixed to a falsetto sound to get a certain effect (yodeling).
Females do not have falsetto as they are already up an octave and their vocal chords are much shorter than males.. They can sing higher by thinking “up” however. (Sarah McLaughlin is a good example of this). This eliminates for the most part the mid and lower range which takes the “weight” off the voice and allows the female to sing higher.
Luckily we don’t have to worry about all three areas of the voice when we sing. We only have to worry about the mouth. The reason for this is that the mouth is the only area you can control. You can’t make your sinus cavities bigger or smaller or change them in any way, and your chest is bone. It’s fixed as well, but by lifting the back of the throat to relieve tension, by forming your lyrics with your tongue and your teeth, and by focusing your voice forward off the hard palate for resonance, you can control a large part of what you do with your voice.
The hard palate is called the sounding board of the voice, much like the sounding board in an acoustic piano. A sounding board in a piano amplifies the sound of the vibrating piano strings. In the case of the voice, the sounding board or hard palate amplifies the sound of the vibrating breath coming from your vocal chords. If you correctly focus your voice off the hard palate, the other two areas of vibration, the sinus cavities and the chest, are involved as a natural result. When the breath hits the hard palate or bone in the front of your mouth the vibrations carry up into your sinus cavities to add the high end of the voice. Once the sinus cavities are vibrating, in essence your whole skull is vibrating, and then those vibrations carry down the hard tissues of the neck into the hollow boney part of the chest for the low part of the note.
Common mistakes singers make are these:
A) They have to hit a high note so they look skywards for that note, tilting their head back and tightening their throat. That note isn’t being created in the top of your head however. Remember your highest note is mostly created in your sinus cavities, or in the front of your face no higher than your eyes. So what the hell are you looking up into the sky for? It’s only causing tension and also an “imbalance” to the note. (more on this in “Aiming The Voice). Singers do the same thing on low notes. They look down and in a lot of cases “swallow” the note, in the process choke themselves. Usually what happens when you swallow a note is that the tongue goes down at the back of your throat and you are indeed “swallowing” causing all sorts of tension once again on your vocal chords. When your tongue goes down at the back of your throat your body reads it as if you are trying to swallow food, and tightens all the muscles in the gullet to pull food down into the stomach. Food doesn’t just fall off the end of your tongue into your gut like something falling off a cliff. LOL. Singing should be an extention of your talking voice. When you talk to someone the head is level, not tilted up or down. As well, when a singer swallows a note the sound falls on the “soft” palate as opposed to the “hard” palate the note is lost. Remember: Soft surfaces absorb sound!
B) Another common mistake made by a lot of singers is that they know they have to sing a high note in a song and from the moment the song starts they’re already thinking about that damn note and psyching themselves out. Their shoulders come up, they tense up, and nine times out of ten they blow the note and their voice breaks or they go off key. As a singer you have to have confidence, and the best way to have confidence is to know that you are using a technique that is based on science and a knowledge of how your body creates sound. That’s the Bel Canto technique. When I had just started singing in l974 I was told I would lose my talking voice if I continued singing. I learned how to sing Bel Canto and now here I am many years later, 54 years old, and in better voice than ever. Not only that, I did it while singing heavy metal/heavy rock for 35 years!
In conclusion, if you learn how to lift your throat, focus the voice off the hard palate for resonance, and form the lyrics with your tongue and your teeth, three things should happen to your voice:
1) You should increase your range. The average range is two octaves or sixteen notes in mixed voice. The maximum range is three octaves or 24 notes, discounting falsetto, which is a “false” voice. Incidentally, the next time you have someone tell you they have a 7 octave range, go to a piano and make them prove it. It’s humanly impossible.
2) You will get a better tone. If your voice is forward on the hard palate the sound will be crisp and bright, whereas if the sound is in the back of the throat it will be muffled.
3) You will use less breath to make sound. It takes much less breath to make sound if your voice is focused off a hard surface (hard palate) than if you are in the back of your throat. (soft palate)