Singing science: Why do some people have better voices than others?
From belting out ballads like Adele to crooning along to Frank Sinatra, singing is an ability we all possess. We may not all be talented enough to reach the top of the charts, but we can all produce some sort of tune, which all stems from a clever little organ in the neck.
Also known as the voice box, the larynx is your own complex musical instrument. It contains vocal folds, better known as vocal cords, which vibrate to produce your voice, but the type of sound created depends on a number of factors.
The amount of air forced out of the lungs controls the volume, so a greater exhale of breath will generate a louder sound, while the pitch is determined by how fast your vocal folds vibrate. A slower vibration will produce a lower note and a faster vibration will produce a higher note. It works in a similar way to the strings on a guitar, with the speed of the vibration influenced by the physical characteristics of the strings.
For example, the thicker and longer the guitar strings, the slower they vibrate when plucked, thus producing a low-pitched note. Similarly, the thicker or longer your vocal folds, the lower the sound they’ll produce when vibrating. This is why men, who typically have thicker and longer vocal folds than women, also have deeper voices.
While you may not have control over the size of your vocal folds, you can control their tightness, and this also affects pitch. Muscles in your larynx create tension on your vocal folds, and can tighten them so they vibrate faster and produce a higher note or loosen them to vibrate slower and produce a lower note. Learning how to control these muscles, and therefore your pitch, is just one step to becoming a better singer.
Why are some people naturally good at singing?
No matter how much practice you have or how good your vocal coach is, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to win Eurovision. The fact is some people are just born with a naturally great singing voice. The shape and size of their vocal folds plays a part in this, but so does the measurements of their mouth, throat and nasal cavities. These are the body’s natural resonators, meaning they can help enhance the tone and intensity of the voice. This is what creates the distinctive nasal tone of some country music stars and the more breathy voice of Marilyn Monroe, for example. You may not be able to control the natural tone of your voice, but you can adjust the style by making use of particular resonance chambers in your body. For example, if you want your voice to have an airy quality, try directing the vibrations toward the back of your mouth.
How can I become a better singer?
Anyone can become a better singer with the right training and enough practice. The problem for most bad singers is the inability to imitate the correct notes. Perceiving the notes isn’t the problem, because this is how they recognise tunes in the first place, but when it comes to controlling the tension of the vocal cords to match the same pitch, they often struggle. This is simply a case of poor wiring in the brain, but with plenty of practice the brain can be reprogrammed to give the larynx muscles the correct instructions to produce the right sounds. For many people, inefficient breathing can also hinder their ability to carry a tune. However, by training themselves to breathe by moving their diaphragm – not their chest and shoulders – they can prevent their vocal folds from tightening when they inhale and air from being forced out too quickly when they exhale, thus having better control over their voice.
For more incredible science, make sure you pick up the latest copy of latest issue of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the My Favourite Magazines. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download a digital edition for iOS or Android. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works, make sure you subscribe today!
Plus, take a look at: