Anatomy Of How To Sing High Notes Without Strain
Learn how your vocal instrument works and how to sing with ease!
Although there may be many different, and sometimes conflicting, methods on how to reach higher notes when singing. However, they all generally agree that higher notes become easier and more reliable if the singer minimizes tension throughout the vocal instrument. To do this, we need to create a proper balance of air pressure and muscle coordination within the singer’s body. Let’s start by answering a few common questions from a scientific and musical perspective:
What Is A High Note?
Musically speaking, a “high note” is nothing more than when an object is vibrating faster than a slower moving object. For example, when playing the A3 of a piano, the string will vibrate 220 times per second (hertz). Whereas playing an A4 will cause the string to vibrate 440 times per second. The same goes for the strings of a guitar, the reed of a clarinet and the vocal folds of a singer. As you can see in the piano chart below, a high note (such as an A4) is only “high” when compared to a lower note (such as A3) within the same song or melody. Neither of which are particularly high or low for that instrument.
This means that all notes, high and low, are completely relative! Does that mean there is no such thing as an actual high note? Not exactly. In the grand scheme of things, no human, not even Ariana Grande’s whistle tones, are going to come close to the capacity of some other instruments. But even comparing Ariana’s range to Stevie Wonder’s is fundamentally flawed. No two human instruments are alike! The same goes for songs. For example, the soaring high note in Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” should not be compared to the highest note sung at your cousins birthday party singing “Happy Birthday”. Every song AND every singer (instrument) has its own musical, mechanical and emotional agenda. This is what chasing high notes can be just as frustrating as it is rewarding.
So what can you do about your own voice? Can you increase our vocal range? Can you sing without strain or tension?
In short… YES!
To answer these questions and really make sense of it all, let’s take a step back for a moment to explore the anatomy of our instrument.
Anatomy Of Singing (High and Low)
To sing any pitch, high or low, we must first inhale by contracting our diaphragm (dome shaped muscle that separates our chest cavity from our abdominal cavity) downwards. This action pulls down on the lungs, allowing them to fill with air. Other muscles around the lungs (exterior intercostals) may expand as well, but it is best to minimize their involvement to make breathing when we sing as simple as possible.
Next, we do a controlled release of air by allowing our inhalation muscles to relax in an antagonistic relationship with the exhalation muscles (abdominal and interior intercostals) while bringing the vocal folds together (approximation) using the arytenoid muscles.
The vocal folds are located inside the larynx, also known as the ‘Adam’s Apple’ or ‘Voice Box’. The vocal folds are about half the size of your eyelids, and when air passes through them, they create a ‘mucosa wave’. The wave pushes air molecules into a pattern (frequency), that the human ear and brain can turn into a recognizable pitch.
We control pitch by modifying the tension of the vocal fold inside the larynx, similar to stretching the string on a guitar, a rubber-band, or the mouth of a balloon. For this, we use the cricothyroid, which tilts the thyroid cartilage forward, stretching or loosening the folds. The perfect amount of tension is created by working against the thyroarytenoid muscle, including the vocialis by extension, inside the larynx itself.
What Are Vocal Registers?
Aside from stretching in length, the folds can also become thick or thin, which will influence the vocal register as well as how high notes can be sung. From an anatomical perspective, these are five easily identifiable registers according to vocal fold position and activity: Vocal Fry, Chest, Head, Falsetto and Whistle. However, the middle three registers (chest, head and falsetto) are the ones most referred to when singing. The reason for this is that in order to increase range without straining, we need to be able to transition from one register to another smoothly. Here is a quick break down of the 5 vocal registers:
- Vocal Fry – lowest vocal register created by an irregular vibration of the folds and lack of air pressure with a slight release in the vocal folds’ tension
- Chest Voice – when the vocal folds are in a thicker position than head register, often associated with a “speaking range” of pitches
- Head Voice – when the vocal folds are in a thinner position than chest register, allowing them to vibrate at faster speeds, which creates a thinner quality in sound
- Falsetto – when the vocal folds are in a thinner position than head register and slightly separated so that mainly just the edges of the vocal folds vibrate at higher pitches than head voice
- Whistle – the highest vocal register, which takes place when the vocal folds are pulled tight with a tiny space for air to travel through, forcing air molecules to create high-pitched frequencies
The images below show a cross section of the vocal folds. The innermost layer is the vocalis muscle, which positions the outer layers to vibrate at desired speeds:
As a singer, it’s important to recognize that volume is a separate control from pitch. If a singer wants to become louder, more air pressure and a thickening of the vocal folds will be required. This is where a lot of frustration comes in for singers who want higher, yet louder, notes to rely on. If volume were to remain a constant throughout a singers vocal range, it takes LESS air to sing a higher note than a lower one. It’s only when they choose to sing louder on a high note, that more air will be required. We will try an exercise below that will help you develop this balance further.
Reduce Tension On Higher Notes
Here we go! Now that we have a better grasp on the mechanics of singing high notes, let’s turn our attention to HOW to sing them WITHOUT strain or discomfort. In order to reach higher notes, on any volume, without strain, there needs to be just the right amount of air pressure against just the right amount vocal fold tensions. If the balance is off for any reason, your body will often try to bring in other surrounding muscles in an effort to help. This is what creates unwanted whiny or strained tones, awkward facial expressions and a myriad of other issues when singing. Extended periods of imbalance and excess tension will cause the singer to fatigue quickly and possibly lose access to desired notes all together! To reduce tension and sing with ease, we need to build new healthy behaviors. The good news is, there are countless vocal exercises and singing tips available. Here are a four key tips to get you started right away:
Sounds simple, but this one will make a huge impact on your ability to access high notes and sing for long periods of time. Don’t forget how fast the vocal folds have to vibrate to produce a sound! The more they vibrate, the more frictions is created. And more friction, means more heat and swelling. The problem with that is the more the folds swell, the less stretchy and responsive they become. This is why high notes in head and falsetto registers are usually the first to go when the voice becomes fatigued.
Drinking plenty of water and hydrating your instrument will help to minimize friction by lubricate the vocal folds. Like putting oil in the engine of a car, a healthy amount of lubrication will allow the engine to run at higher speeds and for longer periods of time. Same goes for singers! When the folds become swollen and stiff, the body is inclined to engage other muscles, often leading to excess tension in the throat and an unnecessary force of air pressure. To learn more about how much to drink in general for the human body, check out this article from the Mayo Clinic.
2: Change Your Thinking
We’ve all heard the term “hit” when it comes to singing! But what does that mean exactly? In the discussion above on the anatomy of singing high notes, there was no mention of “hitting” a note. Yet that term is often used by singers to describe wanting to “hit the note”. Let’s take a moment to consider that the words you use in your mind to describe things have an origin of meaning. For example, when you first learned the word “up” or “high”, what did you associate that with? For most, it was something that was out of reach, something we couldn’t have, or something we need to get permission for, like the cookie jar on the high shelf of the kitchen. The problem for singers, is that the connotation of the word triggers emotional and physical behaviors that can confuse our intention.
Musicians use the word “up” and “down” for pitches because that accurately describes their relative location in notation of a musical staff. Of course a pianist knows he doesn’t need to reach to a key closer to the ground to play an A2, just as they don’t need to reach for a higher key from the group to play an A5. All of the keys of the piano are the exact same distance from the floor. So why do singers lift their chin, look up and stand on their tiptoes to reach a high note? Because their instrument is neurologically hard-wired to their thoughts! The same goes for “hit”. When you first learned what the word hit meant, it likely had to do with force or even pain (especially if you had any siblings!). Sure, there are plenty of instances when singing that the term “hit the note” is perfect, but that is only when it is emotionally or stylistically appropriate. You should never think vertically up or forcefully hitting a pitch just for pitches sake.
Instead, explore using “sing” the note, “vocalize” the pitch, “land” the melody etc. You will discover rather quickly how your body responds differently to these words!
3: Remove Muscle Tension
This may seem obvious for a blog about singing without strain, but which muscles should we relax and how do we do it while singing? Here are three simple ways to immediately reduce unnecessary physical effort and tension to achieve the notes you want to sing. Select a song that challenges you and try singing it while applying the suggestions below, one at a time:
- Lie down on a hard surface, with your feet flat on the floor and your head supported with a small pillow or rolled up towel. This gravitational shift will cause your body to redistribute its weight, reduce muscular tensions and amplify your awareness for breathing and any related tensions throughout the body. Once you’re able to gain vocal balance in this position, try reproducing it with the same degree of minimal effort when upright.
- Maintain a small circular motion with your head in a slow and steady manner while vocalizing. Keeping the larger exterior muscles busy with this light neck and shoulder massage will assist in neutralizing interior stress and help to focus on the small muscles that should be doing the work. Try using a mirror for visual feedback, consistency and accuracy. If you can get through the entire song without disrupting the circle, you’re ready to try the song with your normal posture and performance style.
- To help break the physical behavior of stressing muscles in the throat and neck region in association of a vertical perspective, as discussed above, try gazing downward towards the floor during the highest notes of a song. This action will help oppose the temptation to work harder than you have to to achieve a desired pitch. You can also apply the same approach while vocalizing! Simply tilt your head slightly downward while the scale goes upward and vice versa. The sooner you can re-write your mental programs for thinking “up” on a higher note, the better!
4: Vocal Range Exercises
Quality vocal practice and exercises (vocalizing) will help you to build new behaviors and possibilities within your singing. To develop your vocal range skills properly, start with a low volume. Just like starting with light weights in a regular gym. Only after you can demonstrate lifting 15 lbs with good form, will a trainer recommend that you try 20lb, and then 30lbs, and so on.
While maintaining a sense of ease throughout your body, slowly build up to a louder volume only after the lower volumes on the same notes feel effortless. Otherwise, other muscles may jump in and reinforce bad habits, resulting in inconsistent performances. Keep in mind, you can always modify volume and tone to execute the emotional intent of a song when singing, just not when training.
Here are three ONE MINUTE videos to learn range-based exercises:
Split Octave Glissando
It should be no surprise that doing something well takes practice… a LOT of practice. As nice as it would be to magically improve your voice overnight, it’s going to take time and dedication. So be patient with yourself while exploring your voice, especially when it comes to correcting bad habits. If you get frustrated quickly, your body is going to jump right back to tensing up – the very thing we’re trying to avoid!
As you continue to work towards your long term goals with advanced vocal skills and expanded range, here are a four tips you can follow to sing the songs you love right away:
- Increase or decrease volume (air pressure) in order to strategically place notes around the passaggio and allow for the voice to “crack” between registers when and where appropriate
- Consciously reduce neck tension and avoid looking or reaching upward in association with a high note, which has a tendency to invite more effort than necessary
- Change only the notes of the melody you are struggling with, whether low, high or amidst the passaggio
- If circumstances allow, adjust the key of the song up or down to make the notes of the melody throughout the song more accessible
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Anyone with a healthy larynx (voice box) and vocal folds are able to produce a wide range of pitches. The vocal folds are made of five layers of tissue inside of the larynx which vibrate when properly stretched and positioned against air flow (breath). If the folds are damaged, swollen or paralyzed for any reason, the range of motion and speed of vibration will be compromised. In most cases, limited vocal range is temporary and can be resolved with basic vocal maintenance and proper vocalizing (singing lessons can help). If the range of notes are noticeably compromised even when speaking for an extended period of time, consult a doctor.
The muscles used to tense the vocal folds and vibrate quickly on higher notes can not be felt, just like muscles of your heart. Therefore, any pain or discomfort associated with singing, high or low notes, suggest that you are using muscles in your throat not related to pitch. This is a common occurrence when an imbalance takes place inside the larynx and the brain calls upon on other muscles in the neck region to assist. For specific tips and techniques, review the “Reduce Tension On Higher Notes” above.
There are several reasons a singer might lose access to specific notes or even a range of pitches. Causes can include being sick, coping with allergies, going through puberty, abusing the voice with excessive yelling or screaming, not being hydrated, poor sleep schedule, smoking (cigarettes or otherwise), stress and so on. The first step is to make sure your body is balanced. To do so, hydrate often, sleep well, vocalize (exercises for the voice), and don’t panic! Fear of permanently losing your voice or high notes (we singers are known for dramatic thinking with a touch of paranoia!) will often cause the body to fight back with more tension and stress, amplifying whatever the underlying issue may be. To address one or two of the reasons listed above more specifically, consult with a well educated voice teacher or consult a doctor, especially if there is any chronic pain or discomfort related to the vocal loss.
Singing in a high chest register is commonly known as “belting”. Chest register is when the vocal folds are relatively thick, providing a rich timbre of sound (same range of notes we all generally speak in). To accomplish a high chest voice at a loud volume, or belt, the folds need to maintain a thick position while stretching in length. If the folds gradually thin into a head voice position (mix voice) or suddenly thin (creating a crack or yodel) to achieve a faster vibration, the desired sound is lost. Additionally, the laryngopharynx muscles, located just above the larynx in the lower part of the throat, contracts to narrow the resonating space with the mouth in an open position, creating a megaphone-type shape. Which is what gives the “belt” a megaphone-type sound. To do this safely without causing straining the voice, try working on songs in lower keys to build strength and proper coordination first, as well as vocal exercises that target various volumes within the passaggio (overlapping registers). In the end, if you can get the sound you are looking for with even a little less air pressure, it will allow you to sing for longer periods of time with less physical strain or effort.
Though some styles of music and singing invite intentionally imbalanced sounds and even abusive behaviors such as growls, sreams and grit, it should never hurt to produce a clear tone pitch. There are minimal pain sensors inside of your larynx (voice box), which means your brain is not alerted to when an imbalance is taking place by feel alone. By the time a singer FEELS discomfort in the throat (not just hears unwanted textures in their voice), an imbalance of air pressure and vocal fold tension has already occured, which is causing the body to tense neighboring muscle groups in order to stabilize a pitch no matter how high it might be. This is a very common scenario when attempting higher notes. Proper vocal care and vocalizing (voice exercises) will help you achieve your vocal range goals without hurting your voice.