JUST HOW LOW IS THE 'LOW' LARYNX?
Notes to my students
by Joseph Shore
Let us recap some previous studies and relate them to your experience. You will remember from Sundberg and Fant that the formula for laryngeal lowering and creation of the singer's formant is precise: "It can be calculated that if the area of the outlet of the larynx into the pharynx is less than a sixth of the area of the cross section of the pharynx then the larynx is mismatched with the rest of the vocal tract; it has a resonance frequency of its own, largely independent of the remainder of the tract. The one-sixth condition is likely to be met when the larynx is lowered, because the lowering tends to expand the bottom part of the pharynx." At first Sundberg indicated that this formant frequency of the larynx itself (probably the ventricle of Morgagni) would be between 2500 and 3000 Hz. Later in THE SCIENCE OF THE SINGING VOICE, he quotes extensive studies which show that the singer's formant can range from 2.3 K to 3.6 K in males, depending on physical characteristics and voice type. Especially important would be the size of the larynx and, therefore, the amount of air within the expanded ventricle of Morgagni. The lowering of the larynx is simply viewed as the normal way to achieve the one-sixth condition. If one's pharynx were broad enough it might be possible to generate a singer's formant with minimal laryngeal lowering. One thinks of Leonard Warren, the great baritone, whose pharynx was so broad his larynx did not appear to lower a great deal, although it was lower than speaking position. Women may have a smaller laryngeal drop available to them because of their smaller organs, but since the singer's formant is not as important to them, this is not a cause for great concern. One of my female students has a rich chiaroscuro voice, but her larynx lowers very slightly. The pharynx size is very important in that case.
So just how low is the low larynx? For men, at least as low as is required to give the one-sixth posture. Those side-wall tissues of the base of the pharynx must be stretched. If we had a larynx height machine we could observe your precise larynx posture when the singer's formant is generated. Sundberg likes to work with a larynx height machine with students in master classes and reports quick successes in postural alignment with such biofeedback. Unfortunately, most schools do not have such capabilities, so we are left to more humble means of gaining information about our organs.
Are there any guidelines about larynx height? Vennard says that the larynx should be as low as it goes through relaxation of the mylohyoids and usage of deep inhalation. However, since Vennard's death, Dr. Van Lawrence points out that studies at the Haskins Laboratories have proven that contraction of the depressor muscles (sternothyroid, sternohyoid, omohyoid) is essential for high quality professional singing. This would confirm the position of Husler, Appleman, et al. regarding laryngeal lowering. As you remember, they indicate that simple relaxation and deep inhalation are not all that is required. They stated that the larynx is actively inspanned in the net of suspensory muscles; i.e. that the low larynx is lowered and maintained in its position by contraction of these particular extrinsic muscles. Sundberg flatly states that the larynx is lowered by the sternothyroid muscle. How low do these muscles pull the larynx during phonation? Sundberg's studies, you recall, showed that great singers allow the larynx to lower further with rising phonation frequency. That would make sense because of the cooperation of the sternothyroids with cricothyroids during rising pitch. I have frequently said, however, that "the suspension system is a gentle system." When we say the sternothyroid pulls down on the thyroid cartilage we do not mean that it pulls down like a 100 pound catfish on a trotline! The singers that Shipp and Izdebski studied had larynx drops of less than an inch for their lowest position. The deepest drop they studied was 19 mm. The longest drops that we observed last year on video were found in Robert Merrill and Jerome Hines. They both appeared to be lower than 20 mm although it is difficult to speak precisely. Furthermore, their large drops appear to be a significant factor in production of their extremely rich voices. They have both been cited as possessing the "model" voices for operatic baritones and basses. Richard Miller does not appear to believe, from his writings, that the larynx can lower this far. In criticizing German pedagogy he writes: "Others recommend the larynx should visibly drop (...) one quarter inch, one-half inch, even three-quarters of an inch if possible."
It is obvious from Shipp and Izdebski's studies that drops of three-quarters of an inch are common in good singers. Diadochokinesis of the sternothyroid muscles and the cricothyroids appear to explain Sundberg's observation that good singers allow the larynx to lower further with rising pitch.
You recall that Dr. Van Lawrence told us what happened to those singers who had thyroidectomies and whose depressor muscles were sectioned during the operation. In order to give the surgeon more room, the sternothyroids and sternohyoids were severed and later stitched back together. Due to the loss of some muscle, they lost their high notes, and the whole voice took on certain changes. Dr. Lawrence confirmed Husler's view that the downward pull from these muscles is essential to stabilize the firm structures of the larynx in order for the intrinsic muscles to work at top efficiency. Studies at the Haskins Laboratories have confirmed the need for depressor muscle function in high quality singing.
Are there any other considerations in laryngeal lowering? Yes. Since lowering the larynx also lowers formant frequencies by lengthening the resonating tube, larynx lowering by sternothyroid action may also be a part of the mechanism whereby singers "color" vowels in a desired direction. Husler says that there is almost an infinite variety of postures available to the larynx because of the interrelationships available within the suspensory system of elevators and depressors. The kind of music, the coloration one desires, the language one is singing all effect this complex choice. The precise larynx posture one adopts also highly effects the illusion of voice placement. As Husler says, "Singers know that when a voice is 'shallow', 'flat', or 'narrow', the position of the larynx is too high." The sound quality is the primary guide. Husler also says, "The placing of the voice changes according to the volume of sound or the pitch required, varies slightly for the different vowels, and should be altered according to the style of music." He also says that these changes correspond to muscular positioning of the larynx. There is not one larynx posture for all singing, and yet the one-sixth condition must be maintained. From this we gather that once the singer's formant has been generated, further laryngeal lowering – but not raising – is available to us for coloration, and musical and linguistic demands.
Tomograms show us that high notes above the passaggio in good male singers have a lower laryngeal posture than chest tones below the passaggio. This may be the result of the sternothyroid action we have just discussed.
A few months ago, I performed a modern piece written for dramatic speaker with orchestra for the CBC. Was my larynx as low for that kind of speaking as it is for singing? Yes and no. Firstly, I used the SINGING voice in a SPEAKING manner. So let's keep first things first. The singing voice is NOT just an extension of the speaking voice. Speaking and singing are proven to be two different usages of the larynx. At least some researchers, notably Jaensch, point out that there are cases when stroke patients can no longer speak but may be able to sing! Singing is different from speaking. That essential contraction Dr. Lawrence described for the depressor muscles is not found in normal speech. Therefore, we do NOT want to say that "the laryngeal position for singing is the position one takes in dramatic speaking." Why? Because it is inaccurate. It takes the exactitudes out of laryngeal measurement (the one-sixth posture) and it implies that speaking is the key to singing. Pop singers usually use the speaking voice in a singing manner; i.e. the larynx is high. Dramatic speakers may use the singing voice in a speaking manner; i.e. the larynx is low. There remains a major difference which I believe a larynx height machine would demonstrate: In dramatic speaking rising pitch change is not as efficiently handled by sternothyroid/cricothyroid diadochokinesis. Therefore the larynx does not move as low downward for rising pitch during dramatic speaking. Individual onsets in the middle voice may be very similar. However, it would be very easy for a young singer who sings just "on the edge" of the one-sixth posture to assume just the same position in dramatic speaking.
There is another important difference, namely larynx tilt. In speaking, the larynx is high, the top of the hyoid bone near the third cervical vertebra, and the angle of the thyroid does not show any tilt. In singing, the forward tilt of the thyroid, the cricoid, down and back, are very important postural alignments. It is doubtful that dramatic speaking can duplicate this singing posture.
In conclusion, we try to begin with Vennard's position, using mylohyoid relaxation and deep inhalation through the mouth, then use appropriate tonal images and exercises to innervate and coordinate the suspensory muscles (especially sternothyroid). The tongue is NOT a legitimate depressor muscle, nor is it a legitimate elevator muscle. Vennard says that when the larynx lowers it takes the tongue with it. If you resist that you will be using your tongue as an illegitimate elevator. Pushing down on the back of the tongue to use it as an illegitimate depressor muscle gives the articulation inaccurately but commonly called "the depressed larynx." The base of the pharynx appears to be narrower and the one-sixth condition is in doubt. The sound created is unmistakable. Sometimes, teachers who have come to like a higher larynx sound will simply call the lowered larynx, a depressed larynx. Also, some teachers who believe that only inhalation lowers the larynx may call any deeper posture assumed through contraction of the depressor muscles, a "depressed larynx". Since the sternothyroids, omohyoids, and sternohyoids are called the "depressor muscles," and since studies at the Haskins Laboratories have confirmed their function in high quality singing, we might very accurately call the good, low laryngeal posture, a depressed larynx. However, this exact terminology doesn't deal with the fact that colloquially, many voice teachers uses the term "depressed larynx" in a prejudicial manner to refer to a larynx pushed down from above by using the geniohyoid of the tongue as a FALSE depressor muscle. We should speak precisely about all this and talk of a lowered larynx through proper depressor function, and a falsely depressed larynx using a false depressor muscle. This need not be confusing. A larynx height machine can show you that your larynx descends a little lower with rising pitch when the proper suspensory (depressor) muscles are used well.
Feel the hyoid bone, open your jaw to the "ah" relaxed-jaw posture, and see if you feel any space open up at the base of the pharynx. If you don't, chances are you don't have the one-sixth posture. Put your finger on the thyroid cartilage notch, go to the "ah" relaxed-jaw posture again and see how far the thyroid cartilage lowers. Is it less than a half inch, three-quarters an inch? Depending on your answer, relate that information into your tonal characteristics currently. Keep your finger lightly on the thyroid cartilage and sing into the passaggio and above it. What happened to the thyroid cartilage? Relate that information to the tonal characteristics. None of these little tricks, however, replace or significantly add anything to proper exercises used by your teacher.
Do not think that you can learn to sing just by studying muscles or acoustics. None of the suspensory muscles are consciously controllable. Therefore their action is part of the reflexive technique of singing. In the International School of Singing, the system known as appoggio is the most efficient learning system. In appoggio, the singer does not place conscious attention to any musculature, but instead learns how to control the breath (la lotta vocale), form the vowel properly (by proper position of the jaw and lips) and adjust the vowel properly (aggiustamento) as the scale is mounted. The teacher will use exercises designed to teach the involuntary muscles the appropriate actions for singing ben appoggiato but the singer's conscious awareness will not be directed towards attempts to feel, much less locally control, involuntary musculature. The singer will indirectly control the emission of sound by auto-monitoring the position of the body, the feeling of the voice (impostazione) and the sound of the voice. The teacher will doubtless call to the attention of the student a sensation of broadening of the base of the pharynx when a proper breath is taken, but will not exaggerate that into a yawn or attempt to make the singer locally control that pharyngeal space. Rather, the relatively broad pharynx and relatively low larynx stay that way because of a properly managed breath cycle, a properly formed vowel, and a properly adjusted vowel. Only one thing could be more damaging than a singer who tries to locally control his larynx position, and that is a teacher who uses hands on techniques to manipulate the larynx. The stories are legend of the people hurt by Stanley's methods of laryngeal manipulation. In the bel canto tradition as handed down by the Lampertis (Francesco and G. B.), Stanley would be viewed as a sort of vocal Dr. Frankenstein.
How low is the low larynx? It all depends. Learn to use the breath properly, form the vowel properly and adjust the vowel properly according to the tenets of appoggio, and your larynx will remain relatively low throughout the well managed breath cycle. Let the voice scientists measure it. Let the singers just sing!