Where does the voice come from?

Challenging a centuries-old idea

If even today you stopped 100 people in the street and asked them where their voice comes from, and where they feel it, probably most of them would say it comes from their throat.

Why? Well we know that if we get laryngitis then we can lose our voice. (Laryngitis means inflammation of the larynx. The larynx, or voice box, is the tube-shaped organ in the throat, about 5 cm long, that contains the vocal cords – actually more correctly known as the vocal folds.) We know that if we shout too much or overuse our voice then that can also give us a sore throat and make us hoarse. We know that some singers get nodules on their vocal folds, and that this gives them serious vocal problems or can even end their careers.

So surely all the evidence points to the larynx being the source of the voice?

Traditional idea: the throat

Certainly the idea of the origin of the voice being the vocal folds is the conventional wisdom – and has been for nearly two thousand years. The idea was first put forward by Galen, who worked in Rome in the second century. Galen was a brilliant physician and researcher in human anatomy whose theories dominated Western medical science for over a thousand years. As recently as the nineteenth century, medical students were told to read his books.

New thinking: the head

Some of Galen’s ideas are still accepted now (for example that the brain controls the muscles by means of the nerves) while others have been found to be wrong (such as his theory of how the heart works). His explanation of how the voice is produced seems simply to have been accepted and repeated – pretty much without question or any convincing supporting evidence.

But is that a harmful idea?

In the late nineteenth century, at the time Ernest George White’s singing lessons were causing him to lose his voice, singers in Europe were being bewildered by rival, and often contradictory, theories as to how the voice could best be trained. Feelings in the different camps ran very high and there were even court cases.

Some systems expected singers to understand – and take account of while they were singing – complex anatomical descriptions of what happens during voice production, such as how their cricothyroid muscle acts to tighten the vocal folds. The rather extreme-sounding technique known as the ‘shock to the glottis’ was also popular. Clearly not all these methods could be right, and some of them were positively harmful – as White had found out the hard way. They were also all based on the throat.

White investigates how the vocal folds could produce sound

Once White had become convinced, by his own experience, of Hugo Beyer’s general idea that voice could be produced ‘above the tongue’, he began to investigate seriously the sound-producing potential of the vocal folds versus the head.

The laryngoscope, which is basically a tube with a light in the end that lets you see what’s going on in someone’s larynx, had been invented around the middle of the nineteenth century. It was therefore known in White’s time that when someone uses their voice to speak or sing, the vocal folds appear to vibrate together. (Though we now know that actually the folds undulate or roll close to each other rather than vibrate.) This had been taken as evidence that they are producing the sound.

But the question White asked was ‘How can half an inch of wet membranous tissue produce two octaves of sound?’, two octaves being the average range of a human voice.

The voice is a musical instrument, so White started by looking at the various ways sound is produced in other instruments, and could find nothing remotely equivalent to the structure of the vocal folds. Neither could he find an answer to his question among the many writings of those who believed that the vocal folds are the origin of the voice. In any case, the fact that the vocal folds move when a person is using their voice doesn’t prove that the folds generate the sound.

White’s answer to his own question of how the vocal cords could produce sound was ‘They can’t.’ He could see no way the vocal folds were responsible for the glories of the human voice.

One obvious point his critics made, and that we are all aware of, is that problems in the throat cause voice loss. But White reasoned that while that shows the larynx is a part of the vocal instrument, it doesn’t prove it is the source of the voice. He gave the example of a carburettor in a car engine: if the carburettor fails then the engine will stop, even though the carburettor does not produce the power.

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