Singing in Chest Voice

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Hi Dr. Thomas, thanks so much for such an informative website and the great videos on you tube. I am a voice teacher in Chicago. I have also sung professionally for 20 years. Although I am trained as a classical opera singer (music degrees from Illinois Wesleyan University and Northwestern), my passion has always been rock and pop. I carry a heavy load of voice students (another passion of mine). Quite often I get students who want to sing in bands, or learn to sing quite high in their chest voice for particular musical roles. Usually, teachers refuse to teach students in their chest voice. The classical vocal world does not really allow the use of chest voice. I have always sung in my chest voice, as I have been in musicals and bands and recording studios since I was a kid and I have to believe there is a way to sing high in the chest voice healthily. I have learned to implement my classical training on my chest voice so that it is as forward and clear sounding as possible, a technique that I also teach my students. I know that the classical vocal world says that singing in chest voice will produce nodes, but I was wondering if you have any medical knowledge in the area of chest voice versus head voice and if one can truly cause nodes more frequently than the other, or if the issue is caused by poor technique regardless. I am in the midst of writing a book on the subject as well as trying to get an internship with an ent to learn more of the medical side of the vocal cords. I have extensive knowledge in the are of vocal pedagogy, but would love some medical knwoledge to back it up!! Thanks so much for any help you can give in the area of chest voice. With so many wonderful pop and rock singers of the present and past who have never had vocal problems, it is hard to believe that all use of chest voice could be that dangerous! Thanks again for any help you can give! CK

James P Thomas MD's picture
Submitted by James P Thomas MD on Sat, 2012-04-07 11:57

Changing pitch in chest voice is largely performed by tensioning the thyroarytenoid muscle. This is the muscle within the vocal cord itself. Changing pitch in falsetto is largely from the cricothyroid muscle. This muscle rests outside the larynx and rocks the 2 main cartilages of the larynx producing a change in length of the vocal cord. Consequently, we have 2 sets of muscles to change pitch. They tend to overlap in the middle of our vocal range and we can produce the same note in more than one way. That is, we can sing the note C4 (middle C) primarily by contracting our thyroarytenoid muscle, which would thicken and tighten the vocal cord while it remains the same length. This produces the rather full sound that you describe as chest voice.
Alternatively, we could tighten our cricothyroid muscle until we reached the note C4 and we would stretch the vocal cord longer and thinner until we reached this note. Even though we have 2 discrete ways to produce the same note, and you could do this on a guitar with 2 different size strings, the quality will be different when a thicker string vibrates at a given pitch then when a longer and thinner string vibrates at the same pitch. We could also produce the same pitch with some intermediate tension on each of these 2 muscles. Consequently there are many ways of creating the notes in the mid-range of our voice. A classical singer would typically spend years trying to smooth out this transition between using one muscle and the other. This would create a blend rather than a break as we shift the tension from one muscle to the other gradually.
In my experience, vocal elevations/swellings (nodules, polyps etc.) come from vocal overuse. Very few people sing sufficiently to create vocal swellings solely from singing. However, a great many people are extremely talkative and filled their life with vocal activity, both singing and speaking. The greatest factor for creating a vocal swelling is vocal overuse, talking too much. A person who is very talkative and hoarse has about an 80% chance of having a vocal swelling based solely on this information. The second factor contributing to vocal swelling is vocal volume. The third factor is likely vocal technique.
I think the use of chest voice or head voice (falsetto) plays almost no role in the formation of vocal swellings. Quantity mostly and volume second are the overriding factors creating lesions along the vibrating margin of the vocal cord.