Episode 36 – How High (or low) Should My Larynx Be?

The optimal positioning of the larynx is a subject that can certainly keep voice teachers debating.

Some feel a low larynx is optimal, while others will argue for a raised position.

This can lead to confusion amongst singers, as well as voice teachers.

In this episode, John looks at the larynx from an acoustic as well as a singing muscle point of view and discusses options and best practices for singers.

He also goes into how his views on optimal larynx height have changed over the years.



Episode Transcription

Episode 36 – How High (or low) Should My Larynx Be?

Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to the Intelligent Vocalist.

I’m kind of hyped up right now. I’m getting ready to do a webinar on Facebook Advertising for music teachers, voice teachers, etc.


As I’ve said before in this podcast I have a pretty large music academy. I don’t know if I’ve shared it here, but when I opened this thing I didn’t know what I was doing, and I very quickly began to lose a lot of money. So I had to figure out how to get a lot of students in the area. I actually didn’t open it in the area that my own vocal studio was in. I opened it in the different part of L.A. County, more in the suburbs. I thought it would be great for kids and students, etc.


So what I did is I figured out Facebook Advertising. I spent a ton of money and a ton of time on courses, and got certified in the whole thing. And then I had to figure out how to tweak it for my business. But I figured that out, doing webinar – I do have a course on how to do Facebook Advertising and how to make it work for you. If you are a teacher and you want to check it out, it’s at StudioProfitBuilder.com. That’s where I have that course and I focused on that. I’ve also got another podcast that I’m working on that has to do with Marketing, and I’m kind of psyched about that, little hyped up. So excuse me if I talk a little fast. But I wanted to do a quick podcast because this has come up on another course that I do.


I have a course on my Products.JohnHenny.com site where it’s called the New Science of Singing, and it goes into all this vocal stuff, really really in depth. There are areas where people can ask questions. They can interact with me on the course.


Laryngeal height – the height of your larynx, came up.  And this is something that I have certainly gone through different points of view on, and I’ll kind of take you through how I understood it and how I think of it now. Hopefully it will clear up some confusion that singers will tend to have.


So, your larynx, if you go ahead and just put your hand there in your neck and if you swallow, that bump that goes up and down – it’s actually your thyroid cartilage, it will stick out a little more in a guy. It essentially, as you age, it hardens into bone, but this is protecting your vocal folds. This is the housing of the larynx, if you will. You notice when you swallow, it does go up, and when your swallowing you can’t breathe (don’t try it because it’s uncomfortable to do). That is because you have something called the epiglottis, it kind of looked like a shoe horn. What it does is when you swallow, this thing go over and covers your wind pipe. It covers your trachea so that food and drink can slide over and then down into your food pipe, your esophagus.


The wind pipe is in front of the food pipe. The engineering of that is such, that’s why you have all kinds of children and even people choked to death every year because of this design. But the epiglottis is the protector. So when you’re, let’s say, eating something and somebody makes you laugh, you take in a sharp intake of breath and it goes down the wrong way, that’s because your epiglottis was up. Then vocal cords do their real job, which is not talking and singing, but the false folds and vocal folds do their job of keeping food and drink out of your lungs, and keeping you alive. That is their primary purpose. The singing thing is just this amazing after-thought that we’ve figured out. So the epiglottis does its job.


The larynx is coming up, and the epiglottis begins to close – that’s the kind of feeling when people talking about enclosed throat. You also have these outside muscles and all these swallowing muscles kicking in that begin to close it off. I mean, essentially your throat is closed when you’re swallowing. And you’ll often here singers talk about singing on an open throat or don’t sing on a closed throat. In general, that’s kind of what they’re talking about.


Terms for singing are really really tricky. We’re talking about something that is so sensation-guided, and we don’t have direct control over, and we’ve come up with all these odd terms that really make sense to some of us and no sense to others of us. Language is a bit flawed when it comes to singing. But since this is a podcast and language is all I have, we will fight through it.


So the idea of the “high larynx” not only came from swallowing, also when you’re yelling – you noticed everybody who yells make the same face. Yelling is a survival instinct. We’re all very good at it. And the problem when you’re first learning to sing, even some people who have been singing for a while, is when you get into the certain upper part of your range, the yell instinct wants to take hold. Yelling is characterize by, you know, the mouth is really wide, the chest is out, the jaws really dropped, and the chin is up, and the larynx is up. This is all part of what yelling is.


Yelling is, there’s excess muscle at the vocal fold, but there’s also, acoustically, it’s an acoustic coupling that is very good for yelling, not great for singing. Also, yelling has a very limited range. We don’t want a limited range when singing. That is not to say you can never yell while singing because it may be an emotional moment that you want to have, but certainly you don’t want to have that as your go-to when you are singing.


The conditions of closed throat and yelling, if you will, are connected to this idea of a high larynx. They are both characterized in some sense by a high larynx. Laryngeal height, the height of your larynx when it is higher has gotten in a bad rap. When I was first teaching, I was taught that a higher larynx was in of it itself, really bad. It was unhealthy, it was going to hurt you. And I taught others the same. I would work on getting the larynx down. In this idea, I actually overshot and work on people on a low larynx.

A low larynx, in of it itself, well here’s what’s good about it: you’re not in a yelling condition, right? You’re also not in a swallowing condition. However, you’re not in a good acoustical condition if the larynx is too low. This gets into the whole thing of – don’t worry if these words don’t make sense, it’s okay, I’m just going to throw them out – formants and harmonics.


What that refers to is basically the interaction of your acoustic space with the sound wave. When you make sound, your vocal cords will close over, compress air. And this compressed squished air, when, then, it’s released all springs the other way. It’s like pressing down on a spring. And the energy springing the other way is the sound wave, it’s the start of the sound wave. Then the sound wave needs to be amplified. And it’s amplified in the acoustics spaces primarily of our throat and mouth. The throat resonator is the one that tends to give us the most trouble. I’m going to  once again do my standard disclaimer here, this is over-simplified. If you are a vocal science geek and you feel the need to correct me on super-high level science terms, my email is [email protected]. Send all your complaints there.


But at a very simplified idea, your throat resonator is going to primarily be the amplifier of your lower notes. And your mouth resonator, when we’re kind of singing more contemporary, this is not female classical, is boosting more of your higher notes, being the primary booster there. The sound is always travelling through both in your mouth, obviously it’s one tube, but the back of the tongue does one-two unacoustical separation. There are different interactions in each part of the tube, as well as the whole tube. Again, this is very simplified.


As the sound wave travels through, you get the primary boosting the throat on the lower notes. That one doesn’t like to let go. And that is why as we go to sing higher, as we go to shout condition, and the larynx starts to come up so that this resonator, this amplifier, this acoustic space, or your throat, can follow the pitch. Smaller spaces will boost higher pitches, if you will, or frequencies. What we do is we raise our larynx to make it little smaller so we can stay connected to the pitch as it goes up.


What we want to do is allow, in most contemporary singing cases, allow the mouth resonator to begin to take over and dominate, because that’s a much better booster of the higher frequencies and the higher notes. So we facilitate that handover.


One of the ways to help that handover is to get the larynx to not rise. We utilize vowels because vowels will control the higher larynx. You can even feel it. Put your finger on that little Adam’s apple bump there and say AH UH AH UH. You feel it changed position so the UH vowel, those deeper vowels, the larynx isn’t going to sit as high. It’s going to allow that shift of resonance. So we begin to associate a more stable or even low larynx with being able to singer higher. However, if we lower the larynx too much, the space becomes, if you will, a bit too big. And the larger space will boost lower frequencies. You begin to lose its ability to boost the higher pitch really at all. You begin to lose the bass, and the kind of UMPHF boost of the tone.


Any of you who have been playing with keeping your larynx down – and I’ve run across tons of singers and even teachers where this has happened on my teaching trips. They have worked really really hard to stop this rising larynx and this yelling, and they’ve gone the other way. Now their larynx is coming down. What happens is, their upper notes lose power, their upper notes lose intensity, their upper notes actually want to kind of flip a little bit and go towards falsetto, because the larynx is too low. And to stop it from going to falsetto, they begin to squeeze a little bit. So what they’ve done is they’ve eliminated the kind of big singer problem, which is yelling and blowing out their voice. But they’ve worked in another problem. And the problem with this problem is that the voice becomes less thrilling and less exciting.


Look, here’s the bottom line – and I’ve heard teachers complain about this nonstop, but they looked at shows like American Idol and these competitions, and they’re going like “Oh the yellers are getting through, and people who yell are winning.” Yes, but you know what, to the average listener, yelling can be exciting. There’s emotional context in yelling. Now yes, yelling can ultimately cause vocal damage and can cut a singer’s career short or certainly sideline them for periods of time.


We don’t ultimately want to be yelling. But when you lose that, now you’re not even in competition. When you’ve gone too far the other way, you’re going to go to auditions and get beat out by the people who haven’t been putting in the time that you have, who are still yelling. And you’ve put in all this time and all this money, and you’ve stopped yelling, but darn it, now you’re just kind of weak and unexciting.


So the low larynx isn’t the answer either. It can be for a bit of color if you want to darken up the color, or things like that. But for the most part, that’s not overexciting either. And then, you’ll look at singers – and this is where I was years ago. I would look at singers and I’d be all about “the vowels got to narrow, the larynx got to be stable” and then I would look at singers who were fantastic and thrilling singers, and vowels kind of open and larynx was up a little bit. How was that? How was that happening? But they’re not yelling.


Here’s the bottom line. Once you’ve broken that yelling coordination, that urge to yell, and you’ve gotten – I’d find that maybe temporarily a lower larynx will work – and then you’ll get into a neutral larynx, that’s not going too high or too low. But if you want to start to sing back on the higher larynx it’s totally healthy. I didn’t think that before. If you do it right, you could be on a wider vowel, you could be on a higher larynx, without the excess muscle of yelling kicking in.


Yelling has two conditions. It is acoustically, the high larynx, you’re kind of staying in that throat resonator and you’re also overusing muscle and you’re squeezing the cords together too hard, they’re slapping together too hard, and that’s what causing the vocal injuries and accumulating the vocal damage. But if you can develop the ability to then sing with balanced muscle, you can actually stay in that throat resonator longer. You can go more towards a shout-ier and more open sound without hurting yourself. Now I think this is a bit more of an advanced singing condition.


There are methods of singing that really used that as their contemporary sound or their belt sound. I love what Ken Bozeman calls it. He calls it closed tamper and open tamper, or closed color and open color. A closed color is going to tend to be a little bit warmer, it’s going to be a bit more stable larynx I find usually. And open tamper is going to be a little more brighter, possibly strident, but more intense. Definitely, it’s more wide open, the larynx sits higher. Both of these are okay.


Ultimately, the really wide open staying-in-the-throat resonator, you’re going to hit a wall in terms of the range, and you need to switch over to a certain point. But you can extend that further than I previously thought that you could.

Now personally, my own esthetic, my own sound that I like, and I know as a voice teacher you’re not supposed to impose that on people, and I do my best. But ultimately, there are sounds that each of us kind of liked, and we all run around with confirmation-biased. I try and admit mine. I kind of guide people              to what I feel is best sound, is best for their voice. I tend to like a tamper that sits on the edge of open. Little open-ish, but not open. I find that it gets the balance of the warm and the bright. The old term Chiaroscuro, which is bright and dark at the same time, which is an old Italian school ideal.


So ultimately, in laryngeal height, this is what I say to people who asked me “Should I have a low larynx or a high larynx?” Then I tell them “You should have a tuned larynx.” What does that mean? What it means is I want you to have the ability to set your larynx  to the color that you want. To the intensity level that you want. To where you are in your range. Do you want it more open-ish? Do you want it more closed? You warm it up, bright it up, all of these different things. Are you going to sing louder or are you going to sing more softer? Do you want to sit towards a falsetto or a hard belt? When you are able to do that, and then you were able to use emotion to control the colors that you want, now in my mind, you’re really singing. You’re really singing. When your instrument just becomes a conduit for your motion and your communication, that’s when you slay people. And that’s when you’re a vocal master in my mind.


The tuned larynx is basically you’re setting the larynx to your artistic choices. I don’t think there’s a hard fast rule of high larynx low larynx. The only thing I’ll say is as a more beginning singer, as a struggling singer, the high larynx may not necessarily be serving you. Now there are some certain vocal exercises, exaggerated sounds – it’s more of a high larynx that could work to get rid of that muscular grab. Those would be things like NEY NEY NEY NEY on that little of that bratty sound. But I’d find singers who spend too much time on those. And they’re kind of stuck with this permanently high thinner sound.


Initially, I will work people to get them on, if need be, a slightly lower larynx, then a neutral larynx, a little bit more stable larynx. And then, we start to play with a little bit higher, little bit more neutral, little bit lower. We start to play with the colors and the intensity levels. We start to play with all the shades of the vowels. And it really does become quite thrilling.


Hey, I want to thank you for listening to this latest rambling. If you’re interested in my vocal products, just go to my website johnhenny.com. If you are interested in studying with me one-on-one, I do offer lessons in person here in the L.A. area, and also worldwide over Skype. I do have some limited openings. You can click on LESSONS on my page to find out about it. I’ll be honest, I’m teaching a bit less and less these days, one-on-one, doing a bit more of the product thing. But if you feel like you and I would be a really good fit, I’m always open to working with singers who are very focused, earnest, and want to improve. So if you feel that we would be a good fit and you want to make that investment in your voice, check out my website, or you can send an email to [email protected].


Again, thank you so much for listening. Please share this podcast with your singer friends. Feel free, and please go to iTunes and give it a rating. It really does help.

Until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.