Pulled Chest Voice - The Big Vocal Problem

We often hear about the dangers of singing with a pulled chest voice, but there is often confusion about what it is and how to eliminate it.

Pulled chest is a condition where the singer tries to maintain the resonance of the lower chest voice when attempting higher notes. Unfortunately, this leads to straining, cracking, and even vocal damage such as nodules due to improper vocal fold function.

Pulled chest usually creates too much muscular effort, which causes the vocal cords to come together with excessive force, causing the singer to strain and push to reach the upper range when moving through vocal registers.

Untrained singers who use a heavier mechanism voice type (tight throat, pushing), tongue tension, and squeezing when reaching for higher notes are most at risk for complications mentioned above.

It is always a good idea to find a solid vocal program, whether online or in-person, to give you healthy fundamentals to avoid problems down the road. In addition, sourcing out educated singing teachers that fit the style of the individual singer can save a lot of headaches (or voice-aches) in one's singing journey.

Want Some Quick Exercises to Deal With Pulled Chest Voice? Watch This Video

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What is Chest Voice?

The definition of chest voice refers to the lower register. It is where you speak and is a comfortable range for most people. It is called "chest" because of the sympathetic vibrations or the chest vibration we feel in the chest area.

These vibrations you feel when using your speaking voice (or singing in chest range) are the sound waves created by your vocal cords, bouncing around your vocal tract and becoming amplified. These sound waves are primarily amplified in two places, your throat and your mouth.

Get Amped!

Both your throat and your mouth are acoustic spaces that create vocal resonance – they are your resonators. The initially weak sound waves generated at the vocal folds pass through both spaces and are strengthened by these resonators to create what we hear as singing or speaking.

Although both resonators are always active, the throat space is the dominant amplifier in chest voice. That is why we feel the sympathetic chest resonance so strongly. The throat will remain the stronger amplifier in the lower register up into the beginning of the vocal break area as you move up in your vocal range.

Your Breaking Point

The break area is where chest voice begins to become laboured and strained. The pitch is too high for the throat to remain the dominant amplifier. This is where pulled chest voice occurs, especially when singing in full voice.

To remain in a chesty voice on these higher pitches, the singer must begin to raise the larynx, widen the mouth, squeeze the cords and push more air – a recipe for vocal fatigue, pain, or worse - vocal injury and damage such as vocal cord nodules or muscle tension dysphonia.

Note: The soft tissues housed in the voice box are incredible and capable of so much, but they are also delicate, and we must take care of them and seek treatment if we feel pain.

A good rule of thumb is to seek treatment if you have a hoarse voice or sore throat pain lasting more than two weeks. However, do not ignore the signs coming from your voice box.

This can be time-critical as if you continue to sing through pain or a serious throat infection, you risk laryngeal trauma and possible long-term damage.

Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

How do we stop the pull and strain from occurring?

The key is to allow the mouth area to take over as the main amplifier when singing in a higher range. This will eliminate the vocal strain and actually give the voice a more powerful sound and a richer sound. If the throat is your bass amplifier, then the mouth is your treble – it is much better at amplifying the higher resonances.

The sensations created by the mouth resonator are often referred to as "Head Voice." (sometimes referred to as falsetto voice) The sensations of vibration in the head increase as we approach the upper range. This is also known as head resonance. 

Allowing this change of resonator will also assist in a lighter mechanism at the vocal folds, helping to reduce muscle tension while singing at a higher register.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

While we now know the key is to hand over to the mouth amplifier, this is easier said than done. The process needs to be done smoothly by “bridging” over this area. This will eliminate the flipping or cracking of changing resonators too quickly.

This middle voice area of transition is often called "Mix" or "Mixed Voice." Learning to sing in a Mix Voice is vital for contemporary styles as it will help create one seamless sound from top to bottom through the basic registers.

Vowels, Vowels, Vowels

If you were to ask me the one secret of singing, I would say it lies in the vowel. The vowel will actually change the shape of your throat and mouth and allow the resonators to hand over from one to the other while maintaining balanced vocal sounds.

In general, the more open or wide the vowel is (like AH), the more it will engage chest resonance. Likewise, the more closed (like OO), the more it will engage in a strong head voice.

This simple premise of smoothly transitioning the vocal mechanism (vowel tuning through the range of pitches) with healthy vocal cord motion is the key to unlocking vocal strength, ease, range, control, and more.

Application

Take a song where you currently have pulled chest issues in the upper registers and replace the troublesome words where you start to feel throat tightness, flipping, or strain with either “bou” (as in “book”), "wou" (as in "would") or “gou" (as in “good”). These vowel sounds should begin to decrease the pulling of chest resonance and assist in blending or mixing towards head voice.

Although avoiding pulled chest and blending the registers by using resonant voice techniques takes time and practice regularly, just understanding the concepts is a great start.

Your singing teacher may have you do some exercises that reach the result of not pulling chest. These exercises may have guided you toward smooth transitions and a balanced tone without your being aware. Well, now you know why certain vowel sounds may be used in exercises for singers!

If your ultimate goal with your vocal instrument is professional singing, it is vitally important to gain healthy power and stamina in all aspects of singing as professional singers have to adapt to demanding schedules and are subject to more vocal strain just because they are using their voices a lot.

Listen carefully to great professional singers and their vocal technique; you will hear slight vowel modification. In addition, you may see slight changes in vocal posture (dropped jaw, relaxed throat) to support the healthy higher notes.

With awareness and practice, you will start to build muscle memory, and you will start creating your perfect singing voice and a beautiful connected sound with health for years to come.