Singing Powerful High Notes

High notes are actually pretty easy, until you want them to be strong.

Singers often find themselves being able to sing the note in a light head or falsetto sound, or they have to jam up and push like crazy, forcing the voice until it hurts.

Why does this tug of war between two undesired results happen?

It’s because of a delicate dance going on with the vocal coordinations.

Singing is always a balance of air flow, muscle resistance at the vocal cords (or folds) and the resonance chambers.

Powerful high notes require all three to be in alignment, but today we are going to look at the muscles of the vocal cords and the role they play.


The Muscles

The vocal cords have two main pairs of muscles that are involved in the pitch making process.

There are the muscles that are outside of the vocal cords, that pull and stretch them like a rubber band, making them thinner and tighter.

These are the cricothyroid muscles, or CT for short. They are the primary muscles for high notes.

Then there are the muscles that are part of the vocal cords themselves. When these muscles tighten, they make the ends of the cords pull into themselves, making the cords become shorter and fatter.

These are the thyroaryetenoid muscles, or TA for short. They are the primary muscles of low notes.

So it should be easy, flex the TA muscles for low notes and then use the CT for high notes. It’s like making a fist for one thing and opening my hand for another.

But it’s NOWHERE NEAR that easy!


Why Is This Hard?

There are a couple of primary reasons getting muscular balance for strong high notes is difficult.

First, notes rarely use just the CT, or TA muscles, but it is a antagonistic pulling match between the two.

In muscular terms, a strong high note needs the CT muscles to stretch and thin the cords to get to pitch. That’s not that hard, in fact that’s what you do when you sing a light falsetto note.
To get more strength we need to flex the TA muscles at the same time, making the cords a little fatter, so they have more contact at the edges.

In falsetto, the edges of the cords come together very lightly, not much contact as the cords are very thin.

Fattening the cords slightly with the TA muscles increases the contact and gives us a bigger sound.

However, over-flexing these muscles over-fattens the cords and jams them together.

There are other muscles involved as well, but they are often following the TA muscle’s lead, so we will focus on the TAs as the culprit.

We need to develop the coordination of adding just enough TA involvement to the note.


Another Problem

The other issue in this muscular puzzle is the way we control them.

We have basically three types of muscle control:

No control – like the heart muscle.

Direct control – like wiggling your finger and toes

Indirect control – the TA and CT muscles

What does this all mean?

It means that we don’t really feel or have a direct awareness of these muscles, we control them by thinking of pitch and intensity, and then the muscles adjust without our direct awareness.

This is why singing has so many different ways of being taught – it is because we need to create the right thoughts to control these mysterious muscles.

And teachers have come up with some odd ways of creating and controlling these thoughts.

All kinds of imagery can be applied in a voice lesson. It works great if this is the way a student’s mind works, and the imagery creates the desired effect.

The problem is, many singers are confused by this type of teaching.

This is why I only use imagery for certain rare students.

I have found a deeper understanding of the mechanics of singing and a direct cause-and-effect approach works best for most singers.

Here is the issue, this is why it’s happening, here’s how we will fix it.

This is repeatable, can be done effectively in the practice room and gives consistent results.

Understanding WHY an issue is occurring gives us the best insight into fixing it.

This understanding only comes from a deeper study of the singing process, and I encourage all singers to delve deeper into how their voice works.


How To Create The Right Coordinations

This basically takes consistent practice of doing the right things.

You need to be aware that of the two pairs of muscles, the TA or the low notes muscles tend to be the bullies.

They will often jam up and overwhelm, or if not allowed to, they take their ball and go home. They stop being involved.

This is why the singer finds themselves either yelling (too much TA) or flipping light (not enough TA).

It is best to gradually increase TA involvement on the higher notes.

Work them lighter at first and then begin to bring in more TA.

It is beyond the scope of a simple blog article to get into this type of training, but just knowing that these muscles exist and how they need to interact is a great start.

When you feel yourself jamming up, know that the TAs are starting to over-engage and lighten up.

Just keep learning as much as you can about the voice and your lessons and practice will make more sense.

To better singing!


John Henny

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