musical notes

Singing Powerful High Notes

High notes are actually pretty easy for most voice types, until you want them to be strong.

Singers often find themselves being able to sing the note in a light head voice or falsetto sound, or they have to jam up and push air pressure 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 while using your singing voice.

Performing a song through one's vocal range is always a balance of air flow, resistance at the vocal cords (or vocal folds) and the resonance chambers in the vocal tract.

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.

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The Muscles

pairs of 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 or voice box, 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 (often called "head voice").

Then there are the muscles that are part of the vocal folds 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 lowest note or chest voice.

So it should be easy, just flex the TA muscles for low notes (chest voice) and then use the CT for high notes (head voice) with steady flow of air. 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?

strong high notes is difficult

There are a couple of primary reasons getting muscular balance for strong high notes is difficult and this is for both the female voice and the male voice.

First, notes rarely use just CT or TA but it is an antagonistic pulling match between the two as you go up through the range of notes.

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 falsetto soft note.

To get more strength and cord closure, singers voices 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 and there tends to be more flow of air.  Although singing in falsetto the singer may be reaching the actual note, it can give a weak voice interpretation and the voice can be at risk of voice waivers in longer notes.

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

However, over-flexing the TA over-fattens the vocal folds and jams them together which can cause yelling and vocal fatigue.

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

We need to develop the coordination of adding just enough TA involvement to the note to get nice cord closure as you go higher into your vocal range.

Another Problem

problem solution

The other issue in this muscular puzzle is the way we control the vocal muscles while singing through the range of notes.

We have basically three types of muscle control:

  1. No control – like the heart muscle.
  2. Direct control – like wiggling your finger and toes
  3. Indirect control – the TA and CT 

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 while singing through the vocal range.

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 build balanced muscle memory.

And singing 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 in my personal experience, many singers are confused by this type of teaching.  This is why I only use imagery for certain rare students when teaching vocal technique.

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 goes for professional singers and beginner experience levels too.  Soprano voices and professional pop singers may have adjusted tones in the way they sing through different music genres but the principle is the same for all.

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

singer practice singing

This basically takes consistent practice of doing the right things when using your vocal instrument.  

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). In fact, the dreaded vocal break is often caused by TA imbalance.

It is best to gradually increase TA involvement on your higher vocal range.  Work them lighter at first and then begin to bring in more TA.

Also start with a comfortable range and gradually build up to higher intensity notes so you consistently build vocal control.  You want to strive for a balanced voice mechanism and a connected sound through all of your natural range. And then step by step you will figure out the vocal position to have the pitch control while singing higher intensity notes.

Although I encourage students not to overthink breathing power while singing, you still want to develop a relaxed supportive breathing technique where breath flow is consistent and second nature.  There are so many great voice building exercises out there that will help develop just the right amount of air pressure to support accurate pitches.

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 to developing a more connected sound and beautiful sound in increasingly higher-pitched notes.

To recap, when you feel yourself jamming up on a song, know that the TAs are starting to over-engage and lighten up.  Start with a lighter tone and gently build from there.

Just keep learning as much as you can about the voice and your lessons, vocal exercises and practice will make more sense as you build on your vocal technique and tackle more complex sounds.