Oral vs Nasal Breathing: Facts to Consider

Whether one should breathe through the mouth or the nose when singing or speaking is a matter of great contention.

Inside your nasal cavities, the nasal turbinates are highly irrigated by blood vessels inside them. In fact, it’s the dilation of these blood vessels that sometimes causes your nose to congest. However, they also have a very important function: they warm the air you breathe in as it passes above, between, around and under them, causing moisture from the walls of the turbinates to evaporate and therefore increase the humidity of the inhaled air. So, when you inhale through the mouth, the air is not going to be heated to the same extent and it’s not going to be as humidified.

There are two types of hydration when it comes to the larynx, the organ which houses the vocal folds: superficial hydration, which concerns the fluid over the vocal fold and laryngeal surfaces; and systemic hydration, which concerns the fluid within the body and vocal folds.

Dehydration may be superficial, and therefore result from more temporary, localized settings, such as being at the beach or running against the wind, or systemic, and therefore less temporary because it reflects the amount of water in your body. The use of clean steamers and nebulizers will only increase superficial hydration, not systemic hydration.

We must also explore phonation threshold pressure (PTP), defined as the lowest subglottic pressure (pressure under the vocal folds) required to initiate and sustain vocal fold oscillation. PTP is considered a measure of ease of phonation and an indicator of vocal fold health. By increasing the viscosity of the vocal folds, in general, dehydration increases PTP, making it harder to initiate and sustain phonation, and may also decrease vocal range.

In summary: dehydration reduces the stability and ease of phonation. In the long term, it may also contribute to vocal disorders. For example, superficial dehydration increases jitter and shimmer in the voice, which are irregular fluctuations in pitch and intensity, respectively.

As you’ll learn by reading our encyclopedia article about the Power-Source-Filter model of voice production, the vocal folds have multiple layers. In general, they can be divided into two: the body, which is located deeper and includes the vocalis muscle, and the cover, which is more superficial. To avoid confusion, keep in mind that there’s also a three-layer model for the structure of the vocal folds.

Intuitively, dry air is more likely to decrease superficial hydration, by sucking water from the cover and overlying mucus covering, and not the deeper body of the vocal folds. This may be part of the reason why superficial dehydration affects the laryngeal vibratory mechanism M2 more than M1.

However, nasal breathing takes longer for the same volume of air. This disparity is especially pronounced in people with allergies, turbinate hypertrophy or a deviated septum because their small nasal cavities allow less (or no) air to pass through in each second. Consult with your doctor to know what steps could be taken to minimize or solve these issues if they’re significant to you.

So, no matter if you’re a singer, a public speaker or a voice actor, one must find a compromise: to breathe through the mouth whenever there’s not enough time to breathe through the nose.

References

Elena Stevens, M. (2017). Examining the Reversal of Vocal Fold Dehydration Using Aerosolized Saline in an Excised Larynx Model BYU ScholarsArchive Citation [Brigham Young University]. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd

Hemler, R. J. B., Wieneke, G. H., Lebacq, J., & Dejonckere, P. H. (2001). Laryngeal mucosa elasticity and viscosity in high and low relative air humidity. European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology, 258(3), 125–129. https://doi.org/10.1007/s004050100321

King, R. E., Steed, K., Rivera, A. E., Wisco, J. J., & Thibeault, S. L. (2018). Magnetic resonance imaging quantification of dehydration and rehydration in vocal fold tissue layers. PLOS ONE, 13(12), e0208763. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0208763

Mahalingam, S., & Boominathan, P. (2016). Effects of steam inhalation on voice quality-related acoustic measures. The Laryngoscope, 126(10), 2305–2309. https://doi.org/10.1002/lary.25933

Sivasankar, M., & Leydon, C. (2010). The role of hydration in vocal fold physiology. In Current Opinion in Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery (Vol. 18, Issue 3, pp. 171–175). Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. https://doi.org/10.1097/MOO.0b013e3283393784

VaréGne, P., Ferrus, L., Manier, G., & Gire, J. (1986). Heat and water respiratory exchanges: comparison between mouth and nose breathing in humans. Clinical Physiology, 6(5), 405–414. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-097X.1986.tb00071.x

Zou, Z. fei, Chen, W., Li, W., & Yuan, K. (2019). Impact of Vocal Fold Dehydration on Vocal Function and Its Treatment. Current Medical Science, 39(2), 310–316. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11596-019-2036-0

Does mixed voice exist? — A Rant

So you’ve read our article on the four laryngeal vibratory mechanisms and you start thinking about the mixed voice. You start wondering…. surely, since people say that mixed voice is a mix between chest voice (usually considered to be in M1) and head voice or falsetto (usually considered to be in M2), it must be a register between M1 and M2… so M1.5.

The existence of a M1.5 is a very prevalent myth. Plenty of people think that mixed voice is a distinct mechanism of vocal fold vibration, i.e., a distinct register. But M1.5 doesn’t actually exist.

If you’ve read our article on the Power-Source-Filter Model of Voice Production, then you know that the vocal folds can be divided into three layers: the body, the transitional layer and the cover. There’s one fundamental difference between M1 and M2: in M1, both the body and the cover of the vocal folds vibrate; whereas in M2 only the cover vibrates.

So, when you’re doing a glissando from chest voice to head voice, at some point, the body of your vocal folds is going to stop vibrating. At that point, you’re instantly in M2 because only the cover is vibrating. There’s no transitional mechanism, no M1.2, no M1.3, no M1.5. It’s this instant break from M1 to M2 that can make that cracking sound we’re all too familiar with. When, on purpose, you don’t disguise this break, it’s called a yodel or a flip.

But then why don’t all transitions from M1 to M2 produce a yodel? Trained singers are able to disguise this break when they want to give the illusion of a sound that’s fully connected throughout their range. In order to explain how they do this, we need to introduce the concepts of open quotient (OQ) and closed quotient (CQ).

  • Open Quotient (OQ): the ratio of the duration of the open phase (when the glottis is open in each cycle of vibration) to that of the duration of each complete cycle of vibration; in simpler terms, it’s a cyclic measure of how long the vocal folds stay apart.
  • Closed quotient (CQ): the ratio of the duration of the closed phase (when the glottis is closed in each cycle of vibration) to that of the duration of each complete cycle of vibration; in simpler terms, it’s a cyclic measure of how long the vocal folds stay together.

    Closed quotient is calculated with the formula 1 – OQ, therefore, a high closed quotient implies a low open quotient and vice-versa. In more practical terms, a higher CQ produces a buzzier sound at the vocal fold level. A word of caution: you can’t say you’re “in an open quotient” or “in a closed quotient”, that’s like saying you’re in a frequency. You can however, say that you’re using a high OQ or a low OQ.

Now we’re able to actually understand how singers are able to, when they want to, navigate their M1-M2 range without a noticeable break.

On a glissando from chest voice to head voice, by slowly increasing the open quotient, they’re able to lighten their voice, making it more tonally similar to M2, yet the body of the vocal folds (the vocalis muscle) is still vibrating in sync with the cover, so it’s M1. When the transition actually occurs, the similarity in tonal quality hides the break, but it’s still there (and can almost always be picked up by a trained ear). The body and cover of the vocal folds decouple from each other, leaving only the cover vibrating, producing a spike in frequency (which is also usually hidden by decreasing the volume and reduced with training). The exact opposite thing happens on downward glissandi from head voice to chest voice.

By (its very vague) definition, mixed voice encompasses both part of M1, where it takes the notation of mx1, and part of M2, where it takes the notation of mx2. The m doesn’t stand for mechanism, it’s just the m in mix.

So, does mixed voice exist? Is it a vocal register? I’d say that the answer to that question doesn’t matter. What matters is knowing that M1.5 doesn’t exist, that mixed voice isn’t a distinct pattern of vocal fold vibration and that mixed voice can’t be exactly defined (there’s no one point at which you can say you’re in mixed voice or not in mixed voice, unless you’re in M0 or M3).

This also means that you don’t have to “find your mix”. It’s not a mechanism you have to find. It’s just a matter of lightening/darkening your voice so as to disguise a physiological break in your voice when transitioning between laryngeal vibratory mechanisms.

References

Sylvain Lamesch, Robert Expert, Michèle Castellengo, Nathalie Henrich Bernardoni, Bertrand Chuberre. Investigating voix mixte: A scientific challenge towards a renewed vocal pedagogy. 3rd Conference on Interdiciplinary Musicology, CIM07, Aug 2007, Tallinn, Estonia. ffhal-0020799

Falsetto for fem voice — A Rant

Ah!, the world of trans voice. Full of cis people who just one day decided to start teaching trans voice despite having done absolutely no training or reading on the subject…

I’m sure you’ve heard the common advice: if you want to achieve a passing female voice, all you have to do is use your falsetto (or your head voice). Well, you’ve been lied to.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for this sound in fem voice, but that place is not as your primary speaking mechanism. It can be used for laughing and squeaking and singing, and, in those contexts, it’ll sound great and feminine, but not in speaking, not ever.

People seem to labor under this common presumption that the main difference between a man’s and a woman’s voice is pitch, and that thus the most effective way to correct this difference is to raise your pitch as high as you possibly can. What’s the best way to raise your pitch that high? Using falsetto. But you’ve heard low-voiced women, and they completely pass… so pitch isn’t the problem. And cis women don’t use falsetto either (unless they have puberphonia, in which case they’ll have difficulty being heard), so why people are teaching the technique that male comedians use to comedically “imitate” women (and in some cases mock trans women) is completely beyond me.

So what should you do? You should work on raising your larynx (which is different from raising your pitch) in order to emulate the vocal tract length of cis women. We have an entire encyclopedia article (with instructions!) dedicated to this topic.

But larynx height isn’t the only fundamental aspect to voice feminization, even if it’s the most important one. The Scinguistics Discord server has a compilation of valuable resources, as well as a community of trans men and women working together to obtain the voices they want!

The Swallowing Method — A Rant

After you read this title, some of you might’ve been left with a question: what is the swallowing method? Well, first and foremost, it’s a

It’s just… it’s a damn lie. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me try to properly explain.

For voice feminization, the larynx (also known as the voice box) has to be in a higher position. In fact, this is the primary aspect of voice feminization. Now, place your finger on your Adam’s Apple and swallow. You’ll notice that during the process of swallowing, the larynx rises, stops for a fraction of a second and then goes back down.

An approach that initially makes sense is to hold the larynx in its highest position, mid-swallow. So, it seems to make sense and it’s a popular method, so why do we hate it? There’s actually a couple of reasons:

  1. We’ve been swallowing since birth. When you hold the larynx mid-swallow, it will still want to rebound back down, like it always has. Trying to stop this rebound could cause overactive/unnecessary muscular engagement in a conscious attempt to stop the rebound.
  2. When you swallow, the vocal folds come together in order to prevent food or liquid from going into the lungs, which can cause overcompression at the vocal fold level. The same overcompression can happen when phonating while lifting weights or during childbirth. Speaking with overcompression can end up causing vocal fold inflammation and possibly vocal damage in the long run.
  3. When you swallow, the epiglottis (like the vocal folds) obstructs the airway to stop food and drink from entering the lungs, which is directly counterproductive to any type of voice production.

What usually happens is that, even if people know about the dangers of the swallowing method, they do it anyways because they think the big dog small dog exercise takes too long… but you’re not somehow the exception to the rule. Just do as you’re told, oh my god. We’ve seen this happen way too many times… it’s frustrating. What’s worse is that that excessive muscular tension can then find its way into your everyday life and make you feel uncomfortable all day.

In conclusion, when someone asks you what the swallowing method is, you’ll know what to say:


A special thanks to Zheanna from transvoicelessons.com, whose consultation was imperative in the writing of this article!