The Lost Muscles of the Throat

Who talks about the throat muscles? Who bothers to think about them as if they mattered? Who even knows there are muscles in the throat?

Of course the vocal folds are ligaments, not really muscles, but they are pulled by muscles and they are certainly effected by muscle movements of whatever is in or near the larynx. The 35 muscles of the tongue have a great deal to do with how the larynx “hangs”, suspended in a released and free position or “held” in a tight and rigid position. It is very hard to sing a connected legato phrase if the larynx is unable to hang freely by the suspensory muscles of the tongue and the side walls of the inside of the throat (the constrictors) are tight.

Since we don’t really feel these muscles in the same way we feel a finger or toe, and we don’t really want to be controlling them deliberately while singing, why talk about them at all? They do whatever it is they do and that’s that. You either get “resonance” from breath support and placement or you don’t, right? Not right.

In all my four decades of work, I can say that the vast majority of progress that can be made when helping a student learn to sing and sing well is about eliciting a response from the muscles in the throat. When the larynx is free to hang the vocal folds are free to do their job, whatever it may be. Yes, the jaw muscles and the muscles inside the cheeks matter. Yes, the face muscles matter. Yes, the soft palate matters, but if you do not get the tongue to unwind itself what’s going on with these other muscles is going to be much harder to change or adjust, especially if things are not working well while singing in the first place. Additionally, as I have written here before, the muscles of the tongue must not only relax and let go, they must move a great deal and do so easily. The excursion of the tongue must increase as the mouth opens and the jaw drops and it needs to make that longer journey by going more rapidly through any changes, because the distance between movements is greater.

Another way to say this is to state that constriction of the inside muscles of the throat, squeezing the sides of the tongue in the back, makes it very hard to sing with maximum freedom. Not impossible, just very hard. It can be that the tension is construed in such a way as to be severe but limited to a relatively small portion of the muscles, hence the singer can manage decently enough, albeit with limitations. If it were impossible, then only absolutely free voices would be able to sing and, clearly, that is not the case. In fact, some garbled voices have had big careers. I would put Joe Cocker in this category, and also Tom Waits and Janice Joplin. Maria Callas at the end of her active career was also in this category. In extreme cases this becomes a case of Muscle Tension Dysphonia and can end a career.

The issue then becomes, how do you deal with interior muscles of the throat when you can’t really feel them and, worse, you are supposed to avoid manipulating them directly anyway?

The answer, of course, is through exercise, starting as always on the outside of the body with what can be seen and touched with the hands. It isn’t unlike working to get at the deep core muscles of the torso. If you are out of shape, you don’t start with contracting those muscles. You likely won’t be able to feel them at all, let alone move them deliberately. You start by doing whatever it is you can manage….sit up? Crunches? If you do them for a while, every day, after a while the work will go deeper and at some point you will be able to find and contract the muscles all the way down into the core. The same is true in singing. You start with the outside (the mouth, face and jaw) and the front of the tongue (the tip) and you make those areas do things. Particularly if you suggest to the singer that in the end the muscles inside will also being to respond, the exercises will gradually deepen and expand to include the entire system. For singing, that includes the back of the mouth, the throat, the back of the tongue and the larynx and vocal folds. They all come along for the ride, over time. Over TIME. Indirectly, through exercise. Slowly.

The idea is that movement stimulates more movement and movement stimulates circulation and circulation feeds the nerves and cells and the increased blood flow allows the nerves to be “energized” (remember, the electricity running through the system can be felt in a lie-detector test or in a brain wave scan). Then, there is more to feel. Feeling the movement of the muscles allows them to move more deliberately and then the cycle deepens and grows. More movement, more feeling, more feeling, more response, more response, more control. Eventually, you get a highly responsive system that is ready to express very subtle and complex expressions of thought and emotion.

All this from the muscles of the throat. Who knew?

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2 thoughts on “The Lost Muscles of the Throat”

  1. I suffer from mild MTD that popped up in the wake of the major surgery I had in last fall. The ENT said my vocal cords are textbook normal, but somehow, my throat tightened in response to intubation and now I’m fighting chronic tension. Thankfully, the main symptoms are vocal fatigue and hoarseness, not intonation issues!

    My SLP has done manual manipulation of these muscles and that has released a lot of the tension and helped with the vocal fatigue I was having, but I still don’t feel back to normal.

    I’m hearing “relax, relax” from my voice teacher and SLP, but your post is a reminder that strength must be a part of it too. Weak muscles are more likely to spasm.

    I’ll email my SLP and ask her for some exercises!

  2. Relax, and be strong!

    This is why MTD issues are so challenging. We, as performers/singers, by nature are overachievers. What do we do if we didn’t quite “hit that high note?” We “try harder.” This can easily, and often, result in singers “pushing” or shouting to get notes. A few years ago, I coined a phrase, “tension begets tension.” Until, as Jeanie states here, eventually it becomes MTD and careers can be ended.

    Unwinding MTD is a frustrating road. One can have moments of lucidity where things seem so effortless. After all, it’s when these muscles LET GO, when free singing occurs. Then, seemingly in an instant, one’s throat can go back to “grabbing” and singing becomes very challenging again.

    I am currently focusing on the muscles in the base of the tongue through manual massage.


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