I’ve been blogging about music for well over five years now, and never done a video blog, but I wanted to say this in my actual voice. So here it is. If you don’t want to watch the video, you can read the text below, which is what I’m reading now.
I wrote a post grousing about vocal fry about four years ago, but it was among a bunch of posts I deleted when I purged the blog to focus its content overall more on specifically conducting things. And, truly, one of the most fundamental choices I make as a conductor is how to use my voice – both in speaking and in singing – and how my speaking and singing are model vocal production for my singers.
So this post comes in the midst of a lot more media coverage of vocal fry, especially focusing on how, apparently, media are judging women whose voices fry more harshly than men. This aspect never occurred to me because *I* have always judged men whose voices fry just as harshly as women. And I’d not judging them because I’m an old fuddy-duddy who just can’t accept changes to language or vernacular or inflection or whatever. I judge them because, for the most part, they are doing it wrong.
To be clear, I don’t judge casual speakers who use it in their everyday voices. I’m talking about radio announcers, professional speakers, people with training who should bloody well know better.
I’ll let sociologists argue about the social merits of vocal pitch and so on. Let me just say the thing that all of them are not already discussing: vocal fry is bad for you. It injures muscles that are small and delicate.
Your voice is made of cartilage and muscles. Your thyroid cartilage is in the middle of your neck, shaped like the barrel of a drum, sort of. The thyroarytenoid muscles stretch across the top of the thyroid cartilage, and when the cartilage tilts forward, it stretches the muscles, making them longer. Like a rubber band, when the muscles are stretched longer, they create a higher pitch when they are vibrated. When the cartilage tilts back, the muscles shorten, allowing them to vibrate at a lower frequency.
Now, a rubber band gets thinner when it stretches; and gets fatter when it relaxes. Muscles have the capacity to resist that natural tendency, and how we shape those muscles determines the resulting vocal register.
When the muscle gets thinner and longer, that’s what we call “head voice,” which is the most common way classically trained women sing. There’s a controversial register above head voice called the whistle register, that some teachers say is just an extension of head voice, but my experience of it is that it feels like another universe, a totally separate register. Men’s vocal apparatuses tend to be proportioned so that it’s likely that the mass of muscle can’t stretch and stay vibrating as a mass fold, and only the tendon on the very inside of the muscles connect and vibrate. That’s “falsetto.”
The pitch where we speak is low compared to the vocal range of classical singers. The muscles are relatively thick. This is our “chest voice.” We can keep the muscles fat as they stretch (which is what happens when you belt or yell, and there’s only so far a muscle can go before it suddenly cracks, and we all know what that yodely result sounds like), or we can keep them thin as they shorten. That’s what classically trained sopranos and altos do, maximizing resonance instead of muscular exertion.
Now at a certain point, the muscle can’t get any shorter and still phonate a clean fundamental pitch. The muscles go all flappy, the fundamental goes away, and the overtones go chaotic. That’s vocal fry. The vocal muscles are short, fat, and vibrating against each other violently. It’s just another vocal register, like any of the others, neither inherently good nor bad. Singers may choose to use any register at any pitch for expressive purposes. But the fry register is a use of the muscles that lends itself to the development of damage vocal nodules.
The cool, jazzy growl that Louis Armstrong sang in was really interesting artistically, but the man had surgery on his vocal folds several times. He can make whatever choices he wants for the expression of his art, but *I* don’t think I’d choose a technique that required surgery to maintain. And the same goes for Ke$ha. She can use vocal fry as much as she wants, but not without consequences.
I suspect that one of the reasons people react so negatively to the sound of vocal fry is that we are made to be empathic. Human beings’ empathy naturally makes them experience a little bit of what the people around them are feeling, and there are studies that have shown people’s vocal muscles move as though a person is talking when they are only listening. So I suspect that we vicariously experience other peoples’ vocal fry, and I know it PHYSICALLY makes me uncomfortable to listen to it. It’s probably below the level of their conscious awareness for people who aren’t trained to listen to singers the way a choral conductor is. It’s just a theory, but I think we hate other peoples’ fry so much because it makes our thyroarytenoid muscles move toward the position of fry register, and that is physically uncomfortable.
And, look, if you want to make the choice to use vocal fry in your speaking or singing for expressive reasons, or to communicate something about your identity: have at it. But do it with the full knowledge that it’s a choice that might do you physical harm. And don’t be surprised if people react negatively to it — it’s not a socially-programmed construct. It’s a physiological extreme that our bodies are not intended to maintain.
I teach my students about it, the same way a health teacher explains that you shouldn’t eat ice cream all day every day. It’s perfectly fine in moderation, but not good for you all the time.
For that reason, I think professional speakers have a responsibility to avoid it. I definitely think conductors need to use their voices healthfully as models for their ensemble.
One last thing: I suspect that women tend to use vocal fry because they are trying to make their voices lower pitched than they are naturally built to be, because patriarchy has taught us that lower pitched voices are more authoritative. Higher pitched voices and the head voice register have implicitly come to be associated with ditziness, stupidity, and weakness. So vocal fry is a result of women wanting to sound strong, like leaders. But I think that’s a mistake.
Instead of telling the media to stop criticizing vocal fry so that we can continue to do damage to our vocal apparatus, I hope that women will persist in using their warm, resonant, healthy speaking voices from a position of leadership and authority, so that people can learn that femininity sounds like leadership just as much as masculinity.