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The Speech Organs

Sources: A Handbook Of Health

The Voice, a Waste Product. It is one of the most curious things in

this body of ours that what we regard as its most wonderful power and

gift, the voice, is, in one sense, a waste product. So ingenious is

nature that she has actually made that marvelous musical instrument--the

human voice--with its range, its flexibility, and its powers of

expression, out of spent breath, or used-up air, which has done its work

in the
lungs and is being driven off to get rid of it. It is like using

the waste from a kitchen sink to turn a mill.

The organs that make the human voice were never built for that purpose

in the first place. Unlike the eye and the ear, nature built no special

organ for the voice alone, but simply utilized the windpipe and

lung-bellows, the swallowing parts of the food passage (tongue, lips,

and palate) and the nose, for that purpose, long after they had taken

their own particular shapes for their own special ends.

The important point about this is that a good voice requires not merely

a large and well-developed music box in the windpipe, but good lungs,

a well-shaped healthy throat, properly arched jaws,--which mean good,

sound teeth,--clear and healthy nasal passages, and a flexible elastic

tongue. Of course, the blood and the nerves supplying all these

structures must be in good condition, as well. So practically, a good

voice requires that the whole body should be healthy; and whatever we do

to improve the condition of our nose, our teeth, our throat, our lungs,

our digestion, and our circulation will help to improve the

possibilities of our voice. There are, of course, many exceptions; but

you will generally find that great singers have not only splendid lungs

and large vocal cords, but good hearts, vigorous constitutions, and

bodies above the average in both stature and strength.

How the Voice is Produced. The chief parts of the breathing machine

that nature has made over for talking purposes are the windpipe, or air

tube, and the muscles in its walls. In the neck, about three inches

above the collar bone, four or five of the rings of cartilage, or

gristle,--which, you remember, give stiffening to the windpipe,--have

grown together and enlarged to form a voice box, or larynx.

The upper edge of this voice box forms the projection in the front of

the throat known by the rather absurd name of the Adam's apple. This

grows larger in proportion to the heaviness of the sounds to be made,

and hence is larger in men than in women and boys. When the boy's voice

box begins to grow to the man's in shape and size, his voice is likely

to break; for it is changing from the high, clear boy's voice to the

heavy, deep voice of the man.

Inside of this voice box, one of the rings of muscle that run around the

windpipe has stretched into a pair of straight, elastic bands, or

strings, one on each side of the air pipe, known as the vocal cords,

or voice bands. These are so arranged that they can be stretched and

relaxed by little muscles; and, when thrown into vibration by the air

rushing through the voice box, they produce the sounds that we call

talking or singing. The more tightly they are stretched, the higher and

shriller are the tones they produce; and the more they are slackened, or

relaxed, the deeper and more rumbling are the tones.

This is why, when you try to sing a high note, you can feel something

tightening and straining in your throat, until finally you can stretch

it no tighter, and your voice breaks, as you say, into a scream or


All musical instruments that have strings, are played, or produce their

sounds, upon this same principle. The thinner and shorter the string, or

the more tightly it is stretched, the higher the note; the heavier and

longer the string, the lower the note. But no musical instrument ever

yet invented can equal the human voice in the music of its tones, in its

range, in the different variety and quality of tones it can produce, and

in its wonderful power of expression. The human voice is a combination

of reed organ, pipe organ, trumpet, and violin; and can produce in its

tiny music box--only about two inches long by one inch wide--all the

tones and qualities of tones that can be produced on all these

instruments, except that it cannot go quite so high or so low.

All the musical instruments in the world, from the penny whistle to the

grand piano, are but poor imitations of the human music box. The

bellows, of course, of the human pipe organ are the lungs; while the

tongue furnishes the stops; and the throat, mouth, and nose, the

resonance, or sounding, chambers.

Just as a violin, or guitar, has two main parts,--a string, which

vibrates and makes the sound; and a box, or hollow body, which catches

that sound and enlarges it and gives it sweetness and vibration and

quality,--so the human voice has two similar parts--the vocal bands,

which make the sound; and a sound box, or rather series of three

resonance boxes,--the throat, the mouth, and the nasal passages,--which

enlarge and soften it and improve its quality.

You would naturally think that the strings, or cords, were the most

important part both of the voice and of a musical instrument; and in one

sense they are, as it could make no noise at all without them. But in

another sense, far more important are the sounding boxes, or resonance

chambers. The whole quality and value, for instance, of a

Stradivarius[32] violin, which will make it readily bring ten thousand

dollars in the open market, are due to the skill with which the body, or

sound box, was made; the quality of the wood used; and, odd as it may

seem, even the varnish used on it--the strings are the same as on any

five-dollar fiddle. This is almost equally true of the human voice.

While its size, or volume, is determined by the voice box and vocal

bands, and its power largely by the lungs and chest, its musical

quality, its color, and its expression are given almost entirely by the

throat, mouth (including the lips), and nose. The proper management of

these parts is two-thirds of voice training, and all these are largely

under our control.

How a Good Voice may be Developed. If the nasal passages, for

instance, are blocked by a bad cold or a catarrh or adenoids, then

nearly half the body of your violin is blocked up and deadened; half

your resonance chamber is destroyed, and the voice sounds flat and dead

and nasal. If, on the other hand, your throat be swollen, or blocked, as

by enlarged tonsils or chronic sore throat, then this part of the

resonance chamber is muffled and spoiled, and your voice will be either

entirely gone or hoarse; though perhaps by driving it very hard you may

be able to make a clear tone.

If you have an attack of inflammation or cold further down, and the

vocal bands swell, or the mucous membrane lining the voice box becomes

inflamed and thickened, then the voice is lost entirely, just as the

tone of a violin would be if a wet cloth were thrown across the strings.

But disturbances in the voice box, or larynx, cause only a very small

percentage of husky, poor, or unmusical voices.

A far commoner cause, indeed probably the commonest single cause of a

poor, squeaky, or drawling, unmusical voice is careless and improper

management of the mouth and lips. In the first place, you can easily

show that such marked differences in sound as those of the different

vowels are all produced by the mouth and lips. If you will prepare to

say the vowels--a, e, i, o, u--aloud, and begin with a, and then

hold your mouth and lips firmly in the same position, you will find that

all the other vowels also come out as a. If, on the other hand, you

begin with your mouth and lips in the rounded and somewhat thrust-out

position necessary to say o, and try to repeat the rest of the vowels,

you will find that you cannot say them at all, but only different forms

of o. When you have convinced yourself of this, repeat the vowels

loudly and clearly without stopping to think about the position of the

mouth, and notice how your lips, the tip and base of your tongue, and

your soft palate and throat all change their positions for each

successive vowel.

If you will try to sing the scale, beginning with a comfortable note

about the middle of your voice range, and letting your mouth take the

shape for that note unconsciously, you will find that, as you sing up

the scale, you change the shape of your mouth, lips, and tongue at every

note, thrusting the lips and mouth further forward as if to whistle,

narrowing the opening and closing up the back of your throat for the

high notes.

On the other hand, as you sing down, you tend to open the mouth and

lips more widely, to drop the bottom of your mouth--that is, the base of

your tongue--toward your throat, and your chin down toward your chest.

Again you will find, just as in the case of the different vowels, that

you can sing any tone clearly and musically after putting the mouth in

precisely the shape that best fits that tone; and learning how to do

this is a most important part of vocal training.

What we call words are simply breath sounds and voice-box sounds chopped

into convenient lengths by the movements of the tongue and lips and

throat. So when we come to the question of clear and pleasant speaking,

or, as we term it, articulation, the lips and tongue have almost

everything to do with making the difference between a clear, musical,

and refined enunciation, which is so easy to understand that it is a

pleasure to listen to it, and a slurred, drawling, squeaky, nasal kind

of speech, which is as hard to understand as it is unpleasant to listen


Few of us can ever hope to develop a really great singing voice; but

anyone who will take the pains can acquire a clear, distinct, and

pleasing speaking voice; and perhaps half of us can learn to sing fairly

well. But to do this, we must first have good, healthy, well-developed

lungs and elastic chest walls, which can come only from plenty of

vigorous exercise in the open air, combined with good food and

well-ventilated rooms. We must have a healthy stomach, which will not

fill up with gas and keep our diaphragms from going down and enlarging

our chests properly; we must have clear nasal passages, good teeth,

well-shaped mouths and flexible lips, which we are willing to use

vigorously in articulating, or cutting up our voice sounds; and we must

have good hearing and a well-trained ear. In short, the best way to get

a clear, strong, pleasant voice is to have a vigorous, well-grown,

healthy body.