Liquids and The Singer’s Voice

Woman drinking glass of water
Does the temperature of water matter? What about milk and phlegm? Speech-language pathologist Kristie Knickerbocker gives singers some drink for thought.

Singers, by nature, tend to be very attentive to their bodies’ needs.

If you are a performer who uses the voice to make your art, you should be paying close attention to what you’re putting into it.

Baby, It’s Cold Inside

Some voice teachers out there educate their singers to only drink room temperature water.

They say that the cold water is bad for the voice. But why? Do they truly know a scientific rationale behind this suggestion?

I have always heard through singing circles that the cold water will “freeze” the vocal cords and possibly make them less pliable during higher pitches.

I’ve also heard that it takes more effort for the body to “normalize” the temperature of very cold water. Is there any science to this?

A study by Choi et al 2014 found that there is a relationship between esophageal motility (movement of things in the esophagus) and temperature of the bolus (what you’re swallowing).

Findings included slower movement when water was colder, when compared with warmer.

Now, when we swallow, our epiglottis folds over to cover and protect our vocal folds. Our larynx is also elevated and moved forward, allowing the esophagus to open up.

It is a misconception that liquid washes over our vocal folds, but it is true that the esophagus is directly behind the vocal folds.

It is entirely possible that temperature of what you’re ingesting can have an effect on the throat, which includes the esophageal opening and laryngeal areas.

Articulators like your tongue and lips, also involved in your final singing product, may also be affected by the temperature making them feel more sluggish.

I have yet to find a study, however, that shows vocal issues arising from ingesting cold water.

With evidence lacking here, you might be better off obsessing about practicing instead of focusing your worry into the temperature of your liquids.

Milk, Does a Voice Good?

Jim Bartley and Susan Read McGlashan, in a 2010 study, found that there is limited causality between excessive milk drinking and increased mucus in the respiratory tract.

In fact, there is not a study that shows that drinking milk causes increased mucus. A 1990 study by Pinnock et al concluded there was no statistically significant association of dairy causing more mucus production.

There may be singers out there who are lactose intolerant or who may have reflux, and any dairy may cause discomfort, and a variety of symptoms which may impact performance.

Just Plain Ol’ Water

While optimal temperature of drinking water is still a mystery, hydration as a whole is very important to the voice.

Sivasankar and Leydon 2010 looked at increased vocal fold hydration and how it affects the vocal fold tissue.

They found that hydration of vocal fold tissue, both systemic (hydration from the cellular level) and superficial (hydration to the surface of the tissue), may improve overall health and efficiency of the voice box.

We don’t know what dosage is recommended at this time, because more studies are needed, but it is generally a good idea to drink water throughout your day, so that your body has time to process the hydration, and not just chug immediately prior to a performance.

It’s up to you as the performer to determine what your body can handle.

You know what makes you the best version of yourself. I find comfort in the science of things, so I hope this was food (I mean drink) for thought.

-Kristie Knickerbocker

Studies Cited:

  • Sivasankar M, Leydon C. The role of hydration in vocal fold physiology. Curr Open Otolaryngol Head Neck Surgery. 2010. Jun; 19(3): 171-5.
  • Pinnock CB, Graham NM, Mylvaganam A, Douglas RM. Relationship between milk intake and mucus production in adult volunteers challenged with rhinovirus-2.
  • Choi YJ, Park MI, Park SJ, Moon W, Kim SE, Kwon HJ, Kim JH, Jeon, WJ. The effect of water bolus temperature on esophageal motor function as measured by high-resolution manometry. Neurogastroenterol Motil (2014) 26, 1628-1634.
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