Dear Dr. Jahn,
I think I just barely understand that much of my voice is created by my vocal folds – two little eensy weeny flaps of flesh down my throat somewhere. OK. Check. But then someone mentioned that I should know about the “false folds” Huh??? This is getting weird and complicated. Help!
I’m glad you are interested in the anatomy of the larynx, which can be a bit complex; however, here is “the short version”:
The vocal folds are two bands of tissue which run front to back, like two elastic bands. Air flows between them as you exhale.
If they are approximated in the midline and you continue to push air, they begin to vibrate and generate sound. The sound then resonates in the spaces in your throat, above the vocal folds.
Above the vocal folds are two other folds of tissue which do not normally vibrate. This is because they are pulled out of the air stream, and are also made of thicker tissue. These folds, the false vocal cords, are in reality a safeguard for the airway: when you swallow or choke, they squeeze together to prevent material from being inhaled into the lungs. They normally do not vibrate and have no role in singing.
Now, it gets more complicated. There are some people who squeeze the false folds together when they speak or sing. By doing this, they put them in the way of the exhaled stream of air, and can actually produce sound with them.
It is a rough, gravelly sound, exemplified by singers such as Louis Armstrong, and not normal for most types of singing. So for your purposes, I would ignore them. If you do use them to “sing” (known as “false cord phonation”), your listeners will probably not thank you…
-Anthony F. Jahn, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)
This discussion is for general information and not to be construed as specific medical advice that you should obtain from your own physician.
Dr. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a sub-specialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. He holds academic appointments at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Westminster Choir College in Princeton. He is Medical Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and former Director of Medical Services at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Dr. Jahn has published several books for vocalists, including “Vocal Heath for Singers” (Singdaptive) and “The Singer’s Guide to Complete Health” (Oxford University Press).