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Intro to Voice: Speech & Hearing Month!

Each year, Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC) dedicates the month of May to raising awareness about communication. The theme this year is “Connecting Through Communication. S-LPs and audiologists empower you.”

How the voice works: intro to speech and hearing month

I think this month is great time to learn more about how we communicate and how an S-LP or Audiologist can help support you when any of the systems for communication have difficulty. To start off this month, I wanted to write an article about one of the first areas that comes to mind when discussing communication - and that is speaking.

I’ve always found it helpful and interesting to discuss how the voice works. This can be helpful for clients to picture in their minds what an SLP is seeing, and for clients to be on the same page about why it may be important to work on areas such as breath support or enunciation.

The 3 sub-systems

As humans, we love to group things together. A good example of this is creating 3 main parts of speech which, when they work together well, provide a lot of the harmony that makes our voices strong. These 3 parts are the oral cavity, voice box (larynx), and lungs. Let’s dive into each section a bit more.

Part 1: Oral cavity

As the name suggests, we are looking here at the mouth, including the tongue, teeth, and lips. How all of these parts coordinate together shapes the sound that we use. Resonance is also an important part of this. Resonance involves where the sound is vibrating (the amplification of sound waves) – either in the mouth or nose -- which can make your voice sound darker or brighter. Also, depending on how well you articulate sounds, your voice may sound very clear or slurred, quiet, etc.

How the Voice Works: sub systems of speech

Part 2: Larynx (aka The Voice Box)

The vocal folds are vital for voice, and help create a sound unique to you. They can be described simply as two membranes that, when meeting together with air passing between them, create a vibration that you can shape. Place a hand on your throat and say ‘zzzzz’ – you should feel a ‘buzz’. Now say ‘ssssss’ – you shouldn’t feel anything. That’s because ‘z’ is a sound that requires vocal fold vibration, whereas as ‘s’ does not.

Many people also wonder how we change our pitch. This is done by stretching the vocal folds longer for higher pitches, and making them shorter for lower pitches. It should be noted that vocal folds meet together at 100+ times per second when voicing, so they do a lot of work for our voice!

Since they are such a small structure, that means that it can be easy to cause strain and/or damage. I have worked with teachers and other professional voice users who have experienced vocal damage over time. If you have to speak a lot for your work, then that makes it more likely to happen too.

Here's a great video to see how the vocal folds move during breathing: Vocal cord motion during breathing

And here's a video to show the vocal folds while vibrating: Stroboscopy: Normal Female Vocal Cords

Part 3: Lungs

This might be the most self-explanatory, but you may be surprised by how crucial your method of breathing can be to your voice. If someone holds a lot of tension in their chest or abdominal muscles, they can often accidently ‘hold’ their breath and put more strain on their larynx. Holding breath can often mean restricting how much your abdominal and chest muscles move. An appropriate intake of breath, through the nose with your abdominal muscles doing the work rather than your chest or shoulders, will be more beneficial in the long-term.

Here is a simple exercise you can try to improve your breath support:

A: Check your posture:

- Ensure you are either sat or stood upright in a comfortable position with good posture

- Make sure your shoulders are back, rather than slumped forwards

- Relax your shoulders

B: Put one hand on your stomach

1. Take a slow breath in through the nose, filling your stomach with air (for 3 seconds)

2. Hold your breath for 3 seconds

3. Exhale slowly through the mouth (for about 3 seconds)

4. Wait for a few seconds before taking another breath

You should notice that the hand on your stomach moves. Visualise your stomach expanding as your lungs fill with air.

What was your understanding about voice, and did you learn anything that surprised you?



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