“This is our voice”
day 10 of the German learning Advent Calendar, the second Advent, and today, I want to talk a bit about something that we use everyday but that we don’t really know how it works.
Which is actually… most of the things!! Hooray!
Like soap for instance. I don’t really know how soap works, but I use it every… uh.. every week… ish.
But seriously, what I want to talk about today is THE essential component of speaking, because today, we’ll look at
How the voice works
And that’s actually really fascinating. This is one of the things that I did learn in university (I did a master in audio communication, technical acoustics and anxiety), and I remember everyone in the big lecture hall going like “OMG, that looks like a vagina.”
You’ll understand in a second.
The Origin of the Voice
So… most of us if not all have heard the term vocal chords. That’s where the voice originates, but the term chords is kind of misleading, because it sounds a bit like there’s a bunch of guitar strings suspended in our throat. In reality, it’s more like two thin lips of ligaments that we can open and close.
When we breathe, they are open and nothing happens, but when we want to speak, our muscles pull them together so they close.
That blocks the air flow and pressure builds up until it “explodes out” and pushes them apart for a split second. Then, they close again, and that repeats hundreds of times per second.
Now, where exactly does the sound come from? Well, when you read up online you can find different variations.
Some sources say, the sound comes from the two bands “clapping” back together after having been apart… like clapping your hands.
Others say that it’s the vibration of the bands due to the constant motion … like they’re guitar strings.
And some say that it’s the change in volume-flow of the air. You see, a sudden change of the quantity of air that is moving through a part of space creates a sound. That’s why an explosion makes a sound, because LOADS of air that were still are suddenly moving elsewhere. And on a smaller scale, that’s what happens when we “pop our lips”. Nothing breaks, nothing is torn and yet there’s a sound. That’s because there’s a very sudden change of “air flow”.
But anyway, so I couldn’t really find a definite answer to what exactly produces the sound, so let’s just say that the constant opening and closing of the vocal bands creates a base sound.
With our muscles in the throat, we can stretch the vocal bands to different lengths, which results in different frequencies for that base sound. Or in other words, a lower or higher voice.
But aside from that base sound is actually pretty much the same for ALL things we say. And it doesn’t really sound human by itself. It sounds more like the sound of a really fat fly.
So where do the different vowels come from? And the sound of our voices in general.
The sounds of the voice
The core reason for that is resonance. You see, the sound that comes from the vocal chord is quite rich in the sense that it contains MANY different frequencies.
But before it goes out into the world, the sound is passing through the throat, the mouth and partially also the nose, which are basically tubes with a very complicated shape and surface. And these tubes, through resonance, cause some frequencies to get stronger while others get weaker or dampened out completely.
Did you ever speak into a tube and notice how the voice sounds a bit different? The same thing happens in our throat and mouth, just way more complicated.
And there’s actually an amazing Youtube video about this.
It’s quite old and low quality, but it’s the most impressive, I have found.
In essence, they’re using a speaker that creates the raw base sound of human vocal bands, and then they put different models over it, that try to approximate the vocal tract of different vowels. And you can clearly hear how the sound quality changes through those tubes.
And that’s it. Those are the building blocks for our voice and speech.
There’s the source of the sound that we turn on for vowels and off for sounds like “shh”. And then there’s the vocal tract (throat, mouth, nose) that we constantly reshape, which modifies the sound coming out.
And I have to say…. the work our brain and muscles are doing for this constant shaping is INSANE!!!
And it took a lot of training to get it to be so fast and so automated, so if you have trouble speaking a foreign language quickly… do NOT beat yourself up and instead give your brain and muscles the time and practice they need. They have to learn loads of new configurations and transitions and they have to make them super quick. It’s a bit like in sports. Some people have an athletic disposition so they can pick up new movements quicker, while most people really have to practice a LOT.
Speak to yourself, read to yourself, speak to a tandem. But you need to practice. And if you’re like “Ohhh, it’s so hard.” then just think how hard your brain and muscles are working “behind the scenes”. They’re doing most of the heavy lifting without you even realizing what’s going on. So even if you don’t feel like practicing – your brain and muscles would love to, so show them some love and give them a chance :)
And that’s it for today.
If you want to dig in a little more into how the voice works and the sounds that we make, I can really recommend the website voicescienceworks.org.
It’s free, it’s old school looking and it has a lot of nice, easy to understand information.
The link goes to an overview article, but do browse around the site – there’s lots to discover.
Anyway, I’m out for now. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about any of this. I love talking about this, so I’m happy to dive deeper.
I really hope you enjoyed this, have a great day and bis morgen.