It’s So Good To Hear Your Voice

We use it every day, and, like so many of the wondrous abilities of the human body, we take it for granted.  We simply speak, and our voice delivers our message. 

It’s that easy, and that complex.

Have you ever had an episode of laryngitis?  Or, perhaps you are like one of the estimated 3-9% of Americans who experience a voice disorder in their lifetimes, and you know too well what it feels like to have your voice betray you.

In order to communicate, three active physical functions and one passive function must operate with perfect timing:

  • RESPIRATION:  Breathing in supplies your lungs with fuel for the voice.  Without air, there is no voice, as it is created when air rushes through the vocal cords.  The voice is always created when you exhale, never when you inhale.  And, obviously, we are all either inhaling or exhaling at all times. 
  • PHONATION:  This is the act of vibrating, or “turning on” the vocal cords in order to create the voice.  It is bypassed only when whispering.  They lie horizontally at the level of the thyroid, more commonly referred to as the Adam’s apple.  When speaking, they vibrate at approximately 200 times per second.
  • ARTICULATION:  As the air rushes up through the vocal cords and into the mouth, our tongue, lips, cheeks and jaws form various and precise postures.  These are the individual sounds of our language, and the unique way we combine them determines the words we form.
  • RESONANCE: is the passive function.  It is determined by the shapes of our nasal, sinus and oral cavities.  It changes when we have a cold, as these cavities are filled with mucus, and their shape changes subtly, but enough to make our voice sound different.  The sound ‘resonates’ within these chambers. Since we are already shaping our mouths actively for the individual sounds, it is considered a passive function.  Much like an organ sounds different in a large church, the amount of space and shapes of our resonating cavities makes our voice sound different. 

The vocal cords are the size of a dime in a woman, and a nickel in a man.  They are small, but mighty.  Just listen to a singer as they belt out tunes:  they are vibrating their vocal cords in their own unique, strong, beautiful way in order to share their gift of music with you and me.

Perhaps you have heard of a famous singer who had to cancel their concert tour because their doctor prescribed ‘vocal rest.’  This is no different than an athlete on temporary rest due to a strained or pulled muscle. 

Perhaps, also, you have noticed that singers typically have a bottle of water with them at all times during their performance.  They know their livelihood and/or talent depends upon being well-hydrated, and they are sure to drink plenty of water. 

So why is all this important to know if, like most of us, you are not a singer?  Because you are a communicator, and your voice needs to be heard.  It is the only one you have, much like most other abilities. It can be sometimes be rehabilitated after officially diagnosed disorders.  Your primary care provider or an ENT—ear, nose and throat specialist—can typically diagnose most disorders, and an SLP—speech language pathologist—typically treats them. 

Like so many other physical disorders, they are often induced or worsened by stress.  The good news is that most disorders are not serious, and they can be treated.  As a speech-language pathologist, I have treated many adults and children with various voice disorders.  If you struggle with voice problems, I am here to offer hope—but you have to do your part:  visit with your doctor, drink your water, and remain positive.

As if drinking water wasn’t important enough already for every other function of the human body, it is especially important for the optimal function of the voice.  As a voice therapist, we define “enough” as this:  half of your body weight in ounces consumed daily in water.  And, if you drink considerable amounts of coffee (like I do), or any other caffeinated or alcoholic beverage, the same amount you consume in these treats must be added to that amount above.  In effect, they put you “in debt,” requiring that you drink more water to get back to zero.  Caffeine and alcohol have a dehydrating effect on the human body overall, and this dehydration affects the vocal cords in a very obvious—and audible way. 

This is the first line of defense, and if you aren’t doing this already—as long as your primary care provider hasn’t put you on fluid restrictions, drinking enough water daily is a must.

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When you meet a new person, you form an impression of them primarily by using two senses:  sight and hearing.  Typically, the senses of taste, smell and touch play small, if any, parts in forming initial impressions.  Instead, we look at someone and develop a visual impression, and we listen to their voices and develop an auditory impression.   When you talk to someone you don’t know on the phone, their voice is the sole vehicle used to form this impression. 

If you are in danger, and you need help, you use your voice to call for help.

Any relationship you are in depends on communication, and the voice is typically the way we express ourselves to others. 

If you are an actor, you rely on your voice to express your talent.

If you are a singer, your voice is how you share that gift.

Most jobs require that you use your voice to communicate with co-workers, as well as those you serve in your job. 

The voice is a gift that is meant to be used.

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Drinking enough water.  Breathing deeply.  Minimizing stress.  Interacting with other humans.  Contacting your health care provider with concerns about your body and its functions.  Turns out all these things that are important for taking care of your voice are important not just for your voice, but for taking care of your overall health.

The voice has always been the lifeline that connects us to other humans.  Now, in these COVID times, it may be the only way some people can connect by phone when they cannot visit each other.  We hope that soon COVID will pass as a major threat, and long after, we will continue to use our voices to reach out to others. 

If your voice is in good working condition for speaking and, as a bonus, for singing, be sure to be grateful.  If it isn’t working, please let your care provider know.  There may be a simple answer, and there likely will be positive steps you can take to make it the best it can be. 

Your voice is uniquely yours.  No one else sounds like you.  Take care of it, because you are the only you.