How the Tongue Can Make or Break a Singer

Tongue Position and Relaxation While Singing

Woman sticking out tongue.
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The tongue can have the biggest influence on your vocal sound. It influences the shape and length of the vocal tract affecting your ability to resonate. It also affects your ability to enunciate the text of songs. Learning to control the tongue is particularly difficult because one must coordinate its eight muscles all at once.

Tongue Tension Causes Vocal Cord Tension

The tongue is connected to the larynx, or Adam’s apple, which houses the vocal cords. The same muscles that lift the larynx also stiffen, raise, and thrust the tongue forward. Try looking in the mirror and thrusting your tongue forward. Notice your Adam’s apple goes up? When the larynx rises, the reduced space in the back of the throat minimizes the ability of the body to resonate. Without resonance, your voice lacks beauty and strength. The same effect happens when the tongue tenses during singing.

Tongue Can Also Block Sound

In addition to reducing resonance space, the tongue can diminish volume by bunching up in the back of the throat and blocking sound creating a muted effect. Often singers do not realize they have tongue tension, especially the root of the tongue located in the back of the throat. Instead, their throat may feel tense or they feel like they are choking.

The Tongue Controls What Vowel is Heard

The tongue partly determines what vowel is heard. A matter of fact, when Daniel Jones created the famous vowel chart, he studied the tongue’s position using x-rays. He determined that the position of the high point of the tongue is back in “cool” (u) and forward in “treat” (i). Most people create vowels in their own language without conscious effort, but singing a foreign language without an accent will require greater knowledge of the tongue’s position.

Tense Tongues Can Cause Ugly Vibrato

If you place your thumb under your chin, then you may feel one of two things: bone or muscle. If it is muscle, then you are feeling the tongue. Sometimes that soft tissue wiggles when singing. This causes a quiver in the voice that is heard as vibrato. However, tongue vibrato wobbles are particularly wide as is heard sometimes in older, damaged voices. To get rid of it, place a figure under your chin while singing. Note when your tongue stiffens and when it loosens. Try and apply the feeling you have when your tongue is relaxed to the times when it is not. If that does not work, then other relaxation methods can be used.

How to Relax a Tight Tongue

The best way to combat tension is to move. In the case of the tongue, this means moving it back and forth rapidly while singing. Some famous opera singers have been seen doing this on particularly high notes. However, you want to start to identify how it feels to have a relaxed tongue while moving and then apply it to when the tongue stays still. You may also practice with a lemon drop or jolly rancher sitting in the middle of the tongue. Sometimes holding the tongue out with your fingers can also help relax the root of the tongue.

Imagining Your Mouth as a House

One of my favorite vocal analogies is to imagine your mouth is a house. The roof of the mouth is the ceiling and stays high and arched. The back of the throat and the front of the mouth are doors left wide open. The tongue is the carpet that should lie as flat as possible on the bottom of the mouth. Just like a carpet can trip you up if bunched up on the ground, a bumpy tongue can cause vocal tension. However, the analogy does not always apply, because the tongue should always be moving during speech.