As we continue our How Things Work series, we’re exploring vocal resonance. We want to highlight what it is, how it works, and how it's perceived in the world. Perhaps most importantly, how we can begin to leverage our unique and authentic resonance in our daily lives.
What Is Resonance
You might be sitting here wondering, what exactly is resonance? Quite simply, resonance is sound. What your voice sounds like, or the tone of your voice, is created by resonance and the vibrations of your voice.
From a purely scientific perspective, resonance is the act of these vibrations (i.e. sound waves) interacting with resonators.
In your voice, resonance is what occurs when the vibrations created by your vocal cords bounce around your vocal tract, which is the space between your vocal folds and your mouth. Vibrations that are created in this space eventually leave our body via your mouth and nose.
All of these elements when operating in tandem control the volume, timbre, and efficiency of your voice.
Now that we understand how resonance works, let's dive into your body for a second and discuss vocal anatomy. The entire vocal apparatus is small and compact. Your vocal folds are somewhere between the diameter of a dime and a quarter, and the actual space between the vocal folds and your mouth is a few inches at the most!
It is remarkable to think that such a small part of our body is responsible for how our voices are heard in the world!
The distance between your vocal folds and your mouth is called your vocal tract (also known as a resonance tract). This is a container that vibrations created by your vocal folds will pass through to create sound. Without your vocal tract, there would be almost no sound.
An external example of this can be found in instruments. Depending on the shape, thickness, and wood type of a violin, the sound will be different. This is because the shape, thickness, and hardness of the wood are all parts of the violin’s resonance tract - or what vibrations created by the strings — interact with.
For your voice, this means that on their own, your vocal folds make practically no sound – in fact, they just make a quiet buzz without the help of resonators amplifying and changing these buzzes in our body. Imagine if you opened your mouth to speak and a barely audible buzz came out 🐝.
This means that your vocal tract is what makes you sound like you, and me sound like me. It is the foundation of what we call your “vocal thumbprint.”
How Resonance Works
So how does resonance work in your body? When air comes through the trachea and up to the vocal folds (i.e. vocal cords), the folds come together and create vibrations. The slowest and most powerful vibration is the pitch you hear. We call this slow, powerful vibration the fundamental. Simultaneously, as the fundamental is being created, faster vibrations called overtones or harmonics are being created.
The amount of cord closure — or surface area of your vocal cords that physically come together, as well as the consistency of the vibrations – will affect the strength of the harmonics.
Once the harmonics are created, they bounce and reverberate through your vocal tract as they leave your mouth and nose to be heard in the world. These vibrations are called formants. Formants change depending on the size and shape of the vocal tract. They can help to amplify a sound, make a sound sparkle or dull, or decrease the volume of a sound. Basically, formants are what give harmonics, and ultimately our voices, their personality.
Taking a moment to understand the various body parts and processes that go into how sound is created is vital to understanding what our voice is and how resonance works.
Awareness of both the small physical space where this takes place, as well as the process of how you create sound, will allow you to play with your own vocal tract and resonance options!
Now that you know how resonance works, how do you start to explore resonance? One of our favorite ways is through play! Pick 3 of your favorite character voices (we love Julia Child, Janice from FRIENDS, and Gus Gus from Cinderella) and try to imitate their voices! In doing so, you are going to be changing your vocal tract and playing with resonance!
Want to learn more about the science of resonance? The team over at Voice Science Works do an amazing job of describing this. Check them out at www.voicescienceworks.org.