Vocal Qualities

Vocal Qualities are variations in the way you speak. These could be just about any modifier to your "regular" voice and speech pattern, but here we’re going to focus on changes to your voice "tone," done primarily at the breath and sound (respiration/phonation) level, rather than at the resonation and articulation level, which we played with in the Placement Playtime step of the Speech Warm-up Series.

Breath control has a lot of impact on the quality of your voice. As air passes through your larynx, between your vocal folds, the level of air pressure dictates what sounds are possible. If we have too little air, just the right amount or too much air pressure, the vocal quality changes dramatically. Also, how we adjust that air pressure through our speaking can affect the onset of making sound (phonation), and the end of the sound or phrase.


The first vocal quality we’ll explore comes from a limited amount of air pressure. Vocal or Glottal Fry is a sound quality that relies on the the way the vocal folds vibrate, different from their standard mode of vibrating. Most people know this sound when they hear it, though many people who use fry on a regular basis are unaware that they are doing so. Used sparingly, Glottal Fry is not bad for the voice, though excessive use can be fatiguing, and learning how to get out of the habit of using it constantly can be a challenge.

To make a fry sound you need to limit the air passing over your folds. Very gently sigh as you drop down in pitch. As you get to the bottom of your range, try to relax. Continue the sound as long as you can, barely exhaling at all. The sound will switch it a different quality, that sounds perhaps like a very quiet chainsaw idling, or perhaps the sound of popcorn being made (at the start when only a few kernals are popping.) Experiment with this sound by sustaining a sort of "ah" [ɑ] vowel. How loud can you go? Can you go up in pitch? How slow can you make the fry — the rate at which that popping occurs? As the fry slows down, it becomes even more irregular sounding. How fast can you make it go without it changing into regular vibration? As you speed up the fry, the pitch of it is likely to rise: that’s ok. With the limited use of breath energy to make this sound, you may need to take a breath, sigh and let go of the tension that creeps in to your body. (Try a Roll-Down, why doncha?)

Now try speaking on fry; you might try reading this paragraph out loud. Generally, I find that people who speak in fry tend to speak on a monotone, or very close to one. Try to speak on your fry now, and have as much melody as possible. This is quite tricky. As you go higher in pitch, more tension is required in the larynx to counteract the increased air pressure used to raise the pitch. Now, "how low can you go?" This vocal limbo dance may remind you of trying to do a Barry White impersonation; as most of us don’t have the ability to mimic Mr. White’s basso profundo, we switch to fry to notes lower.

It’s quite common today to hear people use glottal fry as part of their everyday speech pattern. Not all the time, but as part of most sentences. The speaker will start out on regular voice and then switch as they get near the end of the phrase or sentence. Try reading along here and when I switch to italics, let your voice switch to glottal fry. You’ll probably find that it works best if you don’t have much air. So don’t breathe in too much to start, so you run out of air early and have to finish with very little support. For longer thoughts, you might run out of air at the end of each phrase, (breathe) so you would have several bits going to fry, each starting on voice and running out of steam.


Falsetto, like glottal fry, is another "different" mode of vocal fold vibration. It’s another vocal quality mode, and it sounds rather strange when applied to the regular speaking voice. For women, the closest to this is head voice, which seems to be part of some women’s natural speaking voices, though not generally in North America. Often used as part of a man’s upper range, especially in certain styles of singing, falsetto in speaking tends to be reserved for character voice, and in animation. Mickey Mouse is a famous example of just such a characterization. In real life, people occasionally pop up into falsetto when they are very emotionally distressed. On falsetto, the vocal folds are only vibrating along the front edge of the folds, and there’s typically a gap or "chink" at the back of the folds, which tends to make the tone somewhat breathy.

To get to that place, start by sirening down on pitch from head tone/falsetto to find the place where your voice breaks and switches into chest voice (regular tone). Then try again, going even slower trying to find the lowest pitch you can make, without flipping into chest. You might try counting and you move down to that lowest pitch, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5…" so you’re speaking in falsetto, into that range. Once there, try speaking a sentence or two (you can read this paragraph again, if you’d like). It’s certainly an odd sound.

Pressed & Breathy Phonation

Pressing on your voice, which happens when you push a lot of air through very tightly held vocal folds, is very hard on the voice. It probably is the opposite of fry, in that fry takes very little air pressure, while press takes a lot. We won’t be practising this, but it’s good to know what it is. Many people press vocally in order to be loud, but it’s very harmful in the long run. You often hear it when power lifters grunt as they do the effort lifting a very heavy weight. Think of holding your breath and then pushing sound out—that’s the action.

Perhaps slightly less harmful is breathiness. Caused by only partially bring the vocal folds together, breathiness is very drying, and can make an injured voice worse. When you whisper, you’re doing breathy sound, and even if you don’t partially phonate, your folds are still closed tight. But in small doses, when your in good vocal health, a little quiet whispering is ok, especially if you only do it for a short time.

Estill Voice and Quality

One style of voice training stands out in terms of vocal quality: Estill. No other contemporary voice technique specializes in exploring the ways of making a large range of vocal qualities as Estill. Unfortunately, Estill training is something that I’ve only been introduced to in a very fleeting way, and so I wouldn’t presume to try to explain it. I’m hoping to take a workshop in Estill in the coming year, but until then I can only point you toward resources where you might be find out about a workshop for you to explore. When I’ve had more training, you can be sure that I’ll be keen to explain what I’ve learned here!


Next: Beginnings

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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