By Lori Ellen Sutton, MA, CCC-SLP
In this season of Thanksgiving it is easy to say that we are thankful for our family, our friends, and other blessings. But did you ever think about being thankful for your voice? This year, the team at the CEENTA Voice and Swallowing Center would encourage you to do so. Here’s why:
The primary purpose of our vocal folds is not to generate sound for communication. Their most important job is to protect your airway. Your vocal folds are inside your larynx (voice box), which sits just on top of your trachea (windpipe). Just a few millimeters behind that is the opening to your esophagus (swallowing tube). The vocal folds serve as a valve between your lungs and the outside environment. Every time you swallow your vocal folds close and your body pulls your larynx up and forward to both close off your airway and get it out of the way so that the substance you are swallowing is routed into your esophagus and not your trachea. If that process gets disrupted, some of what we swallowed “goes down the wrong pipe,” meaning food or liquid has entered the airway. Then what happens? We cough. This cough reaction is your body recognizing that substance and your vocal folds working to propel it back out of your airway. So thank your vocal folds for not letting you choke every single time you take a sip or bite.
As air comes up from the lungs and moves through closed vocal folds, vibration is created. This is the source of sound for voice production. That vibration then reverberates throughout the rest of the open spaces of the head and neck (known as the vocal tract), adding harmonics that color the sound. This gives it the quality we recognize as an actual human voice versus the voice that speaks back to us when we say “Hey Siri” into our phones. It is the manipulation of these internal acoustics that allows us to color our voices with a variety of tonal qualities or allows opera singers to sing over an orchestra without a microphone.
Although we are inundated with multiple forms of digital communication these days, voice/speech production remains our primary form of daily communication. It is the primary way we interact with our friends and loved ones. An adult male’s vocal folds are approximately the length of a quarter and typically vibrate about 100-150 times a second for conversational speech. For an adult female, it is approximately the length of a penny and somewhere between 180-250 vibrations a second for conversational speech. The total number of vibrations a day can, therefore, vary between 60,000 to 1.5 million, depending upon the voice demand of your job. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a small surface area! Yet, only 7.6% of the population tends to experience voice disorders. Thank your voice for working efficiently and sticking with you!
Not only is voice production our primary mode of communication, but for singers, actors, storytellers and spoken-word poets, it is the instrument of artistic expression. Even when speaking the exact same words, subtle changes in pitch, inflection, and voice color can signify the full range of human emotions and the human experience, making “the unheard audible.” Who among us has not been moved by a captivating performance?
The world’s population is currently estimated to be about 7.1 billion people. It is estimated that about 107 billion people have ever lived on planet Earth. Did you ever stop to think that, of all the people who have ever lived, not a single one of them has a voice exactly like yours? While we all have lungs, vocal folds, a larynx, and a natural resonating system that work the same way, the exact size of our specific vocal folds and the length and shape of our specific vocal tract is unique to each of us based on our anatomy. Subtle differences in our anatomy impact those internal acoustics, which change the sound. Thank your voice for being part of what makes you YOU!
Your voice works hard for you every day. Don’t take it for granted. Take care of it. And, while we are giving thanks this season, use your voice to give thanks for yours.
This blog is for informational purposes only. For specific medical questions, please consult your physician. Lori Ellen Sutton is a Voice & Swallowing specialist who works in our SouthPark office. She received her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Mississippi and her master’s degree in audiology and speech pathology from the University of Memphis. Her fellowship was at the Scripps Center for Voice and Swallowing in La Jolla, CA.
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