Does your voice sound like a creaky door when you speak? “Creaky Voice” voice disorders are on the rise. Voice fatigue is the most common complaint among men and women who use their voices in a devitalized way. Due to our sedentary lifestyles, creaky voice use is gaining momentum among men and women. It is extremely prevalent in teenagers. Very often, I meet voice students who speak on the very lowest notes of their register in what we call a creaky voice or vocal fry. “Vocal fry” is the term used by phoneticians to describe a lazy vocal production that uses very little energy, lacks a clear tone and produces a voice that sounds like a creaky door. According to phoneticians Ladefoged and Maddeison, there are five steps in the continuum of modes of vibration of the vocal folds. Modal voice is the term given to regular phonation produced with full tone. Phonation produced with the vocal cords in a loose configuration is called breathy voice and slack voice, and phonation produced with more constriction is called creaky voice and stiff voice.
Speaking in a devitalized voice is something that voice trainers do not like to see. Speaking with a weak tone can be more fatiguing for the voice than speaking louder, with a full, clear tone. A creaky voice typically occurs when the vocal folds are tightly closed, but weakly tensed, thus creating low airflow and slack vocal cords. According to voice coach Erik Singer, “Phoneticians use creak and creaky voice to refer to very specific glottal settings. In creak, the arytenoids (cartilages at the end of each vocal cord responsible for closing the cords) are pressed together, the rear portions of the folds are together but not vibrating, and the front portions are in slow vibration (about 40 times per second). Creaky voice is creak combined with voice: the front portions of the folds are still in slow vibration but the rear portions are simultaneously in rapid (phonatory) vibration. The arytenoids are still pressed tightly together.
Aside from fatiguing the voice, speaking with a breathy or creaky voice is also unpleasant to listen to. What exactly is a creaky voice? Speaking on the lowest possible note that a person can speak on, without breath energy, support or resonance produces a creaky voice. Some people who speak with a creaky voice are doing it at least in part because they are holding onto their breath, instead of allowing the voice to ride out on the breath. Creaky voice or vocal fry are often accompanied by shallow breathing and tension in the neck and torso due to the speaker’s tendency to use the muscles of the neck for vocal power. Continued use of creaky voice can lead to voice disorders. The most common complaint is vocal fatigue, followed by tension in the neck and an inability to speak loudly, or to be heard over noise in a loud room. The most extreme complaints are feeling choked off at the throat, or a syndrome called strangled voice.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the voice is that it does not take energy to speak. To speak well there needs to be a certain amount of breath energy to propel the voice. Say something right now a little louder than your laziest way of speaking. You will notice that the pitch of your voice naturally rises. Speaking with a clear tone usually requires the speaker to add energy, connect to the breath and speak a few notes higher than the bottom of his or her register. The healthiest pitch to speak on is called “the optimum pitch level” and is usually 3 or 4 notes higher then the bottom pitch you can speak on. The way to find it is to start counting on the lowest, creaky pitch you can produce and as you count upward, slowly raise the pitch. 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . A few notes above the lowest creaky pitch you will discover a pitch where the voice produces a clear, resonant tone. This first pitch with actual tone would be the lowest pitch I would recommend the speaker use. If you feel that your voice sounds too high, the best thing to do is to add more depth to the tone by adding more chest resonance to the voice, but not to lower the pitch. Put your hand on your chest and say “Maaaa.” Can you get the voice to resonate in your chest? This is a better way to make the voice sound lower while still maintaining speech in your “optimum pitch level.” According to Eric Armstrong at York University speaking about clients who use creaky voice, “Getting them to embrace full voicing means getting them to embracing breath flow and the dynamic energy that that creates. A lung-full of air contains a lot of potential energy, and I often feel like these people are being miserly with it, not converting it into kinetic energy to drive the vibration of the vocal folds, and the full potential of sound that would share their thoughts, feelings and impulses.”
Sometimes I meet people who believe that using a weak voice makes them sound calm. A weak, creaky voice does not make a speaker sound calm, confident or professional. What actor, public announcer or TV newscaster has the voice that we are drawn to on TV? Who, in everyday life, attracts our attention purely by sound? Someone with a strong, rich, full resonant tone will draw you toward them. Embrace your sounding potential and energize your voice, the result will be worth it.
Read Vocal Yoga, the Joy of Breathing, Singing and Sounding to learn more about the voice.