The Voice: Vibrations and Things

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A paper I wrote for AP Physics on the Physics of Voice-- written mainly for those in the profession of vocal music.

Submitted: June 27, 2013

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Submitted: June 27, 2013



Author’s Note

Everyone who reads a book always wonders, “Why did the author even write this?” I can answer that easily, I wrote this because it was something I had a lot of interest in. It was something that I always wanted to study, and always have had an interest in. Being a singer myself, and being someone uses my voice not just for talking but also for art, I feel like it would be important to be able to speak about the topic and know just exactly what makes my voice work.

Sound is sound, right? Most people don’t really understand how sound works, and how it affects the voice, well the purpose of this paper, in the eyes of the author, is to show people how cool the voice can really be. I offer this paper as a tool to others that are planning to study voice in the future.

This took a lot of research, probably more than someone would ever expect, however, in the end, I am proud that I decided to write this paper, it has been more useful to me than anything and I can always reference it throughout my life. Something I know a few people would wonder about is why the paper is written in first person instead of that odd for of speech that most “scholarly” books are written in. Well that is because, I do not like how that sounds. For a topic like this, a topic I am passionate about and enjoy learning about, I don’t want to talk about it in some odd tense, I want to be able to connect to it. I want to be able to enjoy what I am writing, looking at it from multiple angles, and really grasp what I am writing about. How can I do that when I am boring myself to sleep with what I am writing?

What I hope to do with this paper, is teach someone something. Show people how interesting it can be to truly looking at the voice and look at how it all works. That being said— Enjoy.

Sincerely, The Author.  

The Idea of Sound

How many people think about where the idea of sound actually came from? Or, in any case, even thought about what sound is? Not many people, I can certainly promise you that. Have you even thought about where sound comes from and what it is? No, of course not. Unless you are in a physics course and you are suddenly forced to think about what sound is, no one thinks about it. To most people on this planet that we call earth, it is simply a thing that happens and literally goes in one ear and out the other. So, where did sound come from? Who came up with it?

To answer this, we go back to 6th century B.C., with the Pythagoras, where Samos had observed something that, in that time period, he had deemed quite odd. What he had observed was someone playing an instrument of some sort—many believe that it was a guitar-like instrument. Samos had observed a string, and noticed that it was being played by a “plucking” motion; as well as that the shorter strings vibrated much more rapidly, thus creating a higher pitched sound. This was the opposite for longer strings, they produced much lower sounds (“Sound”).

Coming up to 400 B.C., a member from the Pythagorian school, his name was Archytus or Tarentum observed another aspect of sound. What did he see? Well, he was the first to observe the sound that objects were making when they were struck against one another.  Much like Samos, Archytus observed that the faster moving strikes caused a higher-pitched noise, whereas the slower strikes caused many lower strikes (“Sound”).

Who knew that sound could be so interesting? However, it did not stop there, not at all. Around 350 B.C., Aristotle noticed that with the strings being struck, they weren’t hitting each other causing vibrations, they were hitting air, but yet they were still vibrating (See Appendix A). It was because of this, that Aristotle concluded that in order for this to happy, sound needs to go through an air medium in order for it to work, or even be constructed. That probably doesn’t make any sense, which is fine, I really didn’t expect it too. What he means, is that sound needs to travel, like light, it travels in a vacuum of space. Aristotle observed that sound would not travel in space, however it would travel through a medium of perfect air. Hopefully that clears things up, a bit (“Sound”).

As I said, there is still so much more we have yet to cover. You can hold on, I promise, there is not much more to read on. What haven’t the Roman’s or the Greeks explored deeper on, huh? Well after Aristotle, a Roman engineer named Marcus Vituruvius Pollio suggested a flaw in Aristotle’s theory. He hypothesized that the air around the vibrating string of the guitar-like instrument not only moved, but it vibrated. How else is sound heard and or created? Pollio kept his theory until the day that he died, deciding that it was a brilliant idea, and that because of these many vibrations through the air, that was what we perceived as, “sound” (“Sound”).

It was not until 500 A.D. where the idea of vibrations and motion of waves were finally morphed together to create the concept of sound by a Roman philosopher named Anicius Manilius Severinus Boethius. How was this all thought about? Well he did it by a simple experiment, he dropped a pebble into a pool of water. What did this do? The waves caused from the pebble created waves through the air. Back in that time, Boethius thought it was a good idea, he did observe waves and it was a brilliant way of doing so; however, these days, we know that there are other things that go into sound, and that water waves and sound waves create two different types of lengths. Without the idea that sound moved in waves, started by many scientists and only blossomed on through time, we would have no idea how sound exactly

traveled (“Sound”).

So you see, sound is far from a basic thing that was just thought up out of nowhere, it took years and years to think of, even longer to be proven correct.  Do you think we are done here? Well that count not be more wrong. Have you ever thought about singing? No? Well okay, let’s continue. If you have thought about people who were singing, you would think of what? Pitch? Tone? Vibrato? What do you think of?  Did you ever think that singing actually takes, work? Or how about the idea that you actually have to apply physics to sing a tune? Or what about simply, talking? How your voice sounds? Why your voice sounds that way? What does your body do to produce something that is the key to communication? Breathe, I will tell you.


Remember how I told you to breathe? That’s because nothing happens without a bit of air in your lungs. I don’t care if you argue this, as many people do, I want you to truly think about this. If you don’t breathe, can you talk? No. If your lungs aren’t taking in air, then why doesn’t sound still come out? Allow me to explain.

I really don’t want to hear anyone say that the lungs don’t do anything for the body, they do so much you don’t even know. Breathing takes work, as does anything. It’s simple. Take a deep breath, where does it the air go. For starters, it does to your blood. Oxygen in your blood helps keep your muscles moving because the air carries anti-oxidants that your body needs to keep moving. Obviously that is the outline of what it is, so we shall go deeper. Inhaling is basic, so what exactly happens, well this. (See Appendix B) When you inhale your nose and throat expand or flair slightly, allowing air to travel down your windpipe and into your lungs. When the air reaches your lungs, it then travels through the bronchial tubes and comes to the resting placed called the alveoli (“What”).

The walls of the alveoli are very thin, almost like a thin fabric, but this is for a reason. What this does, is it allows oxygen to start its’ journey all throughout the human body. Oxygen from the air that you just inhaled travels through the capillaries [or in simpler terms, “blood vessels”], and soon after Hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells, helps move the oxygen through the body (“What”).

At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs. The gas has traveled in the bloodstream from the right side of the heart through the pulmonary artery.

Oxygen-rich blood from the lungs is carried through a network of capillaries to the pulmonary vein. This vein delivers the oxygen-rich blood to the left side of the heart. The left side of the heart pumps the blood to the rest of the body. There, the oxygen in the blood moves from blood vessels into surrounding tissues.(“What”)

I just talked about inhaling, the “art form” which actually is rather complex though many deem it simple. Exhaling I do not need to cover because a baby knows that exhaling practically repeats the process, but for the sake of explaining, I can explain it.

Underneath your lungs is a muscle called the diaphragm, when you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward into the chest cavity. As the area in the chest cavity gets smaller and tighter, air that is now full of carbon dioxide is forced up and out of your lungs either through your nose or through your throat. Something someone should always remember is that breathing out or “exhaling” requires little to no effort from your body. Why would it? All you’re doing is breathing out air that has been used. It only takes work to do, or breathing in general, when you have asthma, or you have some sort of lung disease that makes breathing difficult. No matter what you do in breathing, your abdominals are constantly being engaged because they have to pushed or flexed through force in order to keep the air flowing. Remember, you cannot always for everything to happen through one circular system (“What”). 

When you breathe out, or exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward into the chest cavity. The intercostal muscles between the ribs also relax to reduce the space in the chest cavity.


As the space in the chest cavity gets smaller, air rich in carbon dioxide is forced out of your lungs and windpipe, and then out of your nose or mouth. (“What”)

What about the voice? How does that all tie in? Well anyone can tell you that breathe support is they key ingredient to creating sound waves from the body. Anyone who sings, or does anything in the art department that needs their body, knows that if you don’t breathe right, it can be life or death—of the body and of your career. When talking you actually end up taking in more breathe than normal, you have to take in enough oxygen for the air to pass by the vocal folds and continue through the longs without stopping the flow of the sound (Hass).

Everyone wants a clear tone, something that sounds pure and true and isn’t too forced, well I hate to break it to you but that isn’t as easy as many think. Have you ever talked to someone whose voice is nasally or whose voice is raspy? Do you know why that is? If their voice is raspy, it means that either they are a smoker, or they aren’t using proper breathe support. I am hoping that it is the breathe support. There is not enough air getting over the vocal folds, where the vocal chords are, so it is actually causing the voice to almost come out thing; not strong enough, in simpler terms (Hass).

What about someone whose voice is nasally? Have you ever heard of the concept of “yawning” or “opening up”? Well it is really simple, in fact I can even show you, or well, walk you through it. Take a deep breathe. Are you doing that? I trust you enough to assume so. If you took a true breathe, one that you could feel go to your toes and back, that means your throat and nasal cavities have been opened up and “relaxed” to make breathing easily. Now exhale. Repeat the breathe, this time, when you’re about to exhale, open your mouth and hold a note. Any note of, any pitch—it is up to you. Did you hear that? What did it sound like? If you felt it in your nose, almost so in your nose that you wanted to cringe, that means you were not open enough.

I know that you’re rather confused, probably asking your why that matters. Well, take a breathe again. Do you have that feeling of open-ness, see if you can withhold that, not using force or work, while you’re holding your note. Go on, try it. Did that fix the nasally-ness? It should have. If it didn’t, then one of us is doing something wrong, and I can assure you that it isn’t me.

We talked earlier that, throughout many years in history, people discovered that sound was not just an art form but also a work of sound waves, vibrations and other things. Sound waves are things that our ears pick up, but vibrations? How can you pick up a vibration? If you try to answer those questions out loud, I can promise you that many people would actually think that you were rather insane, that or uneducated, but this is something that can be answered through science. For answers to all of these, we turn to the vocal chords and what exactly causes those amazing vibrations that turn a simple puff of air into a tune that soothes the ear.


Good Vibrations

Have you ever tried feeling your vocal chords when you talk? If you have, I can only imagine that you actually looked rather silly, seeing as your vocal chords [ or “vocal folds”] are located in the back of your throat (Hass).

Now when you go to take a deep breathe , or to talk how does that affect your vocal chords? Well for starters, when you sing or talk, your vocal folds vibrate. No, not violent vibrations, however they are enough to produce a sound that people can hear. The vocal folds are a very small, fragile bit of your body and they sit horizontally right about your larynx, performing hundreds upon thousands of little closures every minute (Hass).

Closures are when your vocal folds open and close at different moments and times to allow different amounts of air pass by them, therefore causing different vibrations and sounds to be released (Hass). That is not too hard to follow, correct?

A little fact that many you might not have known, “On a middle C there are around 262 closures a second. On a high C there are about 1,046 closures a second” (Hass). See, look I am actually teaching you something of importance, so hurray for that. Anyway, moving on.

There are two different phases for vocal folds to go through, an open phase and a closed phase; both require the motion of the vocal folds opening and closing to allow air to pass through them, thus causing them to vibrate. Pretty cool, huh? During a closed phase, the vocal folds are closed, softly resting against one another in the throat. When someone takes a deep breathe to go and talk, the air begins to push on the resting vocal folds. As they change into an open phase, the ultimate pull apart from the bottom up [think of it like if you break a zipper, it comes apart from the bottom to the top], and the air starts to flow through them. Then for a little bit of time, the vocal folds open completely, allowing air to fully pass by them, and then within seconds, the vocal folds close back up from the bottom up; just like how they opened. Something you always want to remember is that the ultimate goal of your vocal folds, or the ultimate job, is to let air through, it’s second hand job is that it happens to let a sound be produced. Two jobs in one, that is a little bit cool, correct (Michael)?

Your vocal folds are also rather flexible. Some say, then when producing different pitches and sounds like that we all hear every day, they have the tendency to stretch or morph.  What I mean by that, is do you remember how we talked about how different philosophers looked at strings vibrating, and how shorter ones were higher pitched while the longer ones were lower pitched? In a sense, that is what your vocal folds do. Besides letting through air, when your vocal chords want to produce a higher pitch, they get closer together. Getting closer, or tighter, together limits the air flow, making it so that already the pitch will be higher. Now, the vocal folds also shrink themselves, which goes back to the air flow. Less hair flow, tighter area for the sound to pass through, creates a faster vibrations, therefore close sound waves, which in turn create a higher pitch (Michael).

For lower sounds, your vocal chords do something about differently—they stretch. As I mentioned previously, longer strings create lower sounds because they do not vibrate as rapidly. The vocal fords stretch, which immediately goes to create a bit more room for air to go through and cause vibrations but not too much more than that of a high-pitch-producing set of vocal folds (See Appendix C). When your vocal chords stretch, they still are against one another, but they are not as tightly as pressed as they are when creating a higher pitched sound. This, “stretching,” causes vibrations to be much slower because air has much more space to come through, meaning that it can’t be focused in one area, therefore, the vibrations are slower (Michael).

No matter what pitch you’re talking about with the vocal folds, one thing never changes and that is the unit of measure talked about when counting vibrations and that is Hertz [HZ]. The higher your pitch travels up the music scale, the more vibrations [Hertz] your vocal chords end up producing. For example, a soprano vocalist’s [meaning she sings rather high pitched] vocal chords produce more than 269.9 Hz per second. Now granted, that is not enough vibrations to create a sound as high as a dog whistle, but it is still pretty high, but the human ear can still pick it up (Michael).

How do people even justify themselves? How does one control volume or even test the theory of “throwing their voice”? How do you get really loud one moment and really soft another without even thinking about it, or so you think?  I suppose it is time to answer more questions.



Loud Mouths and Sound Travel

Have you ever been siting next someone on a train and through that, that person was so loud that it drove you insane? Better yet, have you ever been on a plane for a trip and that one baby cries? It doesn’t matter how far away you are, you can still hear that baby crying? Why is that? How are you able to hear that baby crying when you are fifty plus rows back?

To answer all of those rhetorical questions, I offer you the idea of sound waves and particles. Sound is transferred through the air by particles and by sound. It is something that shouldn’t be really new to many of my readers. Whether it be in a solid, liquid or gas, the atoms and particles bounce into one another, and this causes vibrations to happen through the state of matter. In a solid, because the particles are so tightly compact, there is little to no room for them to vibrate and move, meaning, in a sold, there is no sound [as that should be expected] (Edmondson).

What about in a liquid?  Let’s just use water as an example because it is simple and easy to use. What is a liquid, obviously, for a liquid, the particles move much more freely, as the liquid is able to take any shape of the container that it is put in. Because the particles are able to move so freely, they bump and rub into each other, causing many vibrations over a short range or a long range. Because of this freedom, sound waves are easily able to pass through water and be carried long distances; so under water, if someone is talking at one end of a pool, you can hear it on the other end. It’s a bit like how sharks can hear a struggling fish for miles away; pretty neat huh (Edmondson)?

What about in a gas? A gas is a very dense substance, so dense that even light has trouble traveling through it, but what about sound? In a gas, the particles in the air are very spaced out, this is so that it can travel and cover mass amounts of space. However, because the gas particles are so spaced out and spread apart, is not very easy for these particles to bounce against one another and cause vibrations throughout. Because there are no vibrations being caused by the particles, then sound has nothing to travel on, and therefore sound cannot travel that easily. Do remember, it can travel, but like sending light through a fog, it is not the most possible thing in the world. Sound waves traveling in the gas medium are much slower, and almost appear much lower than they do in liquid (Edmondson).

Sound waves have an altitude, almost like a mountain, except this altitude means something completely different. If a sound is louder, the altitude of the sound wave is much higher, this does not affect the pitch, mind you. If a sound that is being heard is much quieter, then the sound wave’s altitude is much lower and almost spread out. If something is too loud, it can deeply affect how it is heard, and in some case be damaging. Just remember this when you go to a music concert, where ear plugs, your ears will thank you later (Edmondson).

How do we humans hear sound? Sound waves are bouncing all throughout the air, but what exactly is it? For starters, for humans, the best place to hear things doesn’t take place under water like it does for fish, it actually takes place in the basic air we breathe every day. Why? Because there are so many gases and things that sound can be picked up on particles and be taken anywhere that we deem fit. In this case, the place that we see fit is our ears (Edmondson).

The purpose of your ear drum is to vibrate, that should not be a secret to anyone these days, it really should not. When your ear drum vibrates, that means that it has picked up a sound, and it is wanting you to take in what it is, sense it, and try and decide what that sound is. In a liquid or a solid, sound vibrations have to be felt because those states of matter have much different amounts of particles, that also travel through air much more different than others would expect; there is much more pressure in both a solid and a liquid, once again preventing air flow. However, for us to actually sense these sound waves, the sound must travel through air. Air pressure is very light, given that air particles are so spaced out, so sound waves are easily able to travel through the air and reach our ear (Edmondson).

Does pitch make a difference in sound travel? Of course it does. Have you ever heard the sound that a wale makes, and how loud it is, under water? Have you ever tried to imagine how that might sound outside of the water, say a land whale or something like that? If you imagined what I did properly, you would know that the sound the wale is making wouldn’t travel very far, thus not actually being that affected as it is underwater.

Sound waves come in short fragments or long strands, the longer the strand, the deeper the sound is, therefore the more that people hear. It sounds really simple, but in reality it actually isn’t.

If the sound your ear is picking up is low, like a truck horn for instance, the sound waves are much more spaced out (See Appendix D). This is because the particles are spaced out, preventing the act of a large amount of vibrations, therefore making the sound not travel as far. Granted, your ear will still pick up the sound, however it will not travel as far (Janovec). 

High pitched things almost have the opposite effect. They are easy to hear because of the faster sound waves The faster sound waves are caused from many more rapidly moving vibrations from the main object that is being vibrated upon. A fact for anyone to know, is that higher sound waves travel much, much farther than those of lower sound waves. Using the concept of a dog whistle, if you blow it, only dogs can hear it because it is so high pitched; through air, this noise, this high pitched noise, travels so fast and far that it can be heard from any dog for quite a distance (Janovec).

Your eardrum vibrates from sound waves to allow you to sense them. We might be able to detect it through vibration of solids, the ripple in liquid but you can only detect it in air by hearing it. In spite of this, humans cannot hear all sounds that travel through the air. It will have to be at a certain decibel for us to hear it. For e.g. dogs can hear sounds that are not able to be detected by humans. Sound can also be detected by other means other than hearing it. Sounds traveling in any of the three states can be detected using electronic detectors. E.g Microphones (Edmondson).

Sound is something that no one should actually take for granted, especially with the ear drum, it is fragile and is only thin enough to vibrate, think like a reed for a woodwind instrument. If someone damages their ear drum, meaning it can no longer vibrate to allow the proper sound waves to travel and reach the brain, then sound is no longer an option for that human. So here’s the deal, remember this the next  time that you’re on a plane and you hear that annoying baby cry. You are flying through oxygen, sitting in a plane full of oxygen with a baby. That baby’s cry is high pitched, therefore creating faster sound waves and vibrations of particles, and in the end sending his cry all throughout the plane. So, when you hear that baby, don’t think that it is annoying, but instead, think that  you want nothing more than to honor that baby and the sound waves that he or she is producing.



Putting it All Together

See, sound really is something interesting. To think, it all started way back when with some people just looking at the plucking of an ancient instrument, and in the end, it became the foundation for someone to even hear something. How cool is that?

I know, that granted it is not anyone’s wonderful idea of something fun. No one wants to think about hearing sound waves when they are breaking out to their favorite tune in their car, or listening to a lion roar at the zoo; but maybe you should start? Sound is something that no one should take for granted, be blessed that you can hear all of these different sound waves, and be able to transcribe them into creating a world of good vibrations.

If you are going to go into the profession of singing, which I highly recommend, know that you always want to breathe! You want to keep those vocal chords vibrating and happy, so that then you can allow air to flow and your pitch to change and travel through air with ease.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. ("Sound Quotes").

That quote was said by William Shakespeare, and to be honest he isn’t really wrong. Everything from footsteps to cries, to laughter can be heard. Whether you’re a lonely actor on a stage, or just someone wanting to enjoy life, sound is something no one should take cherished, not mocked.

Remember that all sound takes is a bit of air, and a puff against the right vocal fold. So breathe! Then if you really take the time to breathe, allow your vocal folds to go through the opening and closing phases and vibrate, everything should be fine and dandy.

Some people do not understand how everything works, which is truly okay. No one expects you to understand how everything comes together and creates sound, but at least you learned something from this paper, correct? Wonderful.

It is agreed that all sound which is the material of music is of three sorts. First is harmonica, which consists of vocal music; second is organica, which is formed from the breath; third is rhythmica, which receives its numbers from the beat of the fingers. For sound is produced either by the voice, coming through the throat; or by the breath, coming through the trumpet or tibia, for example; or by touch, as in the case of the cithara or anything else that gives a tuneful sound on being struck. (“Famous”)

I hope I do not have to explain that quote to anyone by much, and if I do, I hope I can explain it. What Saint Isidore of Seville was saying, is that of how sound is created through an instrument, through vibrations and how they it so closely relates to that of the voice. Instruments are instruments, they really did teach us what all our voice and body can do with a bit of air.

Now, remember that for the future, will you? People need to know that your body is an instrument, please take care of it. Don’t go sticking weird things into your ears because you could really ruin your sound.

Please do not sing at the top of your lungs, I do not care if your friends think it would be something fun to do or if the song you’re listening to is really loud and you want to out sing it. You only have one set of vocal folds that you get your entire life, you do not want to ruin those and never have a voice again.  Because if you do, that means that you will not have a sound ever again, and that means that you will be mute. Lots of singers have gone mute, you know, because they didn’t use their voices right, which in the end, caused them to have to undergo vocal surgery. Do you want that? No, I didn’t think so.

Cherish the gift of sound next time you hear it, alright? I do not really care if it’s that annoying baby that you hear on the plane and who is making you go insane. Or someone in your class, who is singing a tune completely out of tune but they are having a blast doing it. It is a tune. A tune is a note. A note is caused by particles vibrating. Particles vibrating creates a wave, and all of this creates the beautiful idea of sound.

Works Cited

Edmondson, R. "How Does Sound Travel?" Tell Me Why? N.p., 21 Sept. 2007. Web. 02 May


"Famous Scientists - Sound Quotes." Sound Quotes. N.p., Oct. 2010. Web.13 April 2013.

Hass, Leontine. "Support Your Voice." TC Helicon, 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 01

May 2013.

Janovec, Joyce. "How Sound Travels." How Sound Travels. N.p., 2005. Web.13 April 2013.

Michael, Deirdre D. "About the Voice." About the Voice. N.p., 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 02 May


"Sound." ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation, n.d. Web.05 April 2013.

"Sound Quotes." BrainyQuote. Xplore, 13 July 2012. Web.13 April 2013.

"What Happens When You Breathe?" NHLBI, NIH. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute,

2000. Web.13 April 2013.


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