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The Larynx: vocal folds

This week, in our series about the larynx, it is the turn of the vocal folds.

What are vocal folds?

The vocal folds are thin pieces of muscle attached within the larynx. They are also referred to as vocal cords and the vocal process, but the latter term covers more than we are talking about in this blog.

In this week’s video you can see a Blue Peter style example I’ve made up using a paper cup and an elastic band, which effectively demonstrates how the vocal folds work.

There are two main cartilages in the larynx, the top one is the thyroid cartilage and the lower one is called the cricoid cartilage. The thyroid cartilage can tip downwards when we’re talking. Similarly, the cricoid can tip up.

They might seem the same, but the two actions are different things. Our vocal folds sit in the middle of the larynx and are like elastic bands stretched between the thyroid and cricoid cartilages.

They’re attached to the thyroid cartilage at the front of the larynx and to the cricoid cartilage at the back of the larynx.

Because the thyroid and cricoid cartilages can move separately and in slightly different ways, this movement has an effect on the thin muscle of the vocal folds, changing both their length and thickness – just like if you were to stretch an elastic band.

These changes to the vocal folds have a great effect on the quality of sound we can make. And while it is tempting to think of our vocal folds as durable as an elastic band, that isn’t quite true so it is really important to look after those fold if you want to be able to use them for years.

How is the sound actually made?

Therein lies the question. In short, the tiny pieces of muscle – the vocal folds – vibrate together super fast and produce a sound known as the ‘hum’ or the ‘drone’.

We will focus more on that next week and next month!