Anatomy of a Narrator: How the Voice Works


Diagram: The Organs of Speech

Creating Sound

Obviously, the voiceover narrator's job is different in many ways from that of a singer, stage actor, or public speaker. Each requires specific training and techniques, to prepare for the differences in performing style, as well as the performance environment itself.

But the basic process of making vocal sound is the same in all these cases. An understanding of the underlying physiology of the voice can help a narrator tune a performance to the needs of the production, or adapt to specific circumstances that can arise.

This simplified diagram is too small to include them, but 1) the lungs and diaphragm provide breath control that is crucial to voice performance. As singers well know, phrasing (the placement of pauses within a performance) is ideally a matter of artistic interpretation -- but in practice, is often just a matter of finding time to breathe. The same goes for narration. Breath control is not just a matter of getting enough air to breathe; it also affects the range of styles or deliveries that a narrator can deliver.

From the lungs, air passes through 2) the trachea or "wind pipe" and over 3) vocal folds ("vocal cords") within the 4) larynx or "voice box." When the folds lie flat no sound is created, but when stretched out, passing air makes them vibrate. Muscular control over this region is what allows one to speak without any vibration at all -- otherwise known as whispering. The importance of such control can't be overstated. "Breathiness" refers to the ratio of unvibrated air that a narrator mixes with vibrating air while speaking, and it all happens here. A true professional can tweak this balance at will, even from one syllable to the next.

Air then passes the glottis and 5) epiglottis, and into the mouth.

Control and Articulation

The mouth is a cavity whose shape changes depending on the position of certain organs. This reshaping alone can change the tone of the sound being made. Of interest to narrators is that the organs here articulate specific sounds (phonemes) that, when combined, we recognize as speech. These organs include 6) the uvula, a moveable extension of 7) the soft palate; 8) unmoving parts like the 8) hard palate and 10 teeth; and of course, the 9)tongue and 11) lips. The 12) nose, nasal passage and sinuses are important not only for breath control, but also for resonance.

Beginners, and people unfamiliar with performing arts, sometimes scoff when a professional narrator refers to his or her voice as an "instrument," but that is the correct way to think about it. After all, you create a performance using nothing else. You get paid for the sounds that you create with your voice. It is indeed an instrument, and one "plays" it by controlling all the physical components, shown here, that create those sounds.

The Total Process

Complete control over speech is even more complex than this! Muscle tension in the neck can affect the larynx, which is why coaches emphasize relaxation as part of performance preparation. Changing the position of the lower jaw, and of some facial muscles, can also change the shape of the mouth, and thus the sound created. Also, most of the upper body vibrates during speech, and bones in the head and chest serve as sounding boards that further amplify vocal sound.

Mastery

Any narrator who uses his/her voice well is controlling all the parts and processes described here, whether consciously or instinctively. Accurate, precise and repeatable delivery of the spoken word requires mastery of these complex interactions. Add to that the challenge of emotional and intellectual interpretation of the words themselves, and you get some idea of the real complexity behind high-quality voice performance.

Links For Further Reference

The goal of this page is to provide an overview, simply to make readers think about how they make sounds (how the instrument works). For some performers this would be plenty -- and it is true that over-analyzing can become a problem in itself! But if you want to pursue this inquiry even further, Dr. C. George Boeree, of Shippensburg University, provides a detailed examination of Phonetics -- showing how we use speficic vocal organs to form specific sounds. At the University of Manitoba you can find even more extensive details on this subject, like this page about The Place of Articulation (in the vocal tract) for specific sounds.


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