"Twang" is a major component of healthy and efficient vocal production in contemporary voice models like Estill Voice Training and Complete Vocal Technique. But for some people, it sounds "nasal".
So how can you twang without nasality? Luckily, they are both very different mechanisms that can be trained separately.
Twang has been used to describe a bright, loud, brassy, piercing quality since 1930s (1). But how we can produce it has been somewhat of a mystery. The confusion arose because some people used "nasality" interchangeably with twang, especially when referring to the bright and brassy voice quality often found in musical theatre, country and bluegrass genres. You can also hear it in some character voices.
It is often used in speech therapy and singing lessons as a tool for increasing volume, reducing excessive air flow and getting a brighter sound. In some sub-styles of belting, it is a defining component for the piercing and brassy quality. Even in classical singing, twang is often referred to as the source of ring, or singer's formant.
Given how useful it is, one would think there must be a clear definition and mechanism behind twang. But it hasn't really been researched until a few decades ago.
Anatomy of a Twang
The epiglottis is a leaf-shaped flap located at the base of the tongue, closing off the trachea (that's your windpipe) when swallowing so food does not go into it. When relaxed, it stays open, allowing us to breathe. Aryepiglottic sphincter is the name given to the entire structure, with epiglottis in the front and arytenoid cartilages at the back of the trachea (and if you were wondering, arytenoid cartilages are a pair of small, triangular structures that move your vocal folds in and out so you can vocalise).
In an oversimplified way, this mechanism works like a water hose: If you put your finger over the tip, the pressure of water increases and it reaches further. Similarly, when the aryepiglottic sphincter narrows, the sound gets clearer and louder — around 10-15 dB for the acoustics geeks among us.
A little bit of twang helps project the voice, cut through other instruments and add a clear and bright quality. But lo and behold, when taken to an extreme, you can get the finest witch's cackle in a land far, far away.
Case in point: Someone on YouTube decided to upload their best wicked witch laugh and got 331k views. That is some serious twang, folks.
You can also check out the sound examples on the CVT Research website here.
So how can it be mistaken for nasality? Let's get nerdy!
There are two main acoustic resonance chambers in voice production, the oral cavity and nasal cavity. There is a little flap called the velum in your soft palate, at the back of your mouth that you can move at will.
When your mouth is closed and you breathe in, the air is moving through your nasal cavity. The velum is lowered and the nasal passage is open.
When you prepare to sing or speak a /p/ sound (as in pop!), the velum is high and the nasal passage is closed. This allows the air pressure to increase in your mouth for the /p/, otherwise we could not make this sound.
When the vocal folds generate a sound wave, it then travels through these passages and gets shaped by the environment there. The nasal passage is smaller, so when the velum is lowered and the passage is open, it adds more higher frequencies to the voice (which give its lighter or brighter colour and timbre).
But there are many other ways to increase these higher frequencies! You guessed it... when you narrow the aryepiglottic sphincter, these higher frequencies get stronger too. More specifically, brightness is added through an increase in energy in the 2.5 kHz - 7 kHz range. This also happens to be where the third, fourth and fifth formants (F3, F4 and F5) cluster with a narrowed aryepiglottic sphincter.
To an unfamiliar ear, these two can sound very similar, especially if you come from a "forward placement of the voice, singing in the mask" school. It gets more complicated since we can also add nasality to a twang. But essentially, their mechanisms are quite different.
A study in MRI
(Yes, it's a Sherlock reference. Sorry, not sorry!)
A 2020 pilot study by Karen Perta, Youkyung Bae and Kerrie Obert (4) looked into twang using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the changes in the vocal tract in twang quality. 2 participants with singing and teaching experience went into the MRI machine and researchers then looked at what is going on when they sang the /i/ vowel in a EVT's speech and twang qualities (which is oral twang, without nasality).
Here are their findings:
The larynx was higher in twang quality than speech quality,
They were able to sustain the /i/ vowel in both qualities without lowering the velum ( = no nasality),
Pharyngeal area (which is at the back of your mouth, between the soft palate and the top of the trachea) was narrowed in twang quality,
Twang can be produced without constriction of the false vocal folds,
The tongue root (separate from the tip and the dorsum/body) can be a component in moving the epiglottis, resulting in a narrowed aryepiglottic sphincter.
Now, you probably didn't jump up and down with joy when you learned these like I did. But when I first came across this, I'd been trying to find an easy, effortless twang quality in my voice for some time (and with my previous classical training, I was totally averse to the overly bright sound of it).
Turns out, when you separate nasality from twang and make sure the narrowing activity is at the base of the tongue, it is quite easy to find.
Well, this study had only two participants, so there is no way of knowing if their findings are applicable to other people. Another concern might be the MRI itself, which was performed in a supine position (with participants lying on their backs). If you've ever tried singing on your back, you've probably noticed it feels significantly different than singing with an upright posture. And finally there is the noise, which can go as high as 110 dB inside the machine — the sound pressure level equivalent of a rock concert, in that tiny little space. I imagine it would've been difficult to sustain a single vowel when you cannot hear yourself well.
How To Twang Without Nasality
To recap, here are the differences between them:
Twang happens at the base of the tongue and the top of the trachea, nasality is controlled by the velum at the soft palate
Twang can increase volume, reduce air, make the sound clearer and brighter (with increased harmonics in the 2.5kHz - 4 kHz range), but nasality can only add brightness (above 2kHz) and often increases airflow between vocal folds
Twang can be accompanied by nasality but nasality can be achieved without twang.
Since twang is happening in a different area than nasality, all we need to do is to train both movements separately.
If you want to find twang without nasality, try:
Pretending you have a cold with a stuffy nose,
Imitating a seagull or giving your best wicked witch cackle,
Then keeping the same vocal tract setting and speaking (or singing in your speaking pitch range) using an i, ɪ, e or ɘ (you can check the IPA website for sound examples here).
It might also help to use twang as a part of your warm-up since it makes voice production easier, reduce breathiness and increase volume without much effort. Anecdotally, I've noticed in my own practice and with my clients that it makes finding healthy and efficient voice production quicker, so you can move on to the fun part after the warmup — the singing.
Hopefully the tips above give you some starting points to experiment with.
Given the confusion and misconceptions surrounding them, it seems like a good idea to develop your ear to differentiate between twanging of the epiglottis and opening/closing the nasal port with the velum, and also to practice these skills separately. The tricky part is to find accurate sound examples and exercises to develop your motor control over these muscles. That's where a science-focused voice teacher or vocal coach can help you progress quickly.
Ballantyne, C., & Obert, K. (2019). interview by Kari Ragan, “‘Getting the Twang of It’” (NATS Chats, January 19, 2019). Retrieved September 16, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHjbqUYrb04
Complete Vocal Institute. (2016). Description and sound of twang. CVT Research Site. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://cvtresearch.com/description-of-twang/
Yanagisawa, E., Estill, J., Kmucha, S. T., & Leder, S. B. (1989). The Contribution of Aryepiglottic Constriction to Ringing Voice Quality A Videolaryngoscopic Study with Acoustic Analysis. New York, 3(4), 342–350.
Perta, K., Bae, Y., Obert, K. (2020). A pilot investigation of twang quality using magnetic resonance imaging. Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, 46(2), 77–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/14015439.2020.1757147
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