You've probably heard of it many times under different names: Vocal fry, creak, glottal fry, Strohbass, or pulse register. It is the oh-so-popular effect you hear from many singers as an onset, offset or a stylistic effect, including Christina Aguilera, Pink, Kenny Rogers, Katy Perry, James Brown, Steven Tyler, Jared Leto, Britney Spears...the list goes on.
But did you know that the vocal fry can be just as useful as a training tool for your voice in the low and middle range? Here is how.
Vocal fry has a characteristic sound that differentiates it from the so-called chest (M1) or head (M2) registers. So much that some teachers and researchers have given it its own register name, "pulse" (M0). But what is it exactly?
It is a thicker vocal fold configuration that lacks longitudinal tension, which allows for a more square contact. A defining characteristic is that the vocal fry has a very low fundamental frequency, so low that your vocal folds cannot complete their regular pitch-production patterns. They have to be much shorter and looser to produce this pulse-like sound. Even if the pitch rises, they must remain short and relaxed to maintain this mode of production. This also means that air pressure and effort levels are lower, and nasality is reduced because it is easier to keep the velum up.
Sounds pretty useful, right?
But as most things in voice pedagogy, practitioners have differing opinions. Some practitioners comment on the vocal fry as a separate register, but do not mention anything about its potential uses. Some say it is not generally useable, but might have potential applications for training low voices. Whereas some blatantly reject it.
Yet, contemporary voice models tend to acknowledge the existence of vocal fry a separate register based on vocal fold configuration (such as the slack folds in Estill Voice Training) and as vocal effect (in Complete Vocal Technique).
And in a paper from 2005 (1), 3 researchers and practitioners share their insights on the vocal fry. Let's begin with how they define it.
Is It A Register? An Effect? An Onset?
Well...all of the above.
Simply put, vocal fry is rarely used on its own except for some choral and ethnic singing, which is why some practitioners are hesitant to call it a register. But listen to this example of subharmonic singing and tell me it's not fascinating. Subharmonic singing is said to be in M0 register, which essentially makes it an extended vocal fry on pitch. Maybe I'm biased, but I think it can be absolutely amazing when used on its own to fill out the low end of an a cappella choir.
Yet for CCM singers, the potential uses of vocal fry are more as an effect or an onset/offset than for singing sustained notes. In fact, it has been so popular that you can hear it everywhere. Like here, here, here or here.
Aside from making you sound 'cooler', more earnest and conversational, apparently it can also make your lower notes stronger. In fact, some voice teachers have been using it as a tool to find a fuller vocal fold closure and to decrease constriction and breathiness. For example Seth Riggs, a well-known voice teacher, recommends extensive use of vocal fry and creaky voice exercises in his book Singing for the Stars (2).
Benefits of Vocal Fry Exercises
According to the authors John Nix, Kate Emerich and Ingo R. Titze, vocal fry has 4 primary benefits:
Increasing efficiency of voicing through optimising the position of vocal folds,
Improving ease of voicing onset,
Decreasing compensation in other muscles,
Optimising voice output through shaping the larynx and surrounding structures.
In simpler terms, it increases sound intensity by allowing for better contact between vocal folds and a more relaxed and resonant space around your larynx. It can be so effective for these that it is even used in vocal therapy for certain pathologies.
And the reason it works? You do not use vocal fry often, so you do not have any positive or negative pre-formed habits around it.
How To Incorporate Vocal Fry Into Your Practice
Vocal fry exercises are said to be most effective in strengthening the lower range of low voice types. Considering how it can be beneficial in reducing airiness, improving volume and efficiency, you might be eager to start practicing with the vocal fry right away.
So here are some quick tips to get you started (1):
Aim for a vocal fry onset, then transition to a clear tone. Start with a single note, then when you feel comfortable, move on to scales or song snippets.
Listen for increased clarity and ease, and less breathiness. Pay attention to the feeling of this way of vocal production, then try to achieve it without the fry.
Keep your vowels the same. Vowels are shaped by your vocal tract, and the vocal tract shape can effect your vocal fold pattern.
Keep the target pitch in mind before you start vocalising with the fry.
Finally, its effectiveness might be limited in higher pitches. It might be better to practice with vocal fry in the mid to low range.
As always, every singer is different. If you think the vocal fry is not helping you improve your singing, feel free to skip these exercises.
I feel compelled to mention that the authors are big names in voice research and pedagogy, and the paper presents differing opinions from many practitioners on vocal fry and its potential benefits. So even though they have compiled relevant research and shared their own experiences in the paper, their experiences may not exactly match yours. Remember to listen to yourself to decide whether vocal fry exercises are actually being useful to you.
At this point, vocal fry may sound like the cure to all your vocal challenges. It is worth noting that the authors warn against using it in excess and recommend exploring these exercises with a voice teacher.
But this doesn't mean you cannot play with it on your own. Even if you hate these exercises, at least you can add Matthew McConaughey impersonation to your resume after practicing them for a while.
Nix, J., Emerich, K., & Titze, I. R. (2005). Application of Vocal Fry to the Training of Singers. Journal of Singing, 62(1), 53–59.
Riggs, S., & Carratello, J. D. (1993). Singing for the stars: A complete program for training your voice. Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.
Stock photo from www.unsplash.com