Pharyngeal Voice : Description and Application to Pop Music Styles

Ever heard of Pharyngeal Voice?

Some people debate its very existence while others study it and credit the singing style for their success.

Find out more about this centuries old method through this mind-bending lecture presented by Randy Buescher, of Your True Voice, and Dr. H. Steven Sims, Director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care.

Historical Background of Pharyngeal Voice

  • Pharyngeal Voice was discovered some 350 years ago as it was used by church tenors throughout Italy
  • It was known as “Voce faringea”
  • E. Herbert-Caesari wrote about it with a degree of ambivalence

Is There Such a Thing as Pharyngeal Voice?

Although E. Herbert-Caesari identified pharyngeal voice in his writings for The Musical Times in 1950, he was quick to also say that there was no such thing as “pharyngeal” voice, stating that the term evolved merely to describe the peculiar tonal quality produced.

E. Herbert-Caesari recognized that there are 3 distinct vocal mechanisms:

  • Falsetto
  • Pharyngeal
  • Chest
    “All tenors, some light baritones, and all female voices (have) a pharyngeal mechanism whether they know it or not”. – E. Herbert-Caesari

How Does Pharyngeal Voice Work?

  • Herbert-Caesari indicates that the “Singer can engage the mechanism separately or in combination with (the) other two mechanisms”
  • He also said, perhaps controversially “The falsetto by itself is an anemic, stupid tone, mixed however with good percentages of pharyngeal it becomes a living entity”
  • The use of the pharyngeal mechanism can be trained AND can eliminate the fear of high notes

Wait, What Does this Have to Do With Voice Overs?

Although this seems like it is only applicable to singers, Dr. Sims suggested that voice actors, by virtue of their wide array of vocal projects and versatility, are likely using the Pharyngeal voice without being consciously aware that they are doing so.

He also said that he hopes to explore this idea further in the coming year and may present on the topic at next year’s conference.

What Do You Think of this “Pharyngeal Voice” So Far?

By some accounts, we’ve opened a can of worms and I can understand if it seems a bit strange to you.

If I hadn’t heard it for myself, I’d have questions about it too, however, for our part, there was a demonstration later in the afternoon with a young soprano who has been coached using the pharyngeal voice and it was astounding to hear the steadiness, power and focus in her voice, with her head and chest voice connected seamlessly. The male voice works this way already and the female voice, using this method, could also be trained to have a fully connected head and chest voice.

I wasn’t trained using this technique but with Bel Canto, the standard technique in conservatories and universities that has been used for hundreds of years to train singers of opera, art song, musical theater and those who want to engage in beautiful singing in general. To go from what I knew to hearing what I heard took me aback and was puzzling as I tried to wrap my head around the concept and the sheer power of the sound at all times on any pitch. It’s like turning the fire hose on full blast.

But Is It a True Vocal Mechanism?

As with anything new, or in this case, what’s old is new again, you need to ask questions to fully understand what it is and to justify the use of Pharyngeal voice and be aware of any harm it could do to the voice.

How Does It Work?

Without going into too much detail and medical terminology, there are certain muscles that play a role in speech that act together to create the pharyngeal sound.

How Does It Sound?

When warming up the voice, the soprano from the workshop was asked to make an “ugly” nasal sound, kind of like how a witch would cackle. After someone has been trained using this approach, their ability to produce consistently powerful sound is incredible and sounds very “commercial” or “marketable” leaving many to question how they can maintain the intensity and still have a brilliant, resonant tone. Randy Buescher teaches this approach exclusively at Your True Voice.

The one thing that people using this approach need to be wary of is that they don’t sound twangy or too nasal. The tone that is produced works well for people singing Pop, Gospel, Country, Blues, R&B, Musical Theater and would definitely blow the doors off the Karaoke Bar.

Benefits of Using the Pharyngeal Voice

People who use this approach have noted:

  • The use of pharyngeal mechanisms allowed them to sing higher
  • Less self-reported vocal fatigue
  • Less self-reported neck soreness after singing
  • Must take care to prevent “twangy” sound

About Randy Buescher, MS

Voice Coach
Director, Your True Voice Studio
Randy Buescher has a degree in music from DePaul University along with a B.A. in Communications, and is degreed in Speech Language Pathology. He strictly teaches the Your True Voice Singing Technique. It is a systematic approach to bridge together all the registers of the voice. As a former certified Speech Level Singing teacher he was extensively trained in that approach.

About H. Steven Sims, MD

Assistant Professor
Director, Chicago Institute for Voice Care
University of Illinois at Chicago
Dr. Sims is an Otolaryngologist certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology, sub-specializing in professional voice care. As the Director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care at the University of Illinois at Chicago he provides treatment for the care of the voice and airway disorders.

From vocal fatigue to reflux disease the institute treats a range of disorders that affect the voice, including paralyzed vocal folds, chronic hoarseness, Spasmodic Dysphonia and chronic throat irritation. An accomplished musician and singer, Dr. Sims is dedicated to providing education to professional voice users to help them avoid voice injury.

Any Comments on the Pharyngeal Voice? Have You Ever Tried It?

Best wishes,

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  • Avatar for Jerome Santucci
    Jerome Santucci
    August 15, 2008, 1:18 am

    I did a Google search after reading this article, and I am still not sure what is meant by “pharyngeal voice.” The way I understand musical instruments, including our voices, is that they are made up of three parts: the vibrating element that actually produces the sound, a resonator that amplifies the sound and alters the color or timbre of the sound by modulating the overtone signature (the combination of frequencies that make up the sound – sort of like playing with the EQ), and an aperture through which the sound is released into the surrounding air. In a guitar or violin, the strings are the vibrating elements, the hollow body is the resonator, and the holes in the body are the apertures. With our voices, the vocal folds are the vibrating elements, the vocal tract (chest, throat, mouth, and sinuses) are the resonators, and the mouth and nostrils are the apertures. Unlike most musical instruments, we can alter the overtone signature of our voices by altering the shape of our vocal tracts, thereby altering where the sound resonates in the vocal tract (what Pat Fraley calls “changing placement”).
    So, is the pharyngeal voice an alteration at the vocal folds, where the sound is produced? Perhaps adjusting the tightness of the folds while giving more support? Or is it a change in where the voice resonates? Perhaps both? A clearer definition would certainly be helpful.

  • Avatar for voicedoc
    August 15, 2008, 12:47 pm

    Hello Jerome,
    The pharyngeal muscles and above and behind the vocal folds, so there is no change to the actual generator (the vibrator characteristics of the vocal folds).
    One analogy would be to think of the mouthpiece of a trumpet (the generator) and how the sound can change by adding the rest of the instrument, depressing keys (shaping the tract) changes the sound even further.
    The pharyngeal voice (or mechanisms as it is sometimes called) is closer to depressing a key to add a little extra lift to the generator and produce the higher notes.
    Does that help?
    Steve Sims

  • Avatar for Jerome Santucci
    Jerome Santucci
    August 15, 2008, 8:02 pm

    I have taught myself a few different overtone singing techniques (khoomei, sygyt). They use the throat muscles and the back of the tongue to isolate and amplify overtones so that I can sing two notes at once. It is an amazingly weird but beautiful sound. Would the pharyngeal voice perhaps be a less radical version of this, without producing the multiple notes?
    If you have never heard khoomei or sygyt, I highly recommend you Google them. Music groups that sing in these styles include Huun-Huur-Tu, Alash, and Chirgilchin. You can also hear an example during the suicide scene of the movie “Dead Poets Society” (as the character Neil walks down the stairs to shoot himself).

  • Avatar for Jerome Santucci
    Jerome Santucci
    August 15, 2008, 9:57 pm

    Ok, now I have had a little time to digest your trumpet analogy and I am still confused (I played the trumpet in high school, by the way). Here is the problem with what you have described: the trumpet and voice are not analogous in how they change pitch. In the trumpet, pitch is controlled in two ways: first through the tightening or loosening of the embouchure (lips), and second by pressing the trumpet valve key. Because the trumpet only resonates at certain frequencies depending on the length of the tubing, changing the lips can only give you certain notes. To hit other notes, you have to change the length of the tubing so that the instrument resonates at a different set of frequencies. So when you press a valve key, you are changing the length of tubing the vibrations have to travel and that is what changes the pitch. As far as I know, the voice does not work this way. To the best of my knowledge, we change pitch only by tightening or loosening the vocal folds, and not through a lengthening or shortening of the “tubing.”
    Are you suggesting that the pharyngeal mechanism lengthens or shortens the vocal tract in some way, thereby changing the pitch? If so, it would be the first I have ever heard of this mechanism operating in our vocal tracts. That doesn’t make it impossible, it is just that my understanding is that changes in the vocal tract only effect tone quality, or timbre, and not pitch. In short, there is a fundamental difference between timbre and pitch and I am not sure what the supposed relationship between the two is in the pharyngeal mechanism.
    So here are my questions anew: does the pharyngeal mechanism simply alter the resonance of the pitch, thereby changing the timbre of the pitch and giving a fuller sound? Or is there some way in which changing the timbre of the pitch helps the vocal folds vibrate more effectively or efficiently, or helps to extend their range? I could see how added support from the surrounding muscles might accomplish this, but that isn’t really what was described in the initial article. I might even buy the suggestion that a change in air resistance just above the vocal folds has a positive effect on the working of the vocal folds. I sometimes have the opposite effect when singing sygyt: a throat and mouth full of sound stifles the vibrating of the folds.
    I don’t mean to be obstinate and contrary, I am simply trying to understand the mechanism. The voice is an amazing thing and I have learned to do something way beyond the norm with it in singing sygyt, so I know weird and wonderful things are possible. I just don’t get this one yet and I would like to.

  • Avatar for voicedoc
    August 18, 2008, 12:07 pm

    Hello Jerome,
    I admitted that the trumpet analogy was imprecise, but there isn’t a good analogy to use. The fact that there are a ton of comparable mechanisms is kind of what defines the uniqueness of the voice.
    I’m not suggesting that the pharyngeal mechanism changes pitch directly. The tension in the vocal folds, however, is akin to the embouchure (which includes the lips and surround facial muscles) in terms of pitch control, but there is “help” if you will from resonance and overtones so that a high “c” played on a mouthpiece is harder to produce that a high “c” played on the whole trumptet. I think it’s more a function of not focusing all of the energy in a small place, but distributing the energy in a way that allows for more muscles to be used and make the production process easier.
    I share your curiosity and welcome questions, but I think the reality is that we don’t completely understand and try to explain this with part physics and part intuition about what it feels like to produce voice. I think the answer is not exact.

  • Avatar for Lilly
    October 22, 2008, 12:40 am

    I am a senior in highschool and i have a great upper register and mix but I can only belt to a D. Is the Pharyngeal voice considered belting? If so, how do increase my range with belting?

  • Avatar for Randy Buescher
    Randy Buescher
    October 22, 2008, 12:06 pm

    Hi Lilly,
    The Pharyngeal Voice is the way to build a strong mixed belt which you can safely take much higher than what you are doing.
    Thank you,
    Randy Buescher

  • Avatar for Jennifer
    May 10, 2009, 3:28 pm

    Hi! Like Lily, I was able to belt with my chest voice (although not really a yelling sound) up to that same D. I started taking lessons with a teacher who is strengthening my pharyngeal voice. I am pleased with the progress I’m amking from about A or A flat above middle C, and upwards. However the pharyngeal below that sounds so weak and often raspy, and the tones I can produce in my chest voice in this area are much clearer and louder. My teacher says that I should not take my chest above D (the one right above middle C). She says it’s healthier to get out of chest at that point, and even a bit lower (with a window of B flat to D where you could sing in either chest or pharyngeal). Does this seem about right to everyone? Maybe I just need more patience and I will be able to get my lower pharyngeal in order with time and patience? It’s only been about 3 months of this new technique (after 10 years of singing in chest with a rock band and a lot of compliments on my voice!)
    I began this vocal to extend my range and make sure I can sing forever, but I like my basic sound and don’t want to change that much. Will I able to sound like me, even if it takes a lot of time? I notice a different quality that sounds more classical and have a hard time getting it back into a rock sound… when I try to do that with my new positioning it just ends up sounding musical theater!

  • Avatar for Frora Bosh
    Frora Bosh
    July 20, 2009, 5:30 am

    Thanks for giving the information on voice mechanism. I hope it will help me to improve my singing quality…..

  • Avatar for Matt
    October 15, 2009, 9:36 pm

    I began the pharyngeal exercises outlined in Herbert-Caesari’s “The Voice of the Mind,” and continued for 1 year. I then began teaching full-time, had a family, and have since discontinued. But the vocal strength and ease acquired through the pharyngeal voice exercises were astonishing. Every singer needs to start there . . .

  • Avatar for susan larson
    susan larson
    January 9, 2010, 12:24 pm

    I’ve been teaching voice quite a while and have read Herbert-Caesari and many others. An old student told me about her revelatory studies of the pharyngeal voice in Beijing of all places. When she demonstrated for me I thought to myself, ‘that’s Twang!’ (as described by Vennard and Estill, constriction of the aryepiglottic sphincter, giving squillo to tone. I proposed that she was doing this as she made her ‘ugly’ sound and she said no, her pharynx wasn’t doing anything. That’s too zen for me.
    Regarding pitch, the vocal tract, tongue jaw lips, can certainly change pitches; i.e. the formant frequencies, although not the fundamental pitch produced in the larynx. As noted in the trumpet discussion above, it seems important for singers to tune vowel formant frequencies to the fundamental pitch or its harmonics to get strong resonance. So I think our resonating tube can influence the sound source for good or ill. I don’t believe formant tuning has anything to do with ‘pharyngeal voice’ E. H-C describes it as laryngeal in origin, a dynamic relationship between the vocalis muscles and the crico-thyroid muscles. Or your standard blended-register classical mode. Then of course he denies its existence. Still perplexed here.
    Re belting, Estill says it is not modal or chest voice! She says it’s an entirely different laryngeal configuration and we can belt all the way up to heaven if we so choose. She taught me how to do it and the whole female cohort of the workshop was belting way above the staff by the end. Very invigorating!

  • Avatar for wil chavez
    wil chavez
    June 12, 2010, 11:44 pm

    I find your discussion on pharengeal voice. I love singing pop, but I am 55 years old and my voice is getting a little raspy. I wonder if 55 is too late to begin voice lessons?

  • Avatar for Jane Jenkins
    Jane Jenkins
    April 23, 2011, 4:41 pm

    you can take voice lessons from 5-90 y/o.
    it’s not too late at all, however you may feel it is if your vocal cords have not been exercised and warmed up consistently thru the years. So go for the lessons.

  • Avatar for Harry
    August 7, 2011, 6:06 pm

    Hi, first off, great article, it was very informative. I was wondering if you knew any exercises in particular to help train these muscles. I would like to work on it but don’t know how to begin. Thanks.

  • Avatar for frank puccilli
    frank puccilli
    April 2, 2014, 1:39 am

    I have been to 16 voice teachers in Orang. County Ca and one in
    Los Angeles and complained to each that singing irritated my throat.
    None solved. I am 87 years old.
    I began singing in the back of my throat; no irritation and can sing higher with ease.

  • Avatar for Cisco
    July 16, 2014, 9:18 pm

    I just want to say the pharyngal voice is very real.
    Many voice instructors have failed to help me find this, until I set out on my own to find this “quality”.
    I knew it existed because although I was classified as a tenor, going passed “g4” was a struggle.
    My range was from G2 to F4 (without straining).
    I just knew somethings was missing, because as a tenor my voice should sound free and “Soaring”.
    Yet, it sounded strained at the top.
    Basically after messing around I stumbled on it a few times.
    First time, I was astonished at the change in my voice, that even my siblings came into the room during my practice and were shocked at the change. ITs like I had finally discovered my true “voice”.
    But then the next day, I could not find it.
    It was frustrating.
    I figured it was just a lucky day.
    So then I stumbled upon it again, recorded it, made a video for myself showing myself how I got to that sound and saved it.
    Basically with pharyngal voice, there is no “trying to reach high notes”.
    Singing becomes free, easy, effortless.
    Its like the notes area being pulled from your diaphragm instead of you pushing them out.
    Many folks out there who think they can’t sing will never get to know.
    I was one of the people given a pat on the shoulder “Singings not your thing man”.
    But I kept at it, until I found this “hidden gem”.
    I now sing from G2 to C5 without a single ounce of straining.
    Once I get the “pharyngal mechanism” working, its a breeze.
    I can sing softly, loudly, or however I like with no straining.
    Its insane how full and chesty the high notes sound.
    Before, using the good ol “head voice” that most teachers taught me sounded like a
    forced, or controlled yell.
    All these “brett maning” “Ktv” and “other singers” on youtube trying to sing high notes, using this “head voice” just
    sounds like a controlled yell.
    I just knew that couldn’t be it.
    It just did not feel good.
    Now the high notes sound just as rich as the low notes.
    If your a frustrated singer, believe me when I say that everyone CAN sing. (along as your not tone deaf).
    You just gotta find the pharyngal mechanism.
    Its a game changer.
    You can email me for any questions, Ill do my best to show you how I found it.

  • Avatar for Doug
    February 20, 2015, 7:54 pm

    Hi Cisco,
    Can you please send me your email and/or other contact information?
    I would like to ask you more about the pharyngeal technique you have found.
    If you can provide me with videos of you performing exercises that strengthen the pharyngeal mechanism, I would greatly appreciate your help.