When I was getting my Master of Arts in vocal production and performance, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Steven Zeitels of the Massachusetts General Hospital Voice Center in Boston. He is the vocal surgeon to the stars (Steven Tyler, Adele, Celine Dion, John Mayer, and Julie Andrews, to name just a few!). For a time Dr. Zeitels was Steven Tyler's personal vocal medical specialist. I had the chance back then to chat briefly with Steven Tyler to learn a little bit about how he takes care of his voice. Sometime I'll tell you about that conversation, it was a hoot!
National Geographic has done a program about Steven Tyler's voice, featuring Dr. Zeitels and the staff of the Mass General Voice Center. There are several clips parsed out on Youtube which are well worth watching. They show Tyler's actual vocal folds as he sings, made possible by "scoping" technology that is used in laryncology medical offices to see the voice. A camera at the end of a rod inserted into the mouth as in the video below (rigid scope), or at the end of a flexible wire that is inserted through the nose (flexible scope), are able to show the vocal folds vibrating together in real time, using stroboscopy to slow down their rapid vibrations. (To give you an idea of how fast your vocal folds move, when you sing the pitch A below middle C, which is A3, your vocal folds are vibrating together 220 times in a second. When you sing the octave that, A4, they double in vibration and move together 440 times a second!)
At the time of the stroboscopy a video and audio recording are made and saved for reference, and you can watch your own vocal folds at work. The doctor is then able to tell you what's happening in your voice. If you need voice therapy to help with speaking or singing, the therapist refers back to this scoping as well. You can also show your scope to your voice teacher to provide more information about how your voice is working.
Looking at videos of a scoped voice takes a little getting used to, as healthy vocal folds have a mucosal layer which looks slimy. The folds look kinda alien, too--very weird at first, but fascinating! (Yes, that's your voice!) Voice doctors and ENTs (ear, nose and throat doctors) recommend that all singers get a scope when your voice is healthy, so that if a problem were to arise, there is a record to reference and compare with when they look at your voice again. And, while a skilled vocal teacher can determine a lot by how you sing and how you sound, no one can tell for sure exactly what's happening at the site of your folds if they're not viewed directly through scoping.
The video below is especially interesting. You can see exactly how Tyler's folds and the structures around them are moving and changing shape as he sings with different qualities and registers.
Here is a picture from a scope of an anonymous person's vocal folds, on the left as they come together to produce sound, and then on the right when inhaling. The folds open at the back of your neck, and are parallel to the floor (horizontal).
The two bumps at the top are your arytenoids, cartilages that help to open and close your folds. The white strips in the middle are the folds themselves, and the pink area outside of the folds are your "false folds." These are areas of tissue that hang above your folds, even though they look like they're right next to your true folds in this top-down picture. In the picture on the right, you can see the folds open for inhalation, and you're looking right down the throat at the top of the windpipe (trachea). The large white half-moon shape at the bottom is the top area of the epiglottis. This cartilage in your larynx folds over your voice when you swallow, so food or liquid doesn't go down the wrong way.
I think it's fascinating and important to learn how your voice actually works. (That's why there's lots of information about it here in this Series and in my books!) It's important because when you know how you work--actually, factually, anatomically--you can make smart choices about taking care of your voice, and your vocal study is better informed for the results you want. We'll keep coming back to vocal health throughout the series. You have one voice, and it doesn't mend easily (if at all), so take good care of it!