Throat, Jaw, Tongue and Neck Muscle Tension and Pain During Singing - Causes and Solutions
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Throat, jaw, tongue and neck muscle tension, stiffness and pain are some of the most common complaints that voice teachers hear from their newer students. Tension along the vocal tract and the support muscles arises when the singer’s vocal behaviours do not fall in line with natural anatomical function; with how the body is designed to generate and filter sound. A particular inefficient behaviour or localized activity may stand in the way of the coordinated whole, prohibiting freedom in a specific area of voice function. (The individual components of the voice mechanism, including breathing, laryngeal function, resonator tract shaping and articulation, must be combined and coordinated if optimal functioning and skill level are to be achieved.) All muscle tension along the vocal tract is interrelated (e.g., tension in the tongue can be connected to submandibular tension, laryngeal stiffness, etc.), and a singer may find that resolving one area of tension will serve to improve another.
This article is going to address many of the most common errors of coordination that singers make, and specifically those that cause tension or pain in the throat, jaw, tongue or neck. I intend to offer some solutions to these problems, as well. However, the root cause of many of these problems may be complex and thus difficult to pinpoint, and poor technical habits that have existed for many years, (along with the muscular imbalances that they create), may take a long time to correct.
As always, none of these solutions are guaranteed to work for all singers, as every singer has a unique instrument and approaches singing technique differently. My advice is intended only as a starting point from which singers can begin to gain some awareness of their vocal habits and perhaps resolve any simple issues. Furthermore, attempting to apply my advice on one’s own, without the guidance and feedback of a skilled and knowledgeable voice instructor who can listen to and observe the individual singer, may not produce the desired results. It is always preferable that a singer seek out the help of a vocal technique instructor who will be able to diagnose that individual singer’s problems, and provide an individualized training program that will help that singer achieve greater success and optimal vocal health.
The first step in reducing any kind of tension is figuring out what is causing it. (In other words, a little ‘detective work’ may be required.) I recommend beginning by examining the singer’s vocal posture – how he or she is filtering laryngeally generated sound through the vocal tract - to ensure that everything is in good alignment. No detail of posture should be overlooked or considered too insignificant to matter. Spend some time watching yourself in the mirror, taking a look at the movement of your neck and jaw muscles while you are breathing, talking and singing. Recite the words of a poem or the lyric of a song using normal speech inflection and conversational volume. If there is a lot of movement of the neck muscles, for example, during normal speech, you have possibly developed some incorrect and potentially detrimental speaking practices or habits that have spilled over into your singing. (Many singers find that learning correct singing technique actually improves their speaking tone and gives them more control over their speaking voices.) Although I will be addressing both incorrect and correct vocal postures in the sections below, my article entitled Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping discusses healthy singing posture in much greater detail.
Once the causes for the excessive tension have been identified, the singer and teacher team can then begin applying appropriate exercises to correct and eliminate the problem. Patience and perseverance will be required, as it often takes a long time for tensions and stiffness to be eliminated. Singing is a skill based largely on muscle memory, and it is easy for singers to develop consistently bad habits during singing or speech that translate into tensions throughout the entire body. Many singers feel as though their problems seem like an ‘automatic reflex’, and muscle memory may explain why this is the case. Fortunately, muscles can usually ‘relearn’ good habits over time if one perseveres in learning the correct and healthy approach to vocal technique.
Examining other factors in addition to physical behaviours, such as the singer’s emotional or psychological health, may also shed some light on why throat, neck, jaw or tongue tension is present. For example, ongoing stress may cause an individual to hold tension in the neck, shoulders, jaw and tongue even when that individual is not engaged in speaking or singing tasks.
Excess psychological and emotional stress can play a role in tension, and singers may need to deal with their stress (e.g., finding the source and then reducing its levels through meditation, relaxation, massage, prayer, counseling, medical treatment, etc.) before seeing alleviation of their muscular tension and improvement in their singing.
I have found that one of the major causes of any kind of tension along the vocal tract is the singer’s perception of just how different singing is from speaking, and how much more difficult it necessarily must be. If the individual perceives the task of singing as being arduous and significantly more involved in function and production – more complicated and thus more difficult - than speaking, he or she will usually exert a great deal of effort in trying to sing. This kind of counterproductive thinking tends to affect the singer most in the upper range, where mounting vocal fold tension meeting with increasing breath pressure creates a sense that more muscular effort is required. Many untrained and poorly trained singers experience anxiety as pitch mounts, which inevitably causes them to tighten their muscles, or attempt to ‘muscle’ their way up the scale.
Here is a bit of philosophy or ‘food for thought’ that my vocal instructor once shared with me: Singing is about eighty percent psychological and only about twenty percent physical. Although the sounds of the voice are produced entirely by the anatomical structures of the body, making the above percentiles between physical and psychological involvement inaccurate in any true scientific sense, the mind does play a significant role in determining what kinds of sounds we produce. Assuming that some basic skill level is present, enabling the body to physically create variations in pitch, tone and articulation, the singer need only will his or her voice to produce a given pitch, melody, sound, or word and the body is able to respond to the request with a certain degree of precision.
That being said, our minds and our attitudes can certainly have a tremendous impact not only on how we use our voices, but also on how we think about our singing. A lot of the tension that we experience while singing is due to the fact that we often think of singing in unhealthy, counterproductive ways (e.g. it’s a difficult and unnatural activity, we need to do something substantially different with our bodies than what we do while speaking, we need to be loud, we should sound a certain way, we should be capable of a certain range, etc.). We perceive or imagine it to be difficult and unnatural, and thus we make it more difficult and unnatural than it needs to be. Singing is easy and natural for our bodies, but not always so natural for our minds. Once our trepidatious minds take over, the physical aspects of singing can begin to suffer.
It is true that singing tasks demand greater breath management and breath energy than do speaking tasks. There is a certain degree of athleticism required of the serious singer. In normal speech, phonation on a single respiratory cycle is generally of brief duration - typically for no more than about five or six seconds. Breathing for singing, while based on the same natural processes as those used in speech, must be enhanced in order to accommodate extended duration and intensity, as well as higher pitches that are not generally used in ordinary conversation. How we breathe and produce our voices during singing remains in accordance with natural function, though. Nothing that we do during singing should violate the physiologic bases that permit natural functioning of the voice, and all premises, efforts and techniques that are inept or harmful should be abandoned immediately.
Furthermore, the rules of articulation remain relatively the same during singing tasks as they do for speaking tasks. There is a commonly used eighteenth-century Italian phrase that stresses that singing and speaking make use of the same mechanical processes. “Si canta come si parla” means that one sings the way in which one speaks, and it is something for all singers to keep in mind. All unnatural adjustments of the vocal tract in singing within speech-inflection range should be avoided, as they lead to muscular tension, strain and potential injury, especially during more demanding singing tasks. Although some minor modifications of this principle occur when singing pitches above speech-level inflection (i.e., in the head register ), the articulatory definitions of singing should remain relatively similar to those of speech. If a singer perceives the act or technique of singing to be substantially different than that of speaking, he or she will begin to position the tongue, jaw and neck differently, as well. It is very common, for example, for misguided singers to feel the need to open their mouths very widely, believing that doing so will make their voices sound and ‘project’ better. Instead of improving the quality and volume of their sound, however, such an unnatural vocal posture distorts diction, hampers natural resonance and volume and creates tensions and discomfort.
Since most individuals are not encouraged to sing freely in public on a regular basis, there is also a self-consciousness that tends to accompany their singing whenever it is within earshot of others. Many people do not feel comfortable with and do not trust their singing voices, and they tend to tense up as they worry about how others might be judging the quality of their singing. They worry about successfully singing higher notes or making noticeable pitch errors, and thus embarrassing themselves. Singing is also highly personal, since the voice comes from within our own bodies, and many people assume that others will interpret their poor singing voice as deficiency or inferiority of their personhood. Many untrained singers find that taking lessons improves their singing skills, which in turn increases their confidence. With better technical skills, they soon learn to be able to trust that their voices will do what they want them to do whenever they want them to, and they are better able to relax and find enjoyment in singing.
Of course, singing in front of a professional voice instructor can be very intimidating at first, too, and most new students are nervous when singing their vocal exercises for the first several lessons. Nervousness is normal. However, it is important to remember that the teacher is there to help you improve, not to laugh at you or to make you feel bad about yourself. Teachers hear singers of all different levels, and although they may have heard better than you, they have also likely heard worse. It really is just part of the profession – a part that many voice teachers, including myself, welcome because we enjoy the challenge of finding solutions and the rewards of seeing a student improve and succeed. Being overly self-conscious will impede the learning process and will waste your time and money. (I, personally, learned this the hard way when I first started studying voice with my instructor. It took me years to get past my extreme shyness and nervousness, and to feel completely comfortable singing in front of him, even though I had performed numerous solos in public before I had even started taking lessons. It had nothing to do with him as a person or teacher, mind you. I was a nervous wreck before and during performances, too. My nervousness could be attributed entirely to my own lack of self-confidence, fear of embarrassment and mistrust in my singing voice. Knowing that he was a trained and highly skilled singer and an expert on the voice was nonetheless intimidating, though.)
If anxiety about singing higher notes is at the root of the singer’s tension, it is usually best for the individual to sing only within a comfortable range of pitches until all of the fundamental aspects of healthy singing have first been addressed and demonstrated with consistency. A lack of confidence in one’s ability to sing at higher tessituras), will lead to tension. Singing higher notes with tremendous muscular tension can lead to forcing and, sooner or later, to vocal fatigue, strain or injury. The expectation that pain will surely accompany the singing of higher notes may also make the singer feel very anxious about singing those higher pitches, which causes him or her to respond with even more muscular tension. Once the singer is consistently applying correct technique to his or her singing in a comfortable range, he or she will likely feel less nervous about gradually approaching the upper range, and will be able to do so with greater skill, comfort and confidence.
Lack of Knowledge of Voice and Singing Anatomy As Well As Poor Speech Habits and Vocal Technique May Create Tensions During Singing
One Finnish study by Liisa Leppäniemi found that having little knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the vocal mechanism, such as the structure of the larynx and breathing mechanism, was associated with more neck muscle problems, whereas having good knowledge about the voice was associated with fewer such difficulties. Therefore, studying the anatomy of your voice and breath production will likely help you to gain better awareness and control of your muscles, and help you to relax them more readily.
It’s important to remember that singing is only one aspect of voice, and that it is not unrelated to other phonatory functions, including speech. Errors in speech production may go unnoticed until the individual attempts to apply the same erroneous voice technique to his or her singing. The same study by Leppäniemi also found that singing voice problems are often associated with detrimental speaking habits, which may include everything from improper tone production (e.g., breathiness, hypernasality, “throatiness”, a pressed sound, etc.) and ‘placement’ to ineffective breathing to shouting to speaking excessively. Becoming aware of your speaking habits may be another good place to start looking for answers to your muscle tension problem. Although bad singing habits don’t always develop out of bad speaking habits – a lot of untrained singers use their muscles differently while singing than while talking - sometimes there is a link.
Possibly the greatest thing that you can do to resolve your muscle tension problems is to begin or continue studying vocal technique and learn how to use your voice properly. Studies, (such as the Laryngeal biomechanics of the singing voice. Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery , Volume 115 , Issue 6 , Pages 527 - 537 J . Koufman, T. Radomski, G. Joharji, G., Russell, D. Pillsbury), have shown that female professional singers have the lowest muscle tension scores, whereas amateur female singers display the greatest amount of muscle tension in their necks. In this same study, male singers, both professional and amateur, had intermediate muscle tension scores, and classical singers had lower muscle tension scores than non-classical (e.g., pop, rock, jazz, etc.) singers. It stands to reason, given the findings of this particular study, that getting vocal training that emphasizes proper (classical) technique is likely to be the best solution to neck muscle tension problems over time.
If you are just starting out, you may have some bad habits to rid yourself of, and some more training may help. If your instructor is any good, he or she will be able to help you figure out how to correct your habits and use your body properly for both singing and speaking tasks.
The ‘throat’ is a very generalized area. Typically, the term throat refers to both the pharynx and the larynx, which may make finding the exact location where the tension is most felt a little challenging. Also, since all muscle tension along the vocal tract is interrelated, identifying the specific site of pain or tension may be impossible. Pain in the area of the larynx may be caused by incorrect use of the tongue, for example.
As always, an investigation into the reasons for throat tension should begin with a close assessment of the singer’s vocal habits, including positioning of the tongue, jaw and neck. If generalized throat tension is your complaint, read the following sections carefully, and see if you can identify any specific maladaptive vocal behaviours that may be creating your tension.
If you are experiencing persistent generalized or localized pain in your throat, you may wish to consult with an otolaryngologist or an ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT) to see if he or she can pinpoint any underlying ‘organic’ (medical) or ‘functional’ (behavioural) problems that might be causing you to develop excessive tension in your muscles. For example, muscle tension dysphonia is characterized by the vocal folds failing to come completely together because two muscles are pulling them in opposite directions simultaneously. While the vocal folds have the ability to assume the correct position for a task, they do not because they are pulling against one another in an inefficient fashion. (This is thought to most likely be a learned behavior.) Your voice is a delicate instrument, and you need to take good care of it if you wish it to function well and to last for your lifetime. Sometimes a medical professional is the only one who can make an accurate diagnosis of your problem, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Because the tongue is a complex bundle of muscles, tension felt in any part of the tongue is not typically confined to a particular region, such as the front, mid-portion or base. Rather, it is experienced throughout the entire organ.
Tongue tension usually occurs when the tongue is not permitted to move within the normal postures of speech production – that is, when it is not in accord with the rest of the vocal tract that produces phonetic formation. Singers should watch that they aren’t doing anything significantly different with their tongue patterns while they sing than what they would do while speaking in that same range of pitches.
They should not exaggerate their articulatory motions in an effort to improve diction, as this is unnatural for the body and will likely create tension and constriction within the vocal tract. The tongue apex (tip) should remain in its resting position, making gentle contact with (i.e., not pressing firmly up against) the inner surface of the lower front teeth for all vowels and for numerous consonants. The tip of the tongue rises to the alveolar ridge, located on the hard palate behind the upper front teeth, only for certain consonants, and it occasionally assumes transitional locations for yet other consonant formations. The body of the tongue should remain in an arch and not be permitted to flatten.
Allowing the lips, jaw and tongue to follow patterns of spoken enunciation will cure most problems of tongue tension. Sometimes speaking phrases then singing them on a single pitch in lower-middle range with the same patterns of phonetic articulation as occur in speech can help to loosen the tongue. As pitch ascends, the mouth should open comfortably, but relative relationships among phonetic shapes should remain; that is, the tongue, as well as the mouth and lips, should continue to speak the integrity of the vowels and consonants.
The most successful exercises to reduce tension involve simulating a chewing motion, (not actually chewing anything, though). With the lips slightly apart, simulate a gentle and subtle chewing motion. Next, with the lips closed, hum a few pitches while moving the jaw up and down in a gentle chewing motion. Then, using the same lateral jaw movements experienced in chewing, sing a short phrase in comfortable range. (Some diction distortion will unavoidably take place because you won't be moving your jaw in natural phonetic ways.) Sometimes using a mirror to watch what is happening with the jaw and tongue helps. Follow this by singing the same phrase without the chewing motions. Then, introduce longer phrases, alternating chewing motions with normal articulation postures.
To loosen and relax tongue tension, the singer can sustain an affirmative spoken 'Hm!' at comfortable pitch and dynamic levels. Attention to the contact of the tongue apex (tip) with the inner surface of the lower front teeth should be drawn. While executing a vowel sequence quickly, such as /i-e-a-o-u/, the apex of the tongue can be moved in small back-and-forth motions against the inner surface of the lower front teeth. While sustaining the tone, stop the lateral movement of the tongue apex. The acoustic-at-rest posture of the tongue should be reestablished, eliminating tension in the tongue musculature. The singer can then return to musical phrases, insisting that the tongue retain this freedom.
The key in the above exercises is to keep the movements of the tongue very small and subtle. If the tip and body of the tongue are moving dramatically, the singer may end up increasing the tension instead of lessening it. As always, such exercises that involve moving the tongue are intended to be temporary measures used to eliminate tension and to give the singer experience of singing without tension, and should be gradually replaced with a more stable tongue posture that is appropriate to the articulatory demands once the singer begins to feel a decrease in tension or strain.
Another exercise that I've used with a couple students with retroflex tongues - tongues that habitually leave their proper resting positions and push back into the throat space –involves placing the tip of the tongue on top of the lower teeth, just behind the lower lip while singing short scales or arpeggios. The most important thing is that the singer finds a relaxing position and learns to keep the tongue arched, forward and out of the throat space. Depending on what is causing the tongue and jaw tension, this slight stretching of the tongue may actually increase the tension, and the exercise should be stopped if the singer finds this to be the case. For some people, though, it helps them to relax, as they don't have to concentrate on articulating and sounding ‘pretty’.
Jaw tension typically occurs from either clenching the jaw (often while sleeping, but also during waking tasks that should otherwise be relaxing activities, such as watching television) or hanging the jaw too low while singing. The singer should examine the posture of the tongue, jaw and neck, and watch that he or she isn’t holding the jaw tightly (clenching) either during singing or during speaking tasks and that he or she isn’t holding excessive tension in the jaw while not engaged in singing or speaking tasks.
This kind of continuous tension may lead to conditions such as temporomandibular joint dysfunction (or TMJ), characterized by clicking and popping sounds or stiffness of the jaw joints, that is often caused by poor posture, with lack of head, neck and torso alignment, as well as by tongue and jaw tension. Many singers have vocal habits, such as dropping the jaw excessively or thrusting it down and forward so that it becomes unhinged at the joints, that contribute to this dysfunction.
Some singers and teachers believe that a tight jaw can be cured by dropping it or forcing it downward. However, allowing the jaw to drop too low (or the mouth to open too widely), which some singers do in an effort to make their voices ‘project’ better or to increase the strength of the first formant, creates tension and decreases jaw mobility. It should also be noted that lowering the jaw excessively does not create more resonating space within the vocal tract. On the contrary, it narrows pharyngeal space and forces the submandibular musculature to press downward on the larynx, so natural volume is hampered and tone is distorted and becomes imbalanced.
Singers need to be mindful not only of how low their jaws are dropped, but also of how forward they are allowing them be. Many singers have a tendency to thrust their lower jaws forward during singing, known as the ‘forward jaw technique’, especially as they approach higher pitches or in an attempt to hear their own voices better inside their heads. Placing the jaw in a distended posture, however, invites acoustical and phonetic distortion - voice timbre becomes drastically distorted, with the higher overtones being cut out and an immature sound being produced - as well as malfunction of the vocal instrument.
Typically, thrusting the jaw forward forces the temporomandibular joints out of their sockets. When the jaw is placed in a forward position, undesirable tension in the submandibular region (muscles located below the jaw) is induced. The vocal folds approximate (close or come together) poorly, which causes breathiness and prevents the folds from functioning efficiently and healthily. The tongue also gets pushed back into the pharynx, filling up the primary resonator with tongue mass, creating a gag reflex at the tongue root and producing a throaty sound. This technique also elevates the larynx, which contradicts what the singer is trying to accomplish. With the larynx functioning in a high position, only a thin, immature sound is produced. A large ‘break’ in the voice (also due to the poor adduction of the vocal folds) is often produced. Finally, normal velar (soft palate) elevation is inhibited, so the soft palate assumes a low position, often resulting in a nasally or thin tone.
Whenever the jaw is thrust forward, there is also often not a healthy separation between jaw and tongue function, which makes the tongue tense and legato (an Italian word meaning ‘tied together’, suggesting that the transitions between notes should be smooth, without any silence between them) lines impossible to execute. The breath is often choked off by the root of the tongue, which is bunched up inside the throat space, making the breath line unhealthy and inefficient. The large amount of tension at the root of the tongue also distorts vowels.
Some singers are instructed to attempt to maintain the same very wide ‘oval’ mouth shape regardless of the vowel being sung, often referred to as the ‘locked jaw’ (or ‘jaw locked open’) position. However, since locking the jaw in one position does not promote the changing acoustic events of phonation, this technique distorts all the vowels throughout the entire range, destroying both diction and resonance balance. It also invites tensions throughout the vocal tract, as the jaw is not being permitted to move freely, as it would during speaking tasks.
It is also common for some teachers to incorrectly assume that students who don’t have very wide mouth openings have tight or clenched jaws. Individual facial construction (i.e., either a small or large mouth-and-jaw construction) determines the degree of buccal aperture (mouth opening) in speaking and in singing that is normal and appropriate for an individual singer, and all singers should not be expected to look alike with regard to the extent of mouth opening. Returning to speaking tasks or incorporating spoken phrases into singing phrases, as described in the exercises below, will indicate what the jaw should be doing over a large part of the singing range for the individual.
Misalignment of the jaw structure can also impact the freedom of the jaw and movement of the mouth. Sometimes, a jaw that protrudes forward is caused by skeletal or cerebral misalignments or vertebral subluxations – when one or more vertebrae have lost their proper alignment with neighbouring vertebrae – that can be detected and corrected through quick and painless chiropractic adjustments.
The correct jaw position is slightly down and wrapped back in its joints. In Italian, this ideal singing posture is referred to as ‘raccogliere la bocca’, which translates as ‘to collect the mouth’. Keeping the jaw in a comfortable and healthy position will decrease tensions and will encourage healthy and beautiful singing.
Once proper phonetic postures are reestablished (i.e., where the integrity of the vowel, determined by postures of the jaw, lips, tongue, velum and larynx are maintained, and flexible adjustments for rapid phonemic and pitch variations are encouraged), most singers recover from tension and conditions such as TMJ without the need for medical treatment.
One helpful technique for reducing jaw tension involves gentle massage of the jaw muscles. Relaxing the jaw and tongue, holding the teeth slightly apart while the lips remain closed, massage the muscles along the sides of the jaw with the pads of the fingers, rubbing very gently and being careful not to push into the jaw too hard. If tension is felt below the jaw, those muscles may also be massaged. This can be done between vocal exercises or songs, or whenever the individual becomes aware that he or she is holding tension in or clenching the jaw. Some chiropractors and massage therapists will do work on tense jaw muscles as well as TMJ, including massage and physical manipulation with a small, hand-held activator to correct any misalignments, so a singer might be able to find someone who can help to regain alignment and help control the muscle stiffness.
A standard exercise for reducing either type of jaw tension (i.e., clenching or hanging the jaw too low) involves adding subtle movements of the jaw during singing tasks. First, with lips apart, the singer would simulate a circular chewing motion for twenty to thirty seconds. Next, with lips closed, he or she would hum a few pitches, at the same time moving the jaw back and forth in a gentle chewing motion. Still using the lateral jaw movements experienced during chewing, the individual would then sing a short phrase in comfortable range. (Some momentary diction distortion will unavoidably take place.) A mirror can be used to note the looseness of the jaw as it retains its slightly circular motions. Follow this by singing the same phrase without the chewing motions. Then, introduce longer sung phrases, alternating chewing motions with normal articulation postures.
Next, move the jaw rapidly back and forth while speaking a single sustained vowel, being careful not to move the joints out their sockets. Wiggle the jaw sidewise for a moment or two, then stop moving it while sustaining the vowel. Do this with various vowels. Sing a longer passage, first while simulating small chewing motions, then without them.
If jaw muscle stiffness is very severe due to years of holding too much tension in that area of the body, correcting this problem may take a long time, as the musculature has become overly developed and tense. As always, singers may need to examine their habits and perhaps deal with any underlying psychological or emotional reasons for this excessive tension.