A few months ago one of my chorus members asked me to blog about a phenomenon called vocal fry. Vocal fry, popularly called creaky voice, happens when the vocal cords close tightly together except for a small area that loosely flutters, allowing air to bubble through in a kind of very low rattling or popping or creaking sound. If you want a more technical explanation, during phonation the arytenoid cartilages compress tightly together, allowing the vocal folds themselves to become rather compact and loose. A vibrating mass forms within the folds and air bubbles through, creating a low frequency sound kind of like...bacon frying! There's a film of vocal fry in action about 37 seconds into this video.
Vocal fry has been called a disorder in the past, but that has been re-evaluated over recent decades (so don’t pay much attention to the sensational statements in these videos). Most of us do it occasionally without harmful effects, usually when our voice drops at the end of a word or sentence, but that’s about the extent of it—except among (mostly) female twenty-somethings. In the last few years vocal fry has become what some are calling a language fad mainly among young women, probably spurred by the likes of Britney Spears, the Kardashians, and other pop stars. The 2011 study in the above video claims that two-thirds of college women use vocal fry, and like the sound! It was a small study, but the percentage could very well be true. Here’s a link to the abstract. You can get to the full text there if you are interested, but it’s pretty technical.
I’ve certainly heard young women use this vocal mannerism. Some have even speculated that young women in particular are drawn to vocal fry because it lowers their voice, makes them sound more authoritative—dare we say masculine?! Some also connect it to a growing use of a California dialect that is marked by what is called “uptalk”—the rise of the voice at the end of a sentence that makes it sound like a question whether it is or not—the distorting of certain vowels—oo becomes eww, ah becomes very tall and produced in the back of the throat—the annoyingly frequent use of “like” and “I mean,” and vocal fry. Listen to the first part of this video, you'll see what I mean.
But if you are reading this blog you are probably most interested in choral music and singing, and the way vocal fry has been purposefully used in singing is pretty interesting. All of my vocal technique books refer to it, usually briefly and under various names—growl register, glottal scrape or rattle, straw bass—as the lowest of the vocal registers. Some voice teachers use it to help singers overcome a breathy voice or develop their low register; when used at the first instance of phonation it can help the vocal folds to release tension and close completely. But it’s the stylistic use that I find fascinating. Listen to the bass singer in gospel quartets; he’s usually “frying” those really low notes. Most American choirs depend on basses to “fry” subbasement notes in Russian choral music that the Russians sing so naturally. We just don’t breed that kind of bass here! I once tried to introduce it to the Master Chorus Eastside basses in a Russian piece, but they looked at me like I was nuts and I didn’t push it. And Tim Storms has built his reputation on being the man with the lowest voice in the world! He’s merrily frying away, away on down there!
Let’s go out, then, enjoying a beautiful bit of Russian choral singing. See if you can tell if they basses are frying or not!
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside