I admit it. I am a vocal technique nerd. Students who take voice lessons with me in my Marin County studio are often invited to explore some voice-related anatomical part, such as the ribs, the muscles of the torso (and the diaphragm), the larynx and the tongue. And it’s this last one that has been my focus of endless fascination lately after an Alexander teacher at a training I did this month in North Carolina asked me about the tongue’s muscular attachments. I had a general idea but had never really studied it in-depth. Sometimes we singers have a kinesthetic understanding of our vocal mechanism but not necessarily its detailed physiology.
So, off I went to research the muscles of the tongue and this is what I found: The tongue is made up of 8 muscles – 4 extrinsic and 4 paired intrinsic.
The four major extrinsic muscles that move the tongue are:
- the genioglossus, genio meaning chin. It attaches to the jaw and under the tongue. (Put your thumb under the chin and swallow; feel that muscle stiffen.) A thinner ancillary muscle, the geniohyoid muscle, is below the genioglossus but it doesn’t insert into the tongue so isn’t considered one of the main four.
- The hyoglossus attaches to the hyoid bone and inserts in the side of the tongue.
- The styloglossus attaches to the skull (styloid process of temporal bone) and the side of the tongue.
- The palatoglossus muscle attaches to the hard palate’s “fibrous lamella” (palatine aponeurosis) and “broadly across” the tongue. (This muscle is not shown on the graphic.)
There are the four paired intrinsic muscles within the tongue that facilitate in speech, eating and swallowing.
So, when you move your tongue from side to side, or out of your mouth to try to touch your nose or down to touch your chin, these are all different muscles that activate.
I was taught that the tongue is THE strongest muscle in the body, but that myth has been debunked, according to various sources I have read. The heart, of course, is up there as No. 1 and then there are strong muscles in the legs. However, if you think about the tongue, it must be strong enough to push the food you’ve just chewed to the back of the throat so you can swallow. As singers, we need to soften this strong root of the tongue for resonance to be clear.
Lately I have been talking to a few friends who have to have teeth implants because of grinding at night and general wearing down of the teeth because of keeping them forcefully shut together. I suggested that perhaps they could take a tip from us singers. I used to have a lot of clicking in my jaw joint and I used to grind my teeth. But, as I learned to sing, I began relaxing the tip of the tongue gently against the bottom teeth and letting the jaw hang, so the mouth is slightly open. When the jaw is relaxed open, there is a slight space between the molars. Cultivating this during the day helps us to release jaw tension. Not that you always must walk around with your mouth slightly open. If you prefer to breathe through the nose with the lips closed, that’s fine. A nose breath filters the air and is quiets the nervous system. With the mouth closed, the tongue rests on the hard palate (behind the top teeth, according to dentists and speech therapists.) But, even with the lips closed, you can have space between the molars.
The root of the tongue can get very stiff when we sing. But, by addressing the jaw-tongue relationship as I described it above, we can begin to release it. There are some exercises that help release the root. Try this:
- Stick your tongue out and gently close your teeth. Sing your scales on this kind of hum.
- Place the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth and then fold the tongue out of your mouth. Then close your teeth. This is a variation on the one above.
- Singing on an “ng” like the end of the word “ring” also releases the root.
One Alexandrian “direction” a colleague came up with, which I really like, is to think that the root of the tongue floats up as the larynx drifts down.
By the way, if you haven’t checked it out, look at https://dood.al/pinktrombone/, a synthesized view of the relationship between the tongue and vowels. In my singing lessons, I’ve been having my students play with this app. It’s very cool!