The tongue is one busy, strong muscle. Among its many jobs, of course, is chewing and swallowing. But as articulator of vowels and consonants, it is often at the root (no pun intended) of vocal tension and freedom. Yet, many students who start singing and voice lessons with me are rarely aware of how the tongue works. So, it’s fun to explore this cool muscle’s strength, shaping and the effect it has on our vocal quality.  


Basic singing lessons tells us to keep the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth, which makes good sense because, like a little dog leading its human companion on a leash, where the tip of the tongue goes, the back follows. If we want an unconstricted throat, then that big glob of a tongue needs to gently move forward to avoid a “swallowed” sound. None of the vowels require the tongue to leave the teeth – it undulates as we move from a higher tongued “ee” to a more dropped “ah,” for diphthongs (two-sound vowels) and everything in between. For consonants, the tip of the tongue is called into duty for such consonants as l, t, d, and n. The middle/back activates for k’s and g’s. It happily hangs out at the bottom of the mouth for bilabials such as m, b, p. And its sides get to check out the sides of the upper teeth on r’s. There are “plosives” that stop the breath, like t’s and d’s, and continuants that allow the breath through, such as n’s and m’s.  


However, the tongue is an unruly fella, often not happy with only articulating. It wants to help the vocal folds make pitch, which is not its task. Its interference may not be as evident in speech or the lower singing range, perhaps masquerading as jaw tension. But as we sing into the higher vocal registers, we easily uncover deep tongue and jaw tensions and confusion about what the tongue is supposed to do for top-notch resonance. Leda Scearce, in her “Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation,” in writing about the tongue, says “Unfortunately, its direct attachment to the larynx makes it a poor choice for effective anchoring, as tension in the tongue will inevitably result in increasing laryngeal effort. Tongue tension often invites the jaw to get in on the endeavor, too.” Our goal? A very flexible tongue for articulation and full expression up and down the range, independent of the jaw’s actions and changes in torso breath support, which can feel quite compressed at times.


Here are a few exercises to tame the tongue:


  • The root of the tongue is under the chin (check out the fabulous drawing from Frank Netter’s “Atlas of Human Anatomy.”) As you sing or speak through extended vowels, press a thumb under the chin. You will feel if the tongue root engages. Relax the jaw and see if you can soften that muscle. Often a lack of support is to blame for the root tension.  


  • If you are genetically able 😊 (not everyone can), make the sound known as a raspberry or a Bronx cheer – the tongue lies outside the mouth over the lower lip –  and see if you can keep the flutter going. Start with unvoiced (just air, open cords) and then voice it up and down the scale. This is a surefire way to release the root of the tongue. I love this exercise and do it first thing in my practice session. You can also roll your tongue if you are able. The steady breath pressure relieves the root of its work. You can go from the raspberry to a vowel, keeping the tongue as relaxed as when you were fluttering it.


  • Tongue stretches also are great, sometimes called the “lion” in yoga. Try it without scrunching up your facial muscles. Stretch the tongue as far as you can then let it quickly settle with tip behind the teeth.


  • I was just introduced to vocalizing on the “ng” nasal sound and I learned a lot about relaxing the root of the tongue through this, especially in my lower upper register where it likes to grab. Once I got a clear “ng” all the way up to my highest notes (D6-Eb6) I could move to lifting the tip of the tongue to sing through the “n” sound with assurance that the root would stay relaxed.  


  • Once you’ve done these preliminary exercises, you can create your own articulation warmups. First, figure out kinesthetically what the tongue naturally does for each consonant. Go through the alphabet and sound each consonant. Then pick a vowel and two consonants that access different parts of the tongue, such as “t” and “k” – so you would be speaking or singing “taka, taka” (for singers either in thirds or scale-wise.) You can mix and match – “bana or gala.” Going from “middle/back of tongue” consonants to tip of tongue seems trickier to me. Whenever you feel stuck in speech or a song, check out the consonants. They often need “debugging.”


  • Head’s up on “ah” vowels! We know the tongue is a little flatter on that vowel. (Say ah!) Make sure you aren’t pressing down on the tongue. This creates pressure on the vocal folds.


  • And, it’s vital to check the relationship of the head and the cervical spine. The tongue is a complex of muscles with many neck attachments – to the hyoid bone, for one. If we are pulling the occipital bone of the head back and down, the jaw, larynx and tongue can’t help but get tense. Keep a nice balance of the head atop the spine, remembering that the muscles and vertebrae of the neck are not meant to be weightbearing on their own.


  • And last, learning to sound the vowels with an open jaw greatly aids in flexibility. Sounding a pure vowel in a wider jaw space (rather than modifying it) really activates the tongue and helps when singing diphthongs and/or adjacent vowels in other languages in the upper registers.


Have fun! And if you need a set of ears, come take voice or singing lessons with me. I also give singing lessons for kids in San Francisco. They love playing with their tongues in singing class!