What is Vocal Fry?
How does it affect audience responses to your speeches and singing performances?
‘Vocal fry’ is the lowest vocal register (registers: fry, modal, falsetto and whistle).
Our throat, mouth and nasal cavity are our resonators and enable us to adjust the pitch of our voice. The vocal folds merely create a buzzing sound as air passes through them from the lungs. When we speak, our vocal folds vibrate regularly, but in vocal fry, they are slack and shortened, and bang together irregularly.
Let me tell you what I think this increased usage of fry register is about –
NOT THINKING BEFORE YOU SPEAK.
I’ve done it myself. If I start replying to a question without fully preparing my answer, or without pausing between statements, I slip into fry on certain words. Not pausing between statements and growling or croaking on words while you think about what to say next makes you sound less committed and inspires less confidence.
We hear it a lot in pop culture. Think of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears. People see them speaking or singing and wish to emulate them, sometimes subconsciously. Whether Kim Kardashian thinks before she speaks is not for me to say; perhaps it’s so enmeshed in Californian youthspeak that it’s completely subconscious in speech patterns.
It can be a nice little singing effect used sparingly, but in spoken voice, I’m with Naomi Wolf (The Guardian):
‘What’s heartbreaking about the trend for destructive speech patterns is that yours is the most transformational generation – you’re disowning your power.’
Time Magazine touches upon this social trend in its article, ‘3 Speech Habits That Are Worse Than Vocal Fry In Job Interviews‘. Maya Rhodan writes:
‘Vocal fry: the sound that we can’t seem to stop talking about. It’s the vibrating, world-weary tone heard throughout popular culture—from the droning conversations of the Kardashian sisters to the red carpet quips delivered by America’s favorite quirky girl Zoey Deschanel— and, much to the dismay of those they interact with, young American women can’t stop speaking in vocal fry. And unfortunately for them, their creaky speech may be hurting their future job prospects.
A recent study found that women who exhibit vocal fry are perceived as less competent and less hirable (not to mention less educated and less trustworthy) than those who do not. “Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, the study, published in Plos One and funded in part by Duke University, found. Beyond the hiring question, this laconic tone can sound just plain annoying to many people.’
It is not exclusive to females, though. Men do it just as much, but it’s not as noticeable, with their ever-present lower range. It’s also not a new phenomenon. Vocal fry has been discussed in medical and musical literature since mid-twentieth century; it shows up in a number of medical conditions.
So is there anything good about vocal fry? So far, it seems it’s something to avoid.
Yes, it can have positive results. Not only do some singers use it as a signature style, again, Britney Spears, to name one, but singers can also use it to extend the vocal range in a downward direction.
Ever sing that song with the single word in each verse that falls outside of your range, and comes out like a pathetic whisper? If there’s nowhere else in the melody you can use this whisper and call it a stylistic choice, you have two options:
Change the key
Fry for your life!
Often when something is too low or high for us to comfortably sing, we start throat singing and the tension in the larynx increases. Bad move.
When working with clients on songs that have difficult troughs in the melody, I get them to speak the lyrics that fall on the low points in their natural speaking voice, to get the sound reverberating in the mask, where it should be, and to loosen the vocal folds enough to reach the pitch.
If you have to do it for more than a word or two, you are better off taking the song up a key or two.
Another time you hear, or use vocal fry, is to give a gentler introduction to a lyric beginning on a vowel. You’ll slide into the first word, e.g. Stone Sour’s ‘Through Glass’ – “Iiiii’m looking at you through the glass,” instead of the closed fold, closed epiglottis vowel “I’m” (we’ll talk about glottal onset in another article). It can sound effective, used in moderation. Start every verse like this, or worse, every line of every verse, and you’ll just sound like a sloppy singer. Not only that, your pitch will be off more often than not. Using any signature sound can be downright annoying if you do it too often.
But sometimes, it’s pleasant to softly growl into a lyric. Just be aware of every stylistic choice you make as a singer, and have your sound be intentional rather than due to laziness and bad habits. When you make informed choices about how you sing, and can pick up and put down stylistic tools at will, you become a better session singer, too, and in greater demand as a professional for hire.