Your tongue position when singing plays a BIG part in how you sound and feel. You might experience that your sound is muffled when you sing. Or, that your tongue hurts or gets tired after vocalising.
Fear not! This is a common issue related to tongue positioning that we can fix.
In this post I will first teach you good tongue position when singing. Afterwards I will help you get rid of tongue tension with some helpful exercises.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryuf_tv231c&w=560&h=315]
Watch the video or keep reading to learn good tongue position
Getting my tongue position right was one of those moments in my vocal training that was like bam! It just did so much for my singing in helping me sing with freedom.
I had a muffled and nasal sound to my voice before I learned good tongue position when singing. Once I got it right, my tongue was no longer in the way and I had a clearer sounding voice.
Let’s get the same thing going for you! First we’re going to look at how your tongue moves.
Tongue Movements When Singing
Your tongue moves around a lot when you speak and when you sing. You can move the tip of your tongue, the sides, the middle, and the back.
You have to do these movements with your tongue when you speak, otherwise it is very hard to understand what you are saying.
Just try to say the phrase “I am a singing geek” without moving your tongue. If you have clean fingers you can put a finger on your tongue to make sure it isn’t moving.
Were you able to do it? Let me know in the comments section of this blog post.
So when we talk about tongue position, it is not that we want the tongue to stay in just one position. But, there is a general “basic” position, or “neutral” position, that refers to how your entire tongue should be situated.
The reason we talk so much about this neutral position is because many people – including myself before I had training – don’t have it. This cause problems like tension or a muffled sound.
Neutral Tongue Position When Singing
What is a neutral tongue position?
The neutral position is one where the tip of the tongue lies gently behind your bottom front teeth. Not pushing up against them but just gently touching them. Not curled down or up – just relaxed. You should should be able to feel the gums with the underside of your tongue.
In the very back of your throat, your tongue should lie flat to create room for resonance in the pharynx. And once you have that resonant space… yes 😉 That is the space I was missing when I was starting out. We’ll talk about that in the section on tension later in this post.
So, with this neutral position of the tongue, the middle part of the tongue is free to move around to make different vowels. An example of this is the vowel EE, like in the word “see”. Here, the tongue is in the neutral position, meaning the very back and the very front stay fairly relaxed. The part that moves here, is the middle part of the tongue which moves up to touch the first molars on each side.
Try to say the EE vowel. Did you feel the front part of your tongue (except the very tip) touching your first molars? Let me know in the comments section if you were able to do it.
Tongue Position When Pronouncing Consonants
The tongue is not in the neutral position when you pronounce consonants. An example here is the L-sound. Here, the tip of the tongue moves up.
The reason we care so much about vowels in singing is because we pull on the vowels and make the consonants short. This is because you can’t really sing on consonants. Imagine singing the word love” as LLLLLove instead of looooooove. That would not sound as nice right?
So, it’s up to you as the singer to quickly move your tongue back behind the bottom front teeth when you engage in the consonants.
A Final Note on Good Tongue Position When Singing
One last thing I should mention regarding a good tongue position is that you might see many singers sing with a dent in the tongue (see pictures below).
This is something that many singers develop naturally over time, as they calibrate their singing for good resonance. This dent should also be included as a part of good tongue position when singing.
Tongue Tension When Singing
In theory the neutral tongue position, sounds easy enough, right? So why are so many people talking about tongue tension?
There is one component here throwing a wrench into the whole scheme. That is that the root of your tongue is connected to your larynx. Dun dun Duuun!
If you watched my video on larynx control, you know that the larynx houses your vocal folds and so any tension in this area can put strain your voice.
That is why many singers are concerned with “getting the tongue to move independently”, because they want it to move freely without causing tension.
2 Types of Tongue Tension to Look Out for When Singing
The two types of tension to look out for is tongue retraction and tongue thrust.
Tongue retraction means a tongue that is pulled too far back in the throat. This retraction puts pressure on the larynx.
Tongue thrust means a tongue that is pushed too far out of the mouth.
#1 Tension From Tongue Retraction
Tongue retraction and tension in the root is probably the most common form of tension involved with the tongue. It can be investigated by:
- Visual sign: First off try to see if you pull your tongue back when you start singing. That is usually a pretty easy way to see it.
- Feel: Often you can also dig your thumb into the soft part of your chin. Feel if the area stiffens up or bulges out when you sing.
- Sound: A common way of describing tongue retraction is that it sounds a bit like Kermit the frog. To experience this tension you can try placing your thumb under your chin and imitate Kermit the frog. Were you able to feel it? Let me know in the comments below.
If you find that this might be something you do when you sing I have 2 exercises to help you retrain your tongue from retracting when you sing.
Exercises to Get Rid of Tongue Retraction
- The first one is a common one known by most voice teachers. Here you take a clean pencil and place it under your tongue, like in the picture below, and sing some glides or scales on an AH sounds. The goal is to keep the tongue from pulling back as you sing.
- The second exercise to retrain tongue retraction is to grab your tongue either with just your hands or a piece of tissue and then sing through one of your favorite songs.
#2 Tension From Tongue Thrust
Ok let’s talk about the other outer position that can cause your tongue to work against you. A tongue that is too far out and too high can pull on the larynx. It can be investigated by:
- Visual Sign: and you can often tell if you have tongue thrust by your tongue wanting to sit on top of your bottom front teeth
- Sound: Sound wise tongue thrust is characterised by a narrow and nasal sound. This is because this position does not have that flat tongue in the back so basically your tongue is taking up the space for your voice to resonate and leads it into your nose. This was my culprit when I discovered my tongue was not working with me as much as it should.
Exercises to Get Rid of Tongue Thrust
Doing exercises for this is a bit more tricky because we cannot really push the tongue more in the mouth. What helped me get rid of tongue thrust was these two exercises.
- First, to think of it like this. In this outer position, the whole tongue is shifted up and you sort of need to let it relax down. Some students of mine have described that it feels like their tongue is too big but really it is just you needing to relax it down and also getting used to your larynx not being in this higher position. To relax your tongue, place it behind your bottom front teeth, tilt your head all the way back and let your jaw drop down gently like if you were sleeping. Now tilt your head back up while keeping your jaw and tongue in the same position. Your tongue should feel much smaller now and your larynx should be lower than before.
- The second thing that helped me relax my tongue was singing with a yawning feeling. It helps you make your tongue flat in the back and make space for resonance in your pharynx which is an important resonator. Just make sure to keep your tongue behind your bottom front teeth when you yawn.
I hope these exercises were helpful for you. With the tongue position and tensions, as so many other things in singing, we have to find that perfect middle ground where we are relaxed but use some muscles to create resonant space for our voices to ring out.
So, experiment with moving your tongue around to find a sound that feels good and sounds the way that you want.
Also it is important that you use your breath support and let your jaw drop down gently when practicing tongue position. This will give you a good foundation for getting it right.
If you have any question about tongue tension please do not be shy to ask them in the comments. I love to geek out on that stuff 🙂
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