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Tackle the Technique: Tongue Tension

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

This is a follow-up to last week, when we talked about Jaw Tension. If you didn’t see that blog post or video, go check it out ASAP!


When we think about the tongue, most of us probably focus on the dorsum, or the blade of the tongue that is the most visible. However, there are MANY muscles that make up the tongue and help it move in various ways. Let me give you a quick run-down, and I do mean QUICK (and don’t worry, there will NOT be a quiz!).


Here is a profile image of the tongue so the location of the following muscles are easier to grasp:

 

1. First, let’s talk about muscles around the tongue, the extrinsic muscles. 

- The palatoglossus is behind the dorsum, and can lift the back of the tongue and/or lower the soft palate.


- The styloglossus sits behind and below the palatoglossus - this retracts and elevates the back of the tongue and helps to curl the central portion.


- The hyoglossus sits beneath the tongue and helps to depress the tongue, or pull it downward.


- Lastly, the genioglossus also sits below the tongue (forward of the hyoglossus) and pulls the tongue forward.


2. Next, let’s quickly discuss the intrinsic muscles, or those within the dorsum. 

- The superior and inferior longitudinal muscles run the length of the dorsum front to back. These are responsible for shortening the dorsum and curling the tip up or down.

- Transverse medial and lateral muscles run horizontal, or side to side - contracting these muscles narrows the dorsum and can curl the sides upward, like when you stick your tongue to create a “taco!”

- Vertical muscles run top to bottom and flatten the tongue when they are contracted.



With that said, I think it’s fairly common knowledge that tight muscles are less-than-useful muscles. Muscle tension within the mouth, and particularly in the tongue, can be a physiological factor: excessively high or low laryngeal position, jaw or neck tension (hint hint), or tension really anywhere throughout the vocal tract. However, tongue tension could also be an unwitting result of trying to achieve a certain musical quality: unclear vowels or consonant, trying to restrain natural vibrato, excessive nasal tone, etc. 

To that end, here are a few exercises to discover and possibly release tongue tension.

1. The first is a discovery exercise to find a neutral tongue position: Allow the jaw to hang loosely. The tongue should lie weightlessly on the floor of the mouth. The tip should rest comfortably at the bottom front teeth, and the middle portion should be positioned for a neutral vowel such as a schwah.

2. If you struggled to let your tongue relax completely, try this exercise. Gently place your thumb under your jaw in the soft area behind your chin. If you press up with your thumb you’ll feel the base of your tongue. Sing a simple descending five note scale on an “ah.” If you sing with a lot of tongue tension, you will feel your tongue contracting, hardening and bearing down where your thumb is. The tongue doesn’t *need* to work so hard for this - try to let it soften as you sing. You may feel a little vibrating under your thumb, but hopefully no hardness or bearing down. 

3. Now for a release exercise. Lodge the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth while sticking the rest of the tongue as far out of the mouth as possible. Try a simple slide on an [eh], making sure the tongue does not retract.

4. A similar exercise adds a gentle bite down to hold the tongue in place. Use a slide on an [eh] again - because of the almost complete closure of your mouth, it will result in a sort of hum, with the sound coming through your nose. 

5. Lastly, sing a melody with a tongue trill for two to three consecutive minutes, taking breaths as needed. After this, try singing normally to see if the tension is lessened. If not, repeat this process and try it again. As with all practice, it needs to be repeated over time - change will not happen immediately, but that doesn’t mean we can’t experience an immediate change, however small. 




SOURCES

  1. Carla LeFevre, “Tongue Management.” Journal of Singing, November/December 2011 Volume 68, No. 2, pp. 157–162 .Copyright © 2011, National Association of Teachers of Singing

  2. Dr. Shannon Coates - Vocal Pedagogue and Private Instructor, https://www.shannon-coates.com/tongue-tension-blarg/.

  3. Arden Kaywin - Singer, Vocal Instructor and Vocal Producer,  https://www.ardenkaywinvocalstudio.com/3-exercises-to-reduce-tension-while-singing/.

  4. Dr. Scott McCoy, Your voice: The basics, voice science and pedagogy. (2016) Gahanna, OH: Inside View Press.

  5. MaryJean Allen, Melissa Malde, & Kurt-Alexander Zeller, What every singer needs to know about the body (3rd ed.). (2016) San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing. ***The 4th edition is in print as of Summer 2020!

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