The jaw plays a crucial role in singing, and if there’s tension in this part of the body, a singer can expect trouble in the form of vocal strain, reduced range or registration problems.
So to learn more about the jaw’s function in singing and how to address jaw tension, we spoke to singing teacher and proud vocal nerd Chris Johnson.
Speaking on the Singing Teachers Talk podcast, Chris explains there’s more to the jaw than most people think.
“The muscles that usually get a lot of the attention are the ones that make you bite because we also get a lot of sensation in those muscles,” Chris says. “But some of the most interesting connections are the ones below the jawline called the suprahyoids. Many connect from the hyoid bone just above your larynx to the jawline in some way.
“They can have a big influence on the larynx, not just in terms of the position of the larynx, but also the position of the cartilage of the larynx, meaning that we can affect pitch or register via the jaw as well. That’s why the jaw is so important; it can be the solution to many issues or the way into many issues. Via the jaw, you can get a spark of change.”
What causes jaw problems
Speech patterns, posture and the position of the head can limit the full range of motion of the jaw, which over time can cause dysfunction.
“Sometimes, due to a person’s posture, the jaw can be put into a position where it influences the larynx, throat and tongue in sub-optimal positions,” Chris says.
“For example, when the shoulders are very far forward, that can encourage the head to go in the same direction. And whenever the jaw is put forward because the head is forward, you get tension in the muscles underneath the chin. They’re stretched because the jaw is protruded, and that influences the larynx forward, and we might lose registers and vocal fry.”
Stress can also aggravate jaw issues. “Just think of phrases like ‘grit your teeth’ and ‘grin and bear it’; they’re about leaning into something difficult and based around the jaw and the teeth clenching together.”
The jaw and the tongue are a bit like the Ant and Dec of vocal anatomy (if you can imagine such a thing); they’re best buddies, and when you work on one, you work with the other.
“When someone appears to have an issue with tongue tension, you could get to it via the tongue, or you could get to it via the jaw; it almost doesn’t matter which one it is,” Chris says.
“The best place to start is where the issue is supposed to be from the singer’s point of view. You could start with the tongue, and if nothing is happening, you can go to the jaw. It’s a process of assessment.”
Here are three simple jaw exercises to try with your singing students.
Start by wiggling the jaw from side to side and then explore its range of motion and how it moves by opening and closing the mouth. You may notice that as the jaw opens, it pulls back further than you expected or pushes the head forward. Everyone is built differently, so a little bit of what Chris calls ‘wonkiness’ is to be expected.
“But it might get to a point where it’s more dysfunction than just wonkiness, when the jaw moves particularly far in one direction, backwards, forwards or off to the side. And then when you’ve got that in your thoughts, you can start to explore the voice.”
Reverse jaw opening
Hold your chin and put your head back. “What’s great about this exercise is that to do it, the person has to release the bite in their jaw. The beauty of tipping the head back is it doesn’t introduce any tension to the muscles that join from the chin and the jaw to the larynx.”
Head turn/shoulder lift
Simultaneously turn your head as you open your jaw and raise your shoulder – as if you’re going to eat your shoulder.
“You often find that combining head, jaw and shoulder movement can make your jaw feel normal. Many people will say ‘Oh, my jaw feels completely normal now. It could be that the whole complex of muscles might have gotten very tight. Or it’s not actually jaw trouble, it’s shoulder trouble. Which could be anything to do with how you exercise or sit all day.”
Learn more about jaw tension
Listen to the full interview with Chris to hear more about vocal anatomy and how dental treatments such as braces can affect the singer.