What Is Vocal Fry?
Vocal fry, or creaky voice, seems to be everywhere nowadays, from podcast announcers to reality show hosts. What is it? To create sound, air moves past our larynx to the vocal folds, which vibrate smoothly. Vocal fry occurs when you speak in your lowest possible register, as low as you can go. You don’t have enough energy or breath to produce the sound. Instead of the vocal folds moving easily together, they are slamming shut. Very little air can pass through. This creates a creak or popping sound, often compared to bacon frying in a pan. Sometimes you can hear it at the end of a phrase or sentence, and sometimes all the way through a sentence. And you hear it from women and men.
Vocal fry is commonly employed by young people, but some older folks have it too. Currently, the criticism of it has sometimes been tangled up with criticism of young people — in particular, girls. However, a study of 18–22-year-olds at Centenary College in Lousiana found that men, too, have vocal fry but tend to use it throughout their speech, whereas women mainly use it at the end of a phrase.
Unfortunately, some people of my generation have found a hill to die on, and that hill is vocal fry. They say it sounds annoying. Some say that the claim that vocal fry is annoying is a sexist argument. Others say, no, it actually is annoying.
I’m not advocating for either side. I’m a vocal coach. My problem with vocal fry is simply that its symptoms are such that they fly in the face of my teachings about breath and projection. So, for that reason alone, I’m going to try to help you stop your vocal fry.
The causes of vocal fry
Vocal fry is caused by one of two things that both have the same results:
- Holding back and not allowing your breath to flow through your vocal tract fully. Or you run out of breath and your vocal energy drops into your lowest register. Vocal fry often emerges at the end of phrases because that’s when you run out of breath or lose your vocal energy. Think about a guitar. When you tune a guitar, you tighten or loosen the strings until they’re vibrating at the right pitches. When they’re out of tune, they sound wrong and clash with each other. They might even smack off each other and the guitar body itself. The same thing happens when you don’t have enough breath. Your vocal folds don’t tighten properly, so they don’t vibrate correctly and can cause popping sounds.
- Speaking in your lowest possible pitch: When you speak in lower pitch, you tend to give it less air than is normally needed, and this can result in vocal fry. Why would anyone speak in a lower pitch? Well, it often has to do with instinct. People often speak lower when they’re trying to speak authoritatively. It gives a certain amount of empowerment, for sure. But when what comes out instead is vocal fry, authoritativeness goes out the window — plus it’s really hard to hear.
Why vocal fry is perceived negatively
Your seat is fastened and the flight attendants have just done the safety spiel that you didn’t listen to. Then, as the plane begins to taxi, on comes a crackly voice that seems caught in a cultural feedback loop: At this point it’s hard to determine whether some pilots sound that way because they just do, or because they’ve heard other pilots talk that way. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” But he seems barely whispering, and his voice rattles and crackles and trails off at the end. I’m not saying all pilots speak with vocal fry; some are pretty darned clear and expressive. The point is that with the fancy sound systems we have these days, we hear their voice very clearly. Plus when we can only hear a voice, we aren’t distracted by what the person is wearing or by the spinach in their teeth.
Researchers at Duke University conducted a study to determine how young women who had vocal fry fared in the job market. Men and women were asked to record a message with vocal fry and then one without. Eighty percent of people choosing a candidate for the job picked the message spoken by the non-vocal fry voice, and, unfortunately, women had an even tougher time getting jobs than men when both had vocal fry. These interviewers found candidates more trustworthy when they didn’t have vocal fry, even if both candidates were otherwise the same.
Note: This may be partly the result of a generational divide — those who have reached the point in their careers where they are interviewing people are probably a little older.
Regardless, vocal fry shouldn’t be part of your public speaking.
Exercise: Diagnose and address vocal fry
- Finding your optimal pitch: Before I get into diagnosing and addressing vocal fry, you need to find your optimal pitch. This is the sound we make when the larynx is released, tongue is relaxed, and body is aligned. It’s where you breathe easily and feel comfortable in the placement of your voice. Say an “aaah.” Try to vary your pitch and note how it feels. Does your throat tighten or does it feel free and easy? Say, “aaah” in a higher pitch. Do you feel as free and easy as the first time? Go lower and see what happens.
- Get out! Whenever Elaine on Seinfeld heard something crazy, she would yell, “Get out!” and push one of the male characters aggressively. Say, “Get out!” Gradually slide your pitch up, repeating, “Get out!” each time, resonating it in your chest, your oral cavity (mouth), and your head. Go as high as you can and stop when you feel like you’re pushing your voice out in a squeak. Now go back down, repeating, “Get out!” Take note where you feel most comfortable and your voice sounds free and expressive. That’s your optimal pitch.
To find out if you have vocal fry, try this: Whisper, “One, two, three, four, five,” without much pause, as if it were a sentence. Then say those numbers again out loud. Do you hear any croaks or crackles? Does your voice tend to drop off at the end of your sentence?
Do it again now, but this time with proper breath support. Take deep breaths as if from your lower abdomen. Your ribs, lungs, and belly should all expand when you inhale. When you start speaking, say your whole sentence to the end with enough breath that you could do it again if you wanted. Imagine you’re keeping a balloon suspended in the air when you say a sentence. Keep it suspended with your breath until the end of a sentence.
It’s a good idea to raise your pitch a little higher than your general habit dictates. A slightly higher pitch makes your tone stronger and clearer. There are different ways of describing vocal registers and speech pathologists tend to categorize them as follows, from lowest to highest: vocal fry, modal, falsetto, and whistle. The modal range is the middle of your voice range, where it operates more efficiently.