Phonation: Definition & Process

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Language production starts with the making of basic sound. In this lesson you will learn about the physical process of sound production, which is called phonation.

Language Production

Have you made any sounds today? Maybe you had a conversation with someone, or even just said 'ouch!' when you stubbed your toe or burned your tongue. Even when we aren't producing full sentences, humans make sounds all the time.

Of course, sound production is absolutely vital for our use of language. The physical process behind sound production, called phonation, works the same way regardless of how much sound is being produced, or the reason for the sound.

The Physical Process

So how exactly does phonation work? To begin with, air is brought into the lungs. Without air, you can't produce sound. Try letting out a huge breath and then saying something. It doesn't work very well, does it? The more sound you want to produce, the more air you need to start with. That's why singers take big breaths before beginning a song, and why you need more air to yell than to whisper.

When you make a sound, the air from your lungs is pushed up through the glottis, which is the opening between your vocal folds, sometimes called vocal chords. Vocal folds are membranes stretched across the larynx, which is the organ that forms a passage to the lungs. The larynx holds the vocal folds and the glottis.

When air is pushed through the glottis, it causes pressure to drop in the larynx. This in turn makes the vocal folds vibrate, and this vibration is what produces 'voicing' (another name for physical sound that is produced in this way).

If you were to look at the vocal folds, when they are 'resting', they appear open, so the passage down the layrnx is unobstructed. When they are vibrating, the opening appears smaller or even closed, as the tension of the vibrating vocal folds stretches them across the larynx.

The larynx appears closed when the vocal folds are vibrating
Vocal Folds

Finally, the raw sound is filtered through a bunch of muscles in the mouth and throat called the vocal tract. These are all the muscles used in language production, such as the tongue, soft palate, hard palate, etc that make the individual sounds that we recognize as language.

Air is pushed through the glottis, making the vocal folds vibrate
Vocal Tract


Changes in pitch are also caused by this process. Pitch is the term we use for our perception of the frequency of sound. You've probably heard somebody described as having a 'high-pitched' voice. Or you might have heard someone talking to a baby or a dog. In America, people often use higher-pitched voices in those situations.

Changes in pitch are caused by changes in the vibration of the vocal folds. Higher pitched sounds are caused by a faster vibration, and higher tension in the folds themselves. Lower pitched sounds are caused by a slower vibration and less tension.

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