Have you heard a newborn baby cry? It’s haunting, beautiful, and stressful to hear sometimes.
Screams are hard to describe or categorize as one thing. They're primal and distinctive, but they mean different things in different contexts to different people. One thing is certain though: screaming can be healthy, can be cathartic, and can strengthen your voice!
To best understand screams, we need to understand some basic vocal knowledge.
What Exactly Is the Voice??
Our voice- either speaking or singing- is created through a team effort of body parts. The star of the show is our vocal folds- two narrow blobs of tissue that vibrate together when air passes through them, creating soundwaves. The vocal folds need a lot of backstage support from our lungs, diaphragm, and abdomen to do their job though. They need just the right amount of air to create those vibrations clearly without getting worn out! And we mustn’t forget the sound design team: our throat, nasal cavity, mouth, tongue, teeth and lips; these ones take the little vibrations our breath and vocal folds make and turn them into words and sounds. The whole team creates communication. Our voice is one of the main ways we communicate with others.
How Do Screams Fit into My Voice?
The profile of sound waves our voice usually creates when we speak or sing is really different from how Jared Leto sounds during a 30 Seconds to Mars concert. So, what gives? To begin, you should know the more scientific name for screaming is vocal distortions. There are many ways our body can create vocal distortions, and today I’ll mention the most common.
Most vocal distortion is created in one or both of two ways: 1. Tissues in our throat OTHER THAN our vocal folds vibrate chaotically, and/or 2. Our vocal folds vibrate in an atypical way.
False Fold Screams
Their technical name is the vestibular folds. They’re two folds of soft tissue that cover ligaments in your larynx. They’re positioned just above our vocal folds, and run parallel to them. Our vestibular folds are THICC. They help protect our airway and keep our vocal folds lubricated. They’re commonly called false folds or false cords because they look like part of our vocal folds at first glance, but they aren’t.
Our false folds don’t vibrate together by default. They usually keep a comfortable distance from each other and focus on protecting their respective vocal fold chilling underneath them. False fold screaming gives them a special assignment and gets them working together to create erratic vibrations. By opening our vocal folds wide (and not using them) to let a bunch of air through our throat, we can get the false folds slapping together to create really edgy screams.
Here’s a demonstration of a false fold scream during a laryngoscopy so you can see how the tissues in your vocal tract would behave: https://youtu.be/T3jRE2SPv-w?t=17
Ary-what? Let me explain.
If you haven’t met your epiglottis, it’s a large, “Pringle chip” shaped piece of cartilage that sits just behind your tongue, and it moves around when you speak and sing. Notably, your epiglottis moves back into your throat when you swallow to close and protect your airway from whatever it is you’re swallowing. It so happens that connected to both the left and right sides of your epiglottis are folds of soft tissue called the aryepiglottic folds. Yep- we’re back to folds- hooray!
Aryepiglottic screaming is distortion created by pulling the epiglottis back a bit, which allows the aryepiglottic folds to become slack so they can flap in the wind. With the proper amount of airflow, these folds vibrate in a rhythm that creates a juicy, growly distortion that we can use without our voice, or WITH it (cue Christina Aguilera).
Aryepiglottic vibrations by themselves lack a clear pitch and much volume, but paired with our regular singing (which they almost are), they can sound AMAZING.
Here’s a great video showing what aryepiglottic vibrations both look and sound like: https://youtu.be/Ua8SuWNPrLE?t=2067
Not to be confused with “vocal fry”- the slow, croaky sound your voice makes below the lowest notes you can sing. Fry screams are sizzle-y, creaky screams that set themselves apart from false fold and aryepiglottic screams by using our actual vocal folds to create the scream. When we create complete adduction – closure – of our vocal folds with a certain tension, and then push significant air pressure through them, our vocal folds vibrate atypically, creating a primal sounding scream! This scream is quieter compared to the other two, but can sound pretty gnarly! You’ll want a mic to make the most of it.
Oli Sykes from Bring Me the Horizon is a great example of someone who uses fry screams. Here’s a clip of him doing a long fry scream during his performance with Ed Sheeran at the 2022 BRIT awards: https://youtu.be/HuzlYAMwwJY?t=230
And here's an example of fry scream during a laryngoscopy: https://youtu.be/T3jRE2SPv-w?t=118
Learn Clean Singing First
Screaming is easier and safer to learn after you’ve strengthened your clean singing technique. There’s a greater wealth of knowledge around clean singing, and studying it strengthens most of the same muscles and functions you need for screaming. At this point, screams haven’t been researched and codified as much as clean singing has. This all adds up to a lower risk of injury and a shorter learning curve with clean singing than screaming.
Every reputable vocal coach can teach you clean singing, but not every vocal coach can teach you to scream properly. Shameless plug: I can!
For experienced singers who go through their range in a healthy mix, I encourage you to dive into vocal distortions. They give you more colors to paint with, and they challenge your vocal mastery. As I learned to scream, my first and second bridges became easier to navigate, and I could sustain long phrases more easily. I think this is because of the intense breath pressure required for screams, and in the case of fry screaming, the intense adduction of the vocal folds. Whatever the reasons – my WHOLE voice got stronger while I learned to scream.
NOW You’re Pumped!
Now that you understand what your voice is capable of and your dream is to be the lead singer of a metal band, you may be asking, “How do I start?”
I’ve done my job well. The short answer is - book a voice lesson! Preferably with me :) You can click here to see my availability.
While it would be convenient if you could learn it all from a blog post or a video, screaming is SO individual and can take some getting used to. A vocal coach will give you immediate feedback and you’ll learn safer and faster. If you’re eager for more introductory info in the meantime, I recommend checking out RiffShop on YouTube. Also check future posts in this very blog for detailed breakdowns of the most common types of screams and how to start doing them yourself.
"Thank You for Being Here Today"
I hope you enjoyed the read, and I hope you’ve gained a greater appreciation for screaming. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a great tool for musical expression. Plus, you can freak out your relatives at the next family dinner!