Tongue root tension is a very common issue experienced by singers and speakers alike.
There are many causes of tongue root tension, but essentially it is the result of too much misplaced effort when using our voice. Effort that isn't released becomes tension and the tension can become a habit that you may not even notice.
Unlike most structures of the vocal anatomy, your tongue is easy to feel and can become the “go to” in all sorts of vocal tasks, such as projecting or singing high in your range. Tongue root tension can also happen when you are mentally or physically tired. If your body doesn't help to support your voice, your tongue can often kick in to try to stabilise it.
Unfortunately, this strategy is counterproductive. Before you know it, tongue root tension becomes part of your habit as a singer or speaker; you are left with a tight sensation under your chin and wondering why voicing feels so effortful.
A very brief overview of the tongue
The tongue isn’t just the tip that you can easily see. Like an iceberg, most of the tongue is hidden from view.
Instead of being just one muscle, the tongue is actually a set of very complex, sensitive and versatile layers of muscles. The main areas of the tongue are the:
Tension that starts in the tongue root tends to spread because the tongue is connected to many parts of your vocal anatomy including the larynx, soft palate, jaw, head and neck.
Five signs of tongue root tension
It's possible to feel tongue root tension physically, but if it is an entrenched habit you may only notice symptoms, such as:
1. Effortful singing and speaking
Tongue root tension will make you work harder than you need to. It's like trying to drive a car without disengaging the handbrake - the only way forward seems to be more and more power.
2. Scratchy vocal tone
Overworking will result in a scratchy, sore throat, You will sound husky and will struggle to get clear tone in your singing or speaking.
3. Reduced singing range
Tongue root tension can limit your range, both at the top and low end of your voice. Like that car with the handbrake on, your larynx isn't able to move freely and easily.
4. Monotonous speech
Just like singers, speakers need range, too. But if your larynx isn't free to move the options to vary your tone are very limited.
5. Muffled tone
The sound of your voice is throaty, swallowed or “froggy” - not clear and free.
If any of these signs feel or sound familiar, remember that you are not alone - tongue tension is a common issue experienced by everyone from beginners to professionals.
Now that you have more awareness, you can begin to release tongue tension and start the journey toward building new, efficient habits that prevent the tongue from getting involved when it shouldn't.
Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.