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SINGING & THE BRAIN: Neuro-Vocal Explained

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Your brain sings before you do.

As singers, voice teachers, and vocal coaches, understanding how our brains work in relation to singing can bring more freedom and joy to our singing, as well as enhancing our performance and teaching abilities. 

This ⬇️ is the model for Neuro-Vocal for Popular Styles. This post is going to walk you through each step in the wheel. My goal is to give you an understanding of some basic neuroscience along with why it might matter to you as a singer. 

If you find these ideas compelling, sign up for my mailing list at the end of this post! You’ll get training videos and articles for free, along with exclusive offers and discounts. I offer professional training in Neuro-Vocal for voice educators as well as singers, so let’s keep in touch!

1. Motor Memories

Motor memories, which can also be called procedural memory or implicit memory, are most commonly referred to as muscle memory. It refers to how you do all the things you do automatically and unconsciously.

Your brain has a massive library of motor memories, and you access and use them constantly as you move through your day. You created each one of these memories - from the simple to the complex - by repeating a task enough times for your brain to build an unconscious memory that was specific to the task. From the way you picked up a cup when you were a toddler, to the way you learned to hold a pencil and write, to the way you learned to sing! 

It can be a bumpy ride to create a motor memory. Learning to use that cup when you were a toddler involved a lot of spilling before you became the brilliantly adept cup-user you are today. Learning something difficult, like playing an instrument, or playing basketball, or for many people, singing, can take a while. Your body has to match your intention for an outcome with the actual outcome enough times for you to get the hang of things. So, while many motor memories are built unconsciously, some take a commitment of time and attention to build.

Building reliable motor memories means having an intention to do a thing, and doing that thing in the same way over and over. It takes time for your brain to make the connection that this behavior needs to be moved into that long-term storage pile of “stuff we do unconsciously.” 

Movements that feel easy and natural to you are indications that you have a strong motor memory for that thing. So if you want something to be easy - whether it’s singing in a high mix or accompanying yourself on guitar - then you have to do it enough times to build that motor memory. You have to do it often enough and in a predictable enough way that your brain goes, “Oh…ok. So this is a thing now. We’re doing this now.” 

No matter how smart or talented you are, it takes repetition over time  for a behavior to become natural, easy, and automatic. And if that’s what you want from your singing, then it’s worth the investment to create strong motor memories around the skills you want. 

If you’d like to know more about brains and movement, watch this video by neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, The Real Reason For Brains.

2. Predictive Brain 

How does your brain know what motor memories you’ll need as you move through your day? How does it know how to help you meet your intention to pour your coffee, walk your dog, or sing?

Your brain predicts what you’re going to need - both the invisible needs of all the things humming along in the background of your physiology, like chemicals, hormones, and energy, and your conscious behaviors. Your brain has evolved to predict what you’ll need during every waking moment. 

Your brain predicts (mostly) based on two sets of data: sensory input and memories.

All through your waking hours your body is collecting sensory data. Your ears, eyes, mouth, and skin all collect sensory data about your environment all the time. Your brain then processes that sensory data and tries to make sense of it. It does that by combining this sensory information with stuff it already knows; memories. Then it makes predictions about what you’ll need. 

The memories it accesses include your motor memories. So, as you’re predicting how far you need to reach to grab that pen, your brain is using sensory data from your eyes and body, adding that to what it already knows about grabbing pens, and making its best guess about what will be needed to meet your intention to pick up that pen. 

Your motor memories and your predictive brain work together all day, every day to let you move confidently through your world. 

If you’d like to learn more about the predictive brain, watch this video of Cognitive Philosophy professor Andy Clark, who has written books and journal articles on the subject.

3. Interoception

When you think of your senses, you probably think of the senses that gather information from the outside world, like hearing, vision, or taste. The senses you may not think much about are called “somatosensory.” Under the somatosensory umbrella are senses that monitor things like balance, pain, your body’s position in space, and temperature. 

One of those senses is called interoception. Interoception is the name of the sense that monitors what’s going on inside your body, and how things feel inside your body. 

Your brain constantly receives interoceptive messages about your body’s internal environment, keeping track of things like glucose, epinephrine, oxygen, and hormones. Your internal environment triggers interoceptive messages to your brain, and responds to messages from your brain. 

Most of these interoceptive messages just hum along silently in the background of your day. Sometimes, though, you can become aware of them. 

Hunger or thirst, for instance, are interoceptive messages you’re typically aware of. When you exert energy and you feel your heart and lungs working hard, that’s an interoceptive awareness.

Movement is an opportunity to become aware of interoceptive messages. Mindfulness practices use this principle by recommending times for focus on the gentle movements generated by breathing or a heartbeat. 

Phonating  (the science word for making a sound with your voice) is a type of movement. When you phonate you move your respiratory system, and your phonatory system (again, your voice) to generate sound. 

Both these movements of both your body - the breathing and the sound making - and the vibrating air you create when you phonate can be experienced in an interoceptive way. While the movements are small and easy to ignore, it’s possible to notice them. As we learn in Neuro-Vocal training, you can teach your brain to be aware of those little movements in a big way! 

If you’d like to understand interoception more, read this article by Kim Armstrong. (It features some of my favorite neuro-nerds!)

4. Attention

Fun fact about your sensory receptors: your eyes, ears, skin, mouth, and nose are all passive. They’re just there on your outsides, receiving anything that bumps into them. If you and your friend are talking, you don’t notice the other sounds in your environment. But they’re there! Your ears receive all the sound waves at once. They can't help it. But you won’t notice sounds beyond your conversation unless they're either very disruptive, or you choose to.

Imagine being aware of all the things, all the time! All the things your eyes, ears and nose could perceive, along with all the things you were touching and were touching you... It’s too much! You need a filter! 

So... how do you filter out some of the stuff from all of the stuff? 

You use your superpower, which is called selective attention, or your attention spotlight. Your attention spotlight allows you to point your attention to the thing that is important to you in the moment. For instance, say you’re reading, or working on your computer, and you hear someone say your name. Your attention will shift from what you’re doing to the sound of a voice saying your name. 

The reason your attention spotlight is your neurological superpower is because it lets you meet your intentions, have agency in your actions, and manage your cognitive resources. It does a lot. Sometimes you’re being very deliberate in how you’re focusing your attention, and sometimes, your attention spotlight is being whipped around as your brain tries to process a lot all at once.

This matters for singers. When you’re in a performance situation, your attention typically goes a little haywire. Unless you’re in a situation that is extremely familiar to you, your attention is not entirely on your singing. It’s on the space, the people, the lights, the sounds…all the things that are different and that your brain has decided are important. 

That’s a pretty big deal, especially when it comes to sound. When we pay attention to how we sound when we’re practicing, then we learn to relate to our singing in a very specific way. Then when we get on the mic, with the band, in the new space, and everything is different, more often than not we’re unable to rely on what we taught ourselves when we practiced in our home, or car, or shower.

Another reason it matters is that, using your attention spotlight along with interoception, you can teach your brain to relate to your singing in a different way. It’s a skill and it’s a process, and it’s worth the payoff. This is what Neuro-Vocal teaches, and when you get the hang of it and experience the freedom it brings, it’s really amazing. 

If you'd like a short & sweet video about attention and multitasking, check out this delightful short by Khan Academy. If you want to dig deeper, this article from Quanta Magazine makes sense of some current research into how attention works in the brain.

5. Phonation

Phonation is a fancy word for making sound with your voice. It doesn’t refer to a certain kind of sound. In Neuro-Vocal training, we learn to phonate in a way that’s not singing, talking, or some other sound we know well. We learn to simply phonate; to make a sound with the voice. 

What I’ve found in my work with Neuro-Vocal is that there is a sneakily powerful tool in developing the ability to simply phonate; to make a sound with your voice in which you’re discovering or experiencing an outcome rather than creating an outcome. Easier to say than do, but we have some terrific brain-centric tools to help get people there. 

Phonating without singing is something that voice teachers and vocal coaches use a lot. They ask singers to make noises, to make sighing or yawning sounds, or to mimic a siren. These are all sounds that are neither singing or talking. 

You may have found these to be really effective in your studio. They can be effective because they allow the singer to phonate without tapping into a hard and fast motor memory; without tapping into a motor memory that’s all wrapped up in concepts around how singing should sound. 

What I’ve heard from voice pros is that sometimes these noise-making techniques work really well - they’re great tools - but often the results aren’t very reliable. I suspect that this is because in this context they operate more like stand-alone techniques rather than principles of an integrated system. Singing is an integrated system. Adding an isolated behavior on top of an integrated system will work from time to time, but is unlikely to deliver consistent outcomes.

Understanding the previous four stops on the NVM wheel will help you make sense of this:

When people learn how to use attention to teach their brains how to predict for a specific interoceptive experience of their voice, things change. The brain follows the feeling that follows the brain. 

It’s a really exciting process. When singers learn how to phonate in this way (assuming they do not have a vocal injury or pathology) it seems to set their singing free. When people learn to access their voice in a way that allows a new interoceptive experience, things happen. 

  • You find you can sustain a pitch without thinking that you’re singing, and so any attendant limitations (we all have them!) are not engaged. 

  • You might notice that you’re paying more attention to how your phonation feels to you, rather than judging how it sounds. 

  • You’ll probably notice that you don’t have to think about breathing, because your muscles of respiration (what voice teachers often call “support” muscles) engage in the process naturally and organically. 

  • Most importantly for singing all the styles we sing in amplified situations, this approach keeps you focused on your own, internal experience of your voice. 

  • This makes amplified situations vocally sustainable for singers. 

  • It seems to empower singers to make different and more personal choices than they might otherwise have.

  • Phonating in this way typically frees the singer up to get past issues like registration challenges and vocal fatigue.

In the interest of being simple and short, this explanation of how Neuro-Vocal approaches singing for popular styles was, well…simple and short. Working with it is a bit more nuanced, but it’s also refreshingly straightforward and freeing. 

If you’d like more information on Neuro-Vocal Teacher Training & Certification, click here to see the info page

If you’d like to stay in touch, fill out the form below and get a free download of my Ebook,

Making Them Stick: An Independent Voice Teacher’s Guide to Attracting & Keeping Singers of Popular Styles.

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#meredithcolby blog post about the #brainscience behind #neurovocal #neuro-vocal. This post contains #freedownload of an original #ebook about #bandsingers, #singersongwriters, and how voice professionals can help them. Meredith is a #voicecoach, a #vocalcoach, and a #voiceteacher from #chicago. She helps #voiceteachers and #vocalcoaches teach for #popularstyles and #microphonestyles by teaching privately, supplying helpful content, and offering a #certificationclass in #neurovocalmethod.

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