Vocal Fry and How to Use It in Your Voice
It’s been called annoying, destructive and an epidemic.
Some even say it ruins your voice.
But everyone from Marge Simpson to Kim Kardashian use it regularly.
So what is this dangerous and mysterious vocal effect?
Relax people, it’s just vocal fry.
And depending on how you use it, it just might be your new best friend.
Chances are you’re already familiar with vocal fry.
You may know it as your morning voice, “lazy” voice or having a frog in your throat.
It can be used in speech like in the way that Katy Perry and Scarlett Johansson talk.
You can hear Katy Perry speaking in vocal fry at the end of most of her sentences in this YouTube interview:
Or take a listen to the way that Bradley Cooper used vocal fry to portray the drunk musician Jackson Maine in A Star is Born.
Vocal fry has also been used in singing by everyone from Britney Spears to Tom Waits to make their music sound cooler and more emotional.
As a voice teacher, I see students who use vocal fry all the time.
And the truth is that vocal fry can be a really useful vocal technique to use.
So today, I wanted to take a moment to talk about vocal fry. Then I’ll show you the 5 most common ways you can use vocal fry in your own voice.
What Is Vocal Fry Anyway?
So what creates that deep, croaky vocal fry sound that Katy Perry, Zooey Deschanel and Scarlett Johansson use when they speak?
Here’s what you need to know:
Vocal fry, also known as “pulse” or “vibrational mode 0”, is the lowest vocal register.
What’s a vocal register?
A vocal register is a series of notes with a similar sound that comes from a distinct way the vocal cords vibrate.
The main vocal registers from low to high are:
Head Voice and…
And each of these vocal registers have a different sound that comes from the way the vocal cords vibrate.
Here’s what you need to know:
Vocal Registers 101
Here’s the way it works:
When you sing or speak, the air from your lungs rises into your throat and meets your vocal cords.
The vocal cords open and close anywhere from hundreds to thousands of times a second, chopping up the air.
This opening and closing of the cords creates vibrations that get shaped by your throat, mouth, teeth and tongue.
And we hear your voice.
Now in every vocal register, the cords vibrate somewhat differently. And this changes the way your voice sounds.
Vocal Fry Register
So what creates that croaky, vocal fry register?
In vocal fry, the vocal cords are short and thick creating a very slow vibration.
Think of a thick guitar string.
If the string is thick, it vibrates slower and you hear a low note.
Getting your vocal cords to the right thickness or thinness is how you sing on pitch.
In vocal fry, the vocal cords are short, thick and very loose. So the cords vibrate much slower and don’t close nearly as tightly as they do in the other registers.
These vibrations are so slow that you can literally hear the air bubbling through your vocal cords.
And that’s what creates that deep, creaky sound!
So now that you understand how vocal fry happens, it’s time for the hard question: is vocal fry safe?
Is Vocal Fry Harmful?
All the controversy around vocal fry can distract you from what’s important:
Is speaking and singing in vocal fry safe?
Fortunately, vocal science tells us that vocal fry is totally safe and not harmful for your voice.
This makes sense since in vocal fry, the vocal cords are very loose and the breath pressure is so low.
That means there’s very little vocal tension in fry.
But always remember this:
If you feel any pain or discomfort when singing or speaking in vocal fry, you are doing something wrong.
Just like any other vocal register, vocal fry is totally safe to use as long as it feels relaxed and comfortable to you.
Unfortunately, some singers and speakers will tighten up their voice to make their vocal fry sound stronger.
But this compression can also add more pressure to the vocal cords.
And if you press the cords too much, it’s possible to damage your voice.
So if you’re going to speak or sing in vocal fry, make sure that you’re keeping your voice very relaxed.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s how to find vocal fry in your own voice:
Find Your Vocal Fry With This Simple Exercise
Here’s how you do it:
1. Pretend that you’re waking up in the morning and say an “uh” vowel (as in “other”).
2. Next, say and hold the “uh” sound but don’t allow any vocal tone or pitch into your voice. You want to keep everything very relaxed and croaky sounding.
3. Finally, make sure that nothing in your voice is tight or compressed and that you’re not pushing your voice to get a lot of volume.
Here’s a video to walk you through this exercise:
Do you feel that deep, creaky sound?
That’s vocal fry!
So now that you understand how to find vocal fry in your voice, here’s how you can use it!
Vocal Fry in Singing
As soon as you heard the opening line from Britney Spears’ 1998 smash single “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, you knew it would be a hit.
But what you may not have realized is that Britney Spears was using vocal fry to make that opening line sizzle.
Listen to that deep, creaky sound on the words “Oh baby baby”.
But Britney’s not alone!
The truth is that lots of singers use vocal fry in their music.
So why are artists from Lorde to Leonard Cohen using vocal fry in their singing?
Well, there are lots of great reasons to use vocal fry in singing.
Here are the 5 most common ways you can use vocal fry:
Vocal Fry Technique #1: Use Vocal Fry To Add Emotion
Many artists who use vocal fry in their singing do it for emotional effect.
Since many of us use vocal fry naturally when we’re feeling tired, emotional or sensual, vocal fry is one of the easiest ways to create a mood in your singing.
Like I mentioned, Britney Spears used it in “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to create a sensual mood.
In another example, Tom Waits uses vocal fry to sound vulnerable and homesick in his beautiful ballad “Day After Tomorrow”.
And just look at how different those two songs are!
One is a Top 40 pop song. The other is a folk ballad.
The truth is you can use vocal fry pretty much anywhere in commercial music to add more emotion to a song.
I like to think of vocal fry as another tool or vocal exercise you can use to improve your singing.
So if you’re looking to sound more emotional in the song you’re singing, try singing a few words or phrases in vocal fry.
In fact, here’s a video where I show you how to add vocal fry to add emotion:
Vocal Fry Technique #2: Hit Lower Notes with Vocal Fry
We now know that vocal fry happens when the vocal cords are very loose and vibrate slowly.
But did you know that that’s exactly how you sing lower notes in your voice?
Just like a guitar string, if the vocal cords are thick, we get a nice low note.
So many singers instinctively use vocal fry to hit notes they can’t reach with their regular voice.
A great example of this is Lorde’s piano ballad “Liability”.
At the end of the first verse, Lorde growls out the word “poison” in a low vocal fry.
But she’s not the only one using vocal fry to sing lower!
Take a listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On The Wire”.
Earlier in his career, Cohen sang those notes with his normal voice, but as he got older and lost some vocal range, he started using vocal fry more and more.
Take a listen to gospel singer Tim Storms who uses vocal fry all the time to sing lower notes in his songs:
Pretty amazing, huh?
Actually, vocal fry vibrates so slowly that you can use it to hit notes up to 8 octaves lower than your chest voice.
So if you’re having trouble singing low notes in your voice, try singing them with vocal fry.
In fact, here’s a video where I show you how to get lower notes with vocal fry:
Vocal Fry Technique #3: Get Your Metal Growl with Vocal Fry
Vocal fry can also be really helpful for metal singers who are trying to find their metal “growl” without ruining their voices.
Here’s a song by the band Arch Enemy where the vocalist sings with a growl for most of the song:
Listen to how powerful that sounds!
But remember, you don’t want to push or strain with vocal fry!
Instead, voice teachers found that starting with vocal fry can be a great way of teaching vocalists to sing more aggressive vocal effects.
Then with training, singers can add more tone and volume, until they get the powerful, distorted sound they want.
Getting these vocal effects is the basis of several different popular singing techniques.
And this approach makes sense since the cords are so relaxed in vocal fry.
So if you’re looking to learn how to metal growls safely, start making those sounds with vocal fry.
Here’s a video where I show you how to get your metal edge with vocal fry:
Vocal Fry Technique #4: Use Vocal Fry to Sing in Head Voice
Vocal fry isn’t just for metal singers!
Another fantastic use for vocal fry is to help you sing high notes more smoothly.
Here’s the deal:
Many singers have a hard time singing high notes without breaking or straining.
But some voice teachers found that it’s easier to switch from vocal fry into the top part of your voice (the head voice) without straining.
Again, this makes sense since the cords are so loose and relaxed in vocal fry.
So switching back and forth between fry and head voice can help you sing those high notes more easily.
Here’s a cool video where the teacher shows how to go back and forth between fry and head voice.
So if you’re having trouble with your vocal break, start singing in vocal fry then switch to your head voice.
Vocal Fry Technique #5: Reduce Tension with the Vocal Fry
Another great use for vocal fry is getting rid of vocal tension when you sing.
Too many people compress their vocal cords too much when they sing.
But if the cords are too pressed, it’s easy to damage your voice.
So some speech language pathologists use vocal fry to reduce tension in the voice.
Again this makes sense since the vocal cords are so relaxed in fry.
So if you feel that you have too much tension when you sing or speak, try to use some vocal fry to get a more relaxed vocal sound.
In this video, I use the example of the character “Dwight Schrute” from The Office to demonstrate how to unpress the vocal cords:
Now that you understand how vocal fry can be used to sing better, let’s talk about how people use vocal fry when they speak.
Vocal Fry in Speaking
To some it sounded like wealth, success and a new wave of celebrities from Los Angeles.
To others, it was just annoying.
But when “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” came out in 2007, it was obvious there was something different about the way Kim and her family talked:
The Kardashians spoke in vocal fry.
In fact, here’s a full minute of Kim Kardashian speaking in vocal fry:
But Kim wasn’t the first.
Before the Kardashians, there was Elmer Fudd and Marge Simpson.
And in the real world Scarlett Johansson and Zooey Deschanel also spoke in that signature creaky voice.
But there’s no doubt about it:
The Kardashians made vocal fry famous.
And as celebrities began speaking this way, more and more young people (especially women) started speaking with vocal fry.
But in the early 2010s there was a huge backlash again using vocal fry!
There was an explosion of articles and videos on the “epidemic” of vocal fry in speaking.
Here’s an example of one of the videos from around that time:
And all of a sudden, everyone became of how much people (especially women) were using vocal fry.
Unfortunately, vocal fry became a buzzword that was used to criticize the way that young women spoke.
Ira Glass even did a great story on this for This American Life after some listeners complained about one reporter’s voice.
In the story, Ira admitted that he uses vocal fry, but that no one criticizes him for it.
And this double standard for both genders using vocal fry is everywhere!
Actor Rami Malek and writer Noam Chomsky are both well-known examples of men who use vocal fry.
But, for some reason, they don’t seem to receive the same criticism as young women who use it.
However, there is one problem with vocal fry that seems to affect men and women equally.
Here’s what it is:
The Real Problem With Vocal Fry
The real problem with vocal fry is not that it sounds “croaky” or “lazy”.
The real problem with vocal fry is that it may make you sound less credible to some people.
Studies show that use of vocal fry can result in people seeming less authoritative, which means that if you need to give a speech or are interviewing for a position, vocal fry may hurt more than it helps.
And rather than sounding emotional or vulnerable like in singing, vocal fry in speaking can be perceived as lazy or timid.
But studies show that this perceived lack of authority only seems to affect people 40 and older.
And even though this sounds a bit ageist, it makes some sense:
After all, using vocal fry all the time when you speak is a pretty new thing.
Since vocal fry only really became mainstream after 2007, there are a lot of people who did not grow up hearing this as a normal speech sound.
How We Use Vocal Fry In Normal Speech
You may think that you never speak in vocal fry. But even if you’re not a Kardashian, odds are you still use it as a part of your everyday speech.
That’s because most people use vocal fry when they’re finishing a sentence.
In the Western world, we tend to end our statements with a lower intonation than the beginning of the statement. This lower intonation makes our statements sound more declarative.
And as we lower our pitch and start to run out of breath, most of us naturally switch to vocal fry to finish our statements.
But don’t blame it on the Kardashians!
Actually, thanks in part to Kim and her sisters, vocal fry is now just a normal part of speech that most people use.
And as vocal fry continues to be a part of our culture, more people will get used to hearing it.
By now you understand what creates vocal fry and how to use it in your voice.
You also know vocal fry is totally safe to use as long as you don’t tighten or push your voice too much.
And since the vocal cords are a bit more loose in vocal fry, this technique is great for adding emotion to your singing and speaking.
The only real problem with vocal fry is that you may be seen as less credible if you use it too much with people that aren’t used to hearing it.
So if you’re in a situation where you’re being judged on your qualifications (such as a job interview or presentation), you may want to consider using more of your speaking voice to project confidence.
However, as long as people continue using vocal fry, it’s likely that everyone will get used to it.