All singing begins in the brain. And so it can be helpful to understand how the brain and the sundry parts of it are made and connected to one another.
Now, lots of singers and teachers don't care a whit about this stuff, and that's totally fine. You can be a great teacher and singer without it. But for those like me who luuuuuv this stuff, it can be a way for singers to more deeply connect with their bodies and their voices that leads to more awe and respect for the wildly fascinating act we call singing. Learning more about this makes me appreciate all the things my voice can do even more. So let's learn about the central nervous system today!
The central nervous system, or CNS, is the mainframe of the body. It is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord. Broadly speaking, everything else, including nerves that come off the spinal cord and travel throughout the body, are part of the peripheral nervous system.
The brain is easily the part of the body that is the most complex, but also the most mysterious. We simply don't know everything about it, and probably never will. That means I'll never get bored because there's always more to learn! (By the way, anyone else get a little lost in the thought of using my brain in order to learn about my brain? It's delightfully circular. But I might just be the weird one here.) With all that we still don't know about the brain, there are some things that we do know, and we can start there with some of the biggest anatomical structures. If you want to get more detailed with any one of these structures, there are plenty of wonderful resources online that you can find through a search engine.
The brain itself has three big parts: the cerebrum. the cerebellum, and the brain stem.
The cerebrum is the biggest part and is divided into two hemispheres, the left brain and the right brain. Now, pop science for years suggested that the left brain was the more analytical side and the right the more creative side, but that is waaaaay to generalized to be useful thinking anymore. The truth is, unless there are certain dysfunctions happening, we use both sides pretty much all the time. The outer part of the cerebrum is covered in meninges, which are tough protective coverings. Then there's a layer of grey matter, which gives it the bumpy, wavy appearance on the surface. This grey matter houses a lot of the neurons, cells, and dendrites that are in the brain. (For more info on the parts of nerves, here's a blog post on that.) Under that is white matter, which is mostly the axons of the nerves moving from one place to another, like a huge connection of electrical lines all bunched up together or a bundle of fiber optic cables. The hemispheres are divided into four major lobes, illustrated in the colors in the graphic above, which are responsible for everything from thought to motion to sight to memory, and everything in between. (I've written about the temporal lobe and the occipital lobe already.)
The cerebellum is a smaller portion of the brain that is on the underside of the brain. You can see it in the graphic above as the white portion underneath the pink with all the black lines on it. Cerebellum is a Latin word that means "little brain." This area is largely responsible for motor control and motor learning, and damage to this area through injury or disease can result in things like tremor, spasms, and other types of movement dysfunction. There's been a pretty hefty focus lately on motor learning in voice science, so this area of the brain has been of big importance in recent research. I won't get into it much now, but you could get lost for days in that rabbit hole! Really fascinating stuff.
The brain stem is the portion of the brain that descends out of the midbrain and turns into the spinal cord. Most of the cranial nerves come out of this part, and many of our reflexes are controlled here, like respiration, heart rate, and even how loud we speak or sing in noisy environments. (Search for the Lombard Effect to see what I mean!)
The spinal cord comes out of the brain at the foramen magnum (Latin for "big hole," seriously) and travels down the spinal column, shooting nerves out all along the way to send motor instructions to various parts of the body, and collecting sensory nerves from the body to send back to the brain. The general tissue makeup is backwards from the brain, with the grey matter (cell nuclei and such) being on the inside and the white matter (axons, or the long parts, of the nerves) being on the outside. Now, while laryngeal motor control comes from Cranial Nerve X (Vagus) which comes from the cerebellum and not from the spinal cord, our spinal cord does essential work in giving the brain sensory feedback about our environment and helps us to move when we are emoting or executing our blocking in a show.
The work of the brain and spinal cord, also known as the central nervous system, are essential to our work as singers. They fascinate me to no end, and I hope learning more about even the basic parts of the CNS can help inspire you to respect and appreciate your body and your singing voice even more!
If you've got more questions, I'd be happy to meet with you for a Vocal Ped Party to go through more about how the brain works during our singing. You can book some time with me by clicking the button below.
Young, P.A. and Young, P.H. (1997). Basic Clinical Neuroanatomy. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.