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You say "Vocal Cords." I say "Vocal Folds." Let's call the whole thing off!

Okay, admittedly that was a terrible title trying to draw on a popular song, but stick with me. (And in case you need a little Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire fix...on ROLLER SKATES, no less...I threw that video at the bottom of this blog.)

When we're talking about the two strands of tissue in the larynx that we use to make sound, we can hear two different names: the vocal cords or the vocal folds. Why the difference? Does it matter which term you use in the studio? Is this just another hill of beans that voice teachers have erected on which to die?

That last question may be a bit dramatic, but let's face it, sometimes just using a perceived incorrect term in an online forum can get you pilloried, and I want to avoid that for all of us. Some colleagues can act as terminology gatekeepers, and that's not kind or fair. That said, we do tend to use vocal folds in modern parlance, and that's what you'll see in the literature more often.

Here's why:

In essence, the modern term vocal folds has come around to wide acceptance to more accurately describe the structure and function of the tissue. The image of a cord is of a single strand that vibrates when plucked. And that term made a lot of sense before we got to a deeper anatomical understanding of the structure and function of the vocal folds. Now we know that the vocal muscle in the center of the folds really doesn't vibrate, but it's the outer layers that does all the vibrating in phonation. Vocal folds also implies multiples, which accurately describes the multiple layers. This is a little bit of hair-splitting, since vocal cords also implies multiples, but the connotation is more of just two cords, the two sides of the TA, rather than multiple layers on both sides.

I see a potential problem in the use of folds, too, because I think some people can perceive that to mean that the tissue is folded in multiple ways all around itself, like a stack of sheets in a linen closet. The layers do fold around the central muscle and ligament, but only wrapping around once, forming a loose half-circle of tissue. The idea of "folding" tissue can make one think of something more akin to the folds in the brain sometimes. So I'm not absolutely positive that vocal folds is the term we'll stick with forever, but for now, it's the accepted term.

Does this matter to you or your students?

Maybe, maybe not.

You get to decide how picky you want to be about terminology in your own teaching. For most singers who will not go on to do any advanced study in singing or in voice science, I say it's perfectly fine to use the term they are most comfortable with. You can, of course, teach them whatever you want them to know, so you can certainly explain why we call them folds instead of cords. In the parlance of the general public, most people still call them vocal cords, so I think that's what most singers are going to be most familiar with, and it may be confusing to call them something different. Again, you get to decide how to approach that in your studio.

I do think, however, that if you have a client who does plan to enter advanced study and will rub shoulders with academics or voice scientists in any kind of capacity, they should be educated on the current accepted terms and the reasons why. Again, it's not fair, but using an incorrect term can put someone on the wrong foot with a terminological gatekeeper, and we want to steer your students away from that, if we can.

What do you call them in your teaching? Will you adopt any changes to terminology in your own studio? I'd love to hear what you're doing and why. Feel free to comment below, or send me a message! And if you want to know more about the structure and function of the vocal folds, I'm here for it. You can book a private Vocal Ped Party to ask any questions you have about the anatomy of the voice. No question is off limits. Click on the button below to book your spot.

Happy teaching!


Hixon, T. J., Weismer, G., and Hoit, J. (2014). Preclinical Speech Science: Anatomy, Physiology, Acoustics, Perception, Second Edition. Plural Publishing.

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