You’ve probably woken up late more than a few times in your life. It’s okay, nobody’s judging! Well, maybe your boss did, or that date you made wait for an hour because you took a nap. But, did you ever notice how it affected your voice, made it creakier, lower, like Leonard Cohen? You may have been unconsciously doing vocal fry there!
Now, what is vocal fry, you may ask? In layman’s terms, it’s when the edge of your voice croaks, creaks, and rasps. It’s that stereotypical sound now associated with socialites and Kim Kardashian types.
In fact, some have been going as far as to say that it’s an epidemic!
Yes, vocal fry has its detractors, and it is generally not desirable in every milieu; it can be a powerful tool for a pro’s vocal arsenal. In fact, it’s an extremely sought after skill in singing, where adding rasp can make a significant difference!
Today, we’ll learn all about what makes vocal rasp happen and the contexts in which it can be used. We’ll also go over some of the social ramifications and cultural tropes that have come with it. If you’ve got a project lined up and need to hire a vocal pro, you may be thinking about which qualities their voice should have. Vocal fry is definitely not something to be used lightly, but it can work like gangbusters when it does!
Here, let’s take a peek inside this vocal phenomenon!
If you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
This post has been updated in August 2021.
What is vocal fry anyway?
Vocal fry is actually no more than a vocal register. It has more colloquial names that you can throw a tomato at. Here, check out some of the ones that Wikipedia offers: pulse register, laryngealization, pulse phonation, creak, croak, popcorning, glottal fry, glottal rattle, glottal scrape, or strohbass. Whew! That made me tired just from reading it!
Know what the glottis is? It’s the opening between the vocal folds! When vocal fry occurs, less air than normal passes through a loose glottis. Think of it as a tarp that hasn’t been well fastened. The resulting gentle flapping leads to the telltale croaky or bubbly sound. The vocal fry sound is also characterized by being of a very low frequency. In fact, it’s been recognized as the lowest vocal register.
The classification of vocal fry as a register in and of it itself took a while to gain a foothold. While it was discussed in the field of phonetics and speech therapy, it became noticed by musical pedagogists in the 70s. Margaret Greene, a vocal pedagogist, videotaped vocal fry occurring and provided evidence to catalog it as a vocal register. It has:
- A particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds.
- Its own set of pitches.
- A sound that distinguishes it from other registers.
In fact, well-controlled practitioners of this register can reach notes that are far below modal voice, the most common vocal register. Singer Tim Storms has the record for the lowest recorded notes. He can go as low as a G−7, a sound inaudible to the human ear at a frequency of 0.189 Hz!
So what’s wrong about vocal fry anyway?
You’ve probably read some article or another denigrating vocal fry. This may be due to the fact that it’s become a trend among certain demographics, mostly twentysomething women in the developed world. It’s been derogatorily referred to as “Kardashianing”, from socialite cum-social media star Kim Kardashian.
Just read the opening paragraph in this Mental Floss article; “You may have heard of the linguistic fad that’s creeping into U.S. speech and undermining your job chances. Or maybe you know it as the ‘debilitating speaking disorder afflicting North American women’ or the ‘verbal tic of doom.’”
“Verbal tic of doom?” Methinks they doth protest too much. But wait, is it true that it’s affecting women’s chances of getting a job? In fact, yes! As with any fad, vocal fry has its own set of prejudices and unconscious biases to contend with. Just compare it with its “Yin” cousin, Upspeak.
While Upspeak is your typical valley girl accent and intonation, it includes its own vocabulary and linguistic principles. Vocal fry — as we’ve seen above — is more about a particular quality of the vocal register. Here’s two Game of Thrones stars spoofing Valley Girl Accents, just because I love you.
And nobody seems to know with much certainty why vocal fry is being decried. A study conducted by journal PLOS One conducted with 800 participants tried assessing qualities on a scale. They were asked about their impressions on which were more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive, and appealing as a job candidate. People with vocal fry did outstandingly poorly; with men, participants preferred normal voices by 83%, with women it was 86%.
This led to journals like the Atlantic bemoaning this fact and attempting to offer explanations.
Experts chime in
Dr. Reena Gupta shared her opinion on the matter:
“The researchers in the Journal of Voice study observed that women were much more likely to exhibit fry than men. Earlier studies showed that this vocal creak was associated, in women, with being educated, urban-oriented and upwardly mobile. There’s a theory that because the rumbling, deep male voice is perceived as being authoritative, perhaps that is why women are emulating it. It may even be subconscious.”
It may be as easy as understanding that lower voices seem to correlate with higher echelons of power. It’s even been shown that executives with deeper voices tend to make $170000 more on average!
Another PLOS One Study in 2012 concluded that, especially with women, we hold lower voices in more esteem for leadership positions. They tested these conditions with several gender-equal groups of different ages. Across demographics, they found these amazing unconscious preferences:
“In hypothetical elections for two such positions, men and women listened to pairs of male and female voices that differed only in pitch and were asked which of each pair they would vote for. As in previous studies, men and women preferred female candidates with masculine voices. Likewise, men preferred men with masculine voices. Women, however, did not discriminate between male voices.”
But, even with that knowledge, it’s dangerous to conflate vocal fry with a low voice. Whilst it does allow one to go lower than normal, it doesn’t convey the same full-bodied pitch. And, as we have seen, with the scores of prejudices against it, it may be best to hold off on the fry in job interviews.
Vocal fry in singing
This is an extremely interesting territory. I’m betting you’ve enjoyed the work of certain gravelly-throated singers in your day. Whether it be country, rock, metal, or even pop music. From Chris Cornell to Janis Joplin, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, etc. — all raspy. It’s an extremely sought-after trait in the vocal world.
For singing, vocal fry conveys grit, authenticity, and it makes each ragged note sound like an all-out effort. Each performance seems like a hard-won struggle against physical limitations, with passages being achieved just by the skin of the singer’s teeth. But, in actuality, that’s not really the case!
Singing courses explain it better than I would. To make it short: singing with vocal fry used to by this sort of mystical, fantastical technique. Everybody wanted to do it, but nobody knew how to achieve it in a healthy way. And health is really the point here. Those who had it and managed to sing like that night after night didn’t really know how to convey it. What’s worse: from an onlooker’s perspective, it seemed like they were just screaming.
But in fact, the vocal fry can be a healthy part of vocal compression. It becomes a sound that’s overlaid on a normal, well-pitched, well-resonated signing. If done in a healthy way, it becomes this killer technique in a singer’s arsenal. They can sing with rasp across pitches, and with different levels of distortion.
Case-in-point: like scream music? I know I sometimes do. Wonder how those magnificent screams are achieved? Well, wonder no more! While screaming used to be this incredibly opaque technique, it’s now been demystified. Check out this video to find out more. It’s a marvel the kinds of sounds that we can produce with good, healthy technique. Remember: if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong!
So, is it for me?
That’s going to be harder to find out, and it’s where you’ll do your own demography legwork. You need to know what type of crowd you’re addressing. It’s not as easy as saying “it works” or “it doesn’t”. As you’ve seen before, audiences respond to lower pitches and creaky voices in different ways.
For example, are you producing a commercial for a high-end clothing store in downtown LA? Then it may be better to have an actress that conveys the tonal qualities of the market you’re targeting. But is it an explainer video about polypeptides? Maybe not so much.
But, remember what I was going on about above regarding vocal fry in music? Well, those techniques can be carried over into voice acting, like in video games. Characters need to have different tonal qualities, scream, and shout. Wonder how incredible voice actors like Troy Baker seemingly scream non-stop in games? Well, they’re not hurting their voices, that’s for sure.
They’ve just got a great technique!
So, judge your needs carefully. Vocal fry is not the be-all-end-all solution or bane. It’s just another tool in the toolkit. Know that it exists, and use it accordingly!
I truly hope this small excursion through the world of vocal fry has been rewarding. It’s a technique and vocal style that may have its ups and downs. My takeaway is that it’s mostly misunderstood and that it thus needs to be explained correctly.
As with most things in life, it has its places. That means that it can also be abused, overused, or used incorrectly. It’ll be your choice to see if any pros you hire for your projects need to be able to use deploy it at will.
I trust you’ll now make an informed decision! Find the best talent today at Bunny Studio!