In singing, there are few things that give singers as much trouble as tongue tension!
(In this blog you will find some great exercises you can do to help you release some of that tongue tension… I use these all the time.)
It will stop your beautiful tone from coming out,
lock up your jaw, close your throat, engage the swallowing muscles, create an imbalance in the breath support due to the added resistance that the back of the tongue is creating and make it impossible to articulate the vowels correctly.
What does root tongue tension feel like?
There are many different levels of this, from just very mild to feeling like someone is strangling you! You will feel like there is discomfort at the back of your tongue by the tonsils. If you do a lot of singing you may really feel this lock up. Your articulators will then try to compensate for it and create more tension.
If you place your thumb under your jaw then move it back to the soft bit just behind it, this is the underside of your tongue, gently press your thumb in here. Now take in a silent breath, it should stay soft or go a little softer, now slide up and down through your range on any vowel that is comfortable for you. It is very common for students to feel that as they slide higher that the tongue starts to push against the thumb, this is a sign that root tongue tension is starting to kick in. If this goes unchecked then the throat will lock up.
You can only increase your range correctly and sustainably if you do it without incorrect tension, and root tongue tension is an incorrect tension.
Take this quick test to see if you have Tongue tension in your singing…
What does root tongue tension sound like?
You will notice that the sound is muffled, sounding like someone has something in their mouth and is trying to sing around it…well they are – the tongue!
What can I do to get rid of root tongue tension?
1) Slowly stick your tongue out then bring it back it; do this several times.
2) Say the word glug a lot as this will work the front and back of the tongue.
3) Start to use the NG sound in your daily vocal warm-up routine as this lifts the back of the tongue out of the throat.
4) Stick your tongue out and leave it resting on your bottom lip. Then say the vowel ER as in the word urn. Now do your slides on this.
5) Go through the vowels with your thumb in the soft part just behind your chin, this should stay soft on all the vowels, ee is often a hard one, so take your time, start with the 5 main vowels EE as in he, EH as in hen, AH as in far, OH as in hot and OO as in who.
6) Stick your tongue out and move it from one side of your mouth to the other, so that it moves like a metronome arm. Do this daily and especially before singing to help release that tension.
7) Do the Held Tongue Exercise that you can learn in this video:
I often find that just making my students aware of the movement of the back of the tongue helps the most, so focus your mind at the back of your tongue by your tonsils, and say the vowel oo – make it hooty sounding – as in the word who, now stick your tongue out and say er as in ern, now alternate between these two vowels, oo er oo er oo er.
Say er like you mean it, like you really have seen something that makes you say it. While you are doing this stay focused on the back of your tongue and notice it move, back on the oo and forward on the ER you must work to keep the vowels forward and out of the throat, this will then help your voice to project naturally, but that’s another blog! 🙂
Here are a couple of my blog posts you might find interesting:
Attention all singers: How to sing better by using a bad cough!
1 singing tip that will improve your singing instantly
Now you know what root tongue tension feels and sounds like, also what to do to deal with it. I hope that you found this helpful, if you have any questions then please get in touch as I would love to hear from you.
38 thoughts on “Root Tongue Tension a Singers Worst Nightmare!”
Thank you very much. This was very informative. I’ve been researching about this for years! Can you believe it?!
The area behind my chin (or below my tongue) has been very hard for about 11 years now, which have made speaking for me very hard and also ruined my voice.
Just lately I met a voice therapist and found out that there’s no problem at all in my voice box and that it’s only a tension. All these years, I thought the problem was in my vocal cords!
He taught me some tongue and breathing excersices, and after 4 or 5 months of excersicing for about 2-3 hours a day, I feel a little improvement.
But the question if you don’t mind is: is it normal that I feel that this area is opening apart? There’s a small gap now in the middle. And if my problem is only with this area, would it harm if I do only the tongue excersises (because the breathing ones are tiresome and take so much time)?
Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks for your comments. KLUK is a great one to do for tongue tension as well. When you say there is a gap opening up, do you mean in your singing range, or under your chin?
Thanks for getting in touch, Yes it could well be down to tongue tension. sing your song on GUG all the way through on the melody, if the tension goes then it was tongue tension, if it donesn’t go then make sure that your vowels are correct with a good onset, and support.
Thanks for this. My teacher has been working on my tongue root tension problem for a few months. I recently did my grade 8 AMEB exam and the examiner told me the songs were “too high” for me. I know they weren’t as I have at least an extra half octave more than the highest note I sang, and I know I struggle with tongue root tension. I suspect that’s what she was getting at, but her misdiagnosis was annoying. Is it reasonable to assume this sort of tension could come across as a range/tessitura issue? I’m planning on ignoring her critique and just continuing to work of loosening my tongue tension.
Thanks for getting in touch. Something that is often overlooked is that even a slight holding onto a register will manifest itself as tension in the tongue and jaw as these muscles try to get involved to help out, in this case although the tongue exercises will help the root problem has not been dealt with.
Try this and see if it helps you. Firstly can you speak with no tension? If you can then there is no reason for there to be tension in your singing voice unless you are not moving through the registers correctly, are there certain notes that you notice the tension creeping in on? This would be the first clue, secondly, the exam you did, where there was a comment that the range was to much for you, this is also a sign that it’s a register problem, this has nothing to do with the range that you can vocalize over, your teacher should be able to hear this problem. If you like you can send me an audio example of you sliding up and down on a siren on any vowel you like, this will give me a good idea of if you are not moving through the registers correctly.
Hope that this is of help to you, I have helped many students with this frustration over the years and it is always at the root down to registers, or rarely tension in the voice due to stress, and this we would notice in your speaking voice.
Very good topic for a singer! Karen’s case is quite typical, but I feel that it is not a case with range. The fact that you tend to feel more relaxed if you sing lower is the main issue, I guess. I am trying to stick out my tongue more as I sing, and on the recorder my voice does sound much better that way. Another ‘trick’ I did was to fold up the tongue by putting the tongue tip in the middle of my lower palette and roll the surface of the tongue forward as I sing. The root of the tongue moves forward instantly.
Thanks for posting this! I am having problems with my chest voice. I can hit the notes shortly but I can’t hold them out correctly. They waver and wobble and even buzz when I try to hold out an “ah”. I think I have the restricted airflow from the tongue tension. I am actually seeing an osteopath to release my tongue – you see, I have muscle tension dysphonia in the tongue, jaw, head. My DO says she has to release the muscles and bones in the back of my head before she can get the tongue to release. I’ve only seen her once so far and she seems very smart and was highly recommended by a top NYC voice therapist. Another thing you can do if your case is not as severe as mine is see a myofascial release massage therapist who specializes in working with singers. There is a very good one in NYC.
I hope that once my severely depressed and pulling to the left tongue root is released I will be able to sing cleanly in chest voice again. It makes sense that I would be able to.
Thanks for this post! I’m not an advanced singer by any means, and I seem to struggle with tension in my throat and toungue more so when I talk or just working at my office. It is extremely frustrating and gets to the point sometimes where I have a hard time swallowing. Singing often times helps me relax some of this tension (at least when I’m not pushing my range).
Are there posture considerations as well that may be helpful beyond just the excercises?
I’m a 26 year old voice student, and I’ve recently made the transition from singing as a light baritone to a tenor. Aside from the difficulties associated with changing tessitura, I am struggling with what feels to be tongue root tension, which occurs most commonly when I sing softly in the passaggio. I’m finding that it is quickly causing fatigue, especially in repertoire with rapid or relentless text passages.
I am thinking of going to see a speech specialist, but in the meantime, could you recommend any additional exercises to those listed above to help alleviate this issue?
Your input is much appreciated.
Thanks for getting in touch, this sounds to me more like a problem with registration, in other words you must be sure that you are moving into the falsetto register, before you increase the volume, so slide up from G3 to G4 very slowly on a hooty oo. Expect to feel the flip ( Break) around ideally D#4 to E4 top end, no higher otherwise you will struggle to change register correctly.
Once you are in the falsetto register (some schools will call this the Head voice, falsetto voice or mixed voice). Then work on slowly going from the hooty oo ( a yawny , jaw down, lips rounded like a little trumpet and soft palate raised sound) to a bright metallic sounding ee this will help your vocals to come together correctly for a strengthened falsetto register, this is what you need to strengthen if you are going to sing higher with ease.
If you have no root tongue tension until you move into your higher notes then as I say it’s often a sign of register problems. So other things that affect this are correct support, consistent vocal focus, vowel shape and resonance.
Hope this helped, remember that the falsetto could be very weak, and if it is will need s lot of work before it can be used correctly, never drag up the Chest register, simple move into the falsetto register then darken the tone to create a powerful chest tone.
Is hard to really pin down the problem without hearing you sing for me, but in the above is your answer, will take a bit of time to strengthen the falsetto register, if you are doing it right anyway from 1 month to 3months.
Have a great day
Vocal Coach Dylan
Hi so I’m just wondering if this can also if bad enough make it hard to swallow. I don’t sing as much as I use to bcuz every time I do it feels as though the muscles in my throat lock up causing it difficult to swallow….my singing is hard to do now and can even hurt, like a tenseness….
Yes it can, best to check in with a voice doctor and get it all checked out, would be my advice as it may be something else.
Even just talking to much. I feel a strain. So I have to stop talking.
I just have one question, the number 5, which is going through all of the vowels, Do I have to stick my tongue out or not? Just go through the vowels with my thumb behind my chin? Tongue and Throat tension has always been my problem when singing, and I really think that this is a way of getting rid of it.
Another one, I managed to it at some repetition, but sometimes when I do it again, I feel it pushing just a little bit, is that good or not?
You can leave your tongue in for number 5. Hope that it helps you.
have a great day!
Hey, thanks for this!
Recently had a great masterclass where this tongue tension was revealed in my voice, particularly when I stick my tongue out for my “th”s. This is partially due to a shorter frenulum under my tongue, but when we worked through it, my tone became beautifully darker, and my loudest dynamic at least doubled. Because my larynx was suddenly able to lift higher, my pitching was a bit interesting, but that should sort itself out before long.
Anyway, rant over. It’s a great thing to fix!
hey there thanks a lot for sharing it! first of all its the first article i have got on internet which i could truely relate with my problem otherwise i always used to be worried thinking that it might be the case of vocal paralysis or tongue paralysis. and from last 6 years i have been struggling with my singing due to this. but now after reading your article its a great relief for me that its just a kind of tension which can be cured by some exercises as you told.and yaa one thing i would like to tell u is that sometimes i feel like the pain in my tongue is being distributed to my shoulders and my arms too. is that something i need to be worried about??
Thank you for getting in touch. I am really glad that the exercises worked for you 🙂 I would go and have a chat with your Doctor about the shoulder and arm pain.
Hi, thank you for posting this. Unfortunately, i’ve tried many of these exercises, including ones not listed here, and haven’t gotten anywhere. I practice daily, but my tongue still pushes against my thumb. I’ve tried shaping, opening my palette, etc., but nothing seems to be working at all. Most of the time, the exercises make my tongue even more tense. Is there anything i can do?
Thanks for getting in touch, it sounds like you are not sure what a relaxed tongue should feel like, which is really common in today’s stressful world. Is your tongue stiff all the time even when you are just breathing in and out? Also remember that no exercise will fix this problem straight away, it will take time and patience. 🙂
Even though my tongue is relaxed under my chin I cab see the to of my tounge lifting pretty high. How to I keep my tounge from l lifting and taking up room in my mouth.
Do you mean the tip of your tongue or the back of it?
I am replying here because I am curious your thoughts on this. This is exactly my issue & it has been a problem for several years now. Every exercise still leaves me with the middle-to-back of my tongue lifting pretty high. I have never seen my tongue lay flat or have that beautiful concave, resonance-opening shape that I see in other singers. It is something that has perplexed myself & my voice teacher for so long!
I’ve been having trouble with my voice the past few Years. I will suddenly have pain when I sing and it gradually gets worse until my speaking voice is affected The pain is centre right and eventually lose my voice altogether. It happened in May last year and gave me much stress because I could not perform – I lost my speaking voice and then gradually it came back but with a tremor. I’ve been taking it easy and the voice is stronger. I did two singing lessons and I feel this discomfort come back on the right side. So I try not to sing on the effected area. I have No problems with my cords they are white and function correctly. I tried singing one of my songs with my tongue out and I noticed less to no pain! Is this what I have muscle tension? Please help kirsty
It does sound like it could be that. The tongue is often a sypmtom of incorrect breathing awareness, jaw tension or it could just be the tongue. Well done if that has fixed it for you! 🙂 Do you still have this problem now or is it getting less all the time? Remember not to be too stressed – easy for me to say – about the pain in your throat, as focusing on it will often make it worse. I know I have been there! LOL
Hope that this helps
Dylan, your way to get rid of the root tongue works. Thank you!
I have been studying voice with celebrity coach Ron Anderson for many years now. His method is bel canto. Although I would say I have worked through the tongue issue in warmups and singing, I have developed what I notice is a slight tongue twitch involuntarily and my tongue seems to always be wanting to be at the roof of the mouth throughout the day.. also part of my throat likes to tug open aa well.. are these normal reactions to training daily that you know about or have you heard anything like that?
Thanks for getting in touch. Sorry man but NO these are not normal reactions to daily training but a sign that you are training your voice with incorrect tensions. This often but not always comes from dragging up a register or forcing your face, tongue and jaw to move to positions that you want them to go to rather then letting them move there freely. This can take a while to correct. Make a vowel shape without making any sound and look in a mirror while you are doing it, everything should look calm and still, if your tongue is twitching now then it is a shaping problem – go though all your vowel shapes like this. Then slide up and down through your whole range slowly watching your face and tongue in the mirror to see if as you go higher the tongue starts to twitch, jaw locks up or your face starts to tense these are signs that you are not moving through the registers correctly.
This is a bad habit that you have now and will take a while to sort out so be patient! 🙂
Hope that this helps.
Vocal Coach Dylan
Hi and thank you for the helpful text.
I’m about to give up singing because of this problem. When I started singing seriously , I started with a type of folk singing from my country that is very marked by a low placement, and the true problems came after my voice changed.
I always sang female songs (which very rarely go above C#5 in this style and frequently go down to G3 or lower) and at the time it happened I had about one octave. I didn’t know I could change keys, so I basically started forcing my lower register – I thought it would be less harmful even if it was still uncomfortable – to develop, because it seemed easier (which made me able to go down to like E2, but my lowest decent note that I’m able to project (sort of) without tension and without making the larynx drop is like A2/Bb2). Plus, this style requires projection and at the time I had no conception of breath support so I basically started projecting with jaw tension and by forcing the larynx down, which indeed made for a cavernous tone.
I started singing lessons recently after I realized this problem and my teacher seems to think I am a baritone even though on the first class I was able to reach a B4 in full voice through a process that feels to me like “spreading the voice”. I disagree not because of the notes (and mind you, my passaggi are like C#4/D4 and F#4 for the upper one) but because I truly don’t think my voice sounds as heavy/full as even a lyric baritone, and it has a kind of brightness and (almost) “squillo” . She recently realized that these low notes (meaning like F2-Ab2) were “not of interest” because I don’t have that much volume down there. Last class I reached a Bb4 that she said was in mixed voice (and it probably was, but with a ratio of much more chest than head) but it felt like I was screaming and pushing my chest voice, even if I didn’t feel that much discomfort because I was supporting. When she asks me to sing out loud and not be meek I immediately feel my tongue flattening and being shoved down the throat, and it bothers me that she is classically trained and doesn’t seem to realize this. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that even when I’m listening to a song and I think of singing it my throat immediately assumes that position (raised soft pallate and tongue flattened at the back and tense) even if I don’t make a sound.
This is especially bothersome because if I spend days without singing when I do it again my full voice range had magically expanded and after singing some songs I lose all that ease, which tells me something is seriously wrong
Sorry for the long post, but honestly I don’t know what to do.
* concept, not conception, and I’m not sure it was clear but in case it wasn’t, I started singing those songs an octave lower
I have been having a problem with my singing for over a year now. I’ve seen two ENT’s and both have confirmed that my vocal cords are fine. my tone is muffled and nasal. I have pain on the root of my tongue and soft palate. this started after doing vocal agility exercises last year, I am still able to sing but not nearly as well I used to. I’m unable to sing in head/mixed voice. do you think maybe I damaged something on the root of my tongue? it feels very raw and sensitive. I don’t know what to do, doctors are unable to tell me what’s wrong. I really hope you can help. T.I.A
Thanks for getting in touch, Sounds like you have tongue tension – but I am not an ENT doctor so this is just my opinion – to see if you do get a mirror and open your mouth, look at your tongue, is it still and relaxed or is it wiggling around even when you think its still? It should be still but relaxed never force your tongue to do anything with a little patience you will start to get the tongue to relax.
Let me know what your tongue is up to and I can give you some exercises from there.
Hi Dylan. Thank you for your quick response. I just checked and my tongue does wiggle a little. predominantly on the right side which is where I feel the discomfort/pain. kindly elaborate more on your advice to not force the tongue to do anything. Once again thank you so much for your consideration.
Ok so the little bit of wiggling is tongue tension, what you need to do now is just watch the tongue in the mirror alot and work on relaxing it by focusing on a relaxed exhale. This has worked for every student that I have ever done it on, but it can take time! The more you can do this everyday the better. Your mental state has a big part to play on this not just if you are stressed but also do you know what a tension free tongue feels like? If you do not then this exercise will help you to feel that.
I don’t often find a student that does know what a free tongue feels like and as I have said it can take time!
Good day Dylan.
I hope you are well. I have questions regarding the above exercise. How long should I do this daily? and the exhale, do I have to take deep breaths and exhale, or just breath in and out normally?
Jeez it eases me to know im not the only one struggling with this. Id love to sing but this issue makes it literally impossible for me to sing longer than 20 seconds simply because it hurts.
Thanks for your thoughts on “Root Tongue Tension.” I’m 78, and I’ve had this since I was a boy soprano. I now sing mostly folk music accompanied by guitar and autoharp. But I’m wondering if, at my age and years of singing incorrectly, I have a chance to relax my tongue.
I’ll try your six suggestions/exercises. If you have any more, I’d enjoy seeing them.