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The Tongue - It's Complicated!

Updated: May 24

The tongue is one of the most complex muscular structures in the body. It works in myriad ways, coordinating with systems in our bodies to help us stay alive, move, and communicate … and for some of us, its movements participate directly in making music. The tongue also contributes to the stability of our entire body. That’s a lot of responsibility for a tongue, isn’t it?

What a wondrous and complex thing, our tongue!

Our tongue is positioned in our body in such a way that when we stand or sit in dynamic balance it can function freely, behaving the way we need it to behave when making music, be that while singing or while playing an instrument. Sounds simple, right? I’m joking, of course, because even though everything CAN be “simple”, the tongue is the source of much debate, pedagogy, and quite frankly, frustration for many musicians! It can even be the source of much pain and anxiety.

I have spent A LOT of time grappling with this thing, this “tongue” … partly because I teach singers, and partly because I have had to manage Muscle Tension Dysphonia (MTD) due to various causes for the last 20 years. Tension in parts of the tongue can contribute to MTD in big ways because of the tongue’s proximity to and relationship with the larynx. Luckily for me, Bonnie Draina introduced me to Body Mapping in 2008. I have gone down rabbit holes ever since to find a greater understanding of my tongue, which has helped me sing freely despite the MTD.

So, what exactly is a tongue, and how is it made? As with so many things in our bodies, calling our tongue by its very name can be problematic. Giving it one name can make us think of it as one “thing” – much like naming a “shoulder” can lead to a lack of understanding of what makes up a shoulder and how it moves. Of course, it IS called a tongue; it is not part of a larger structure in our body!

Your tongue moves, so it will never “just relax” when you use it to make music.

Here are some fun facts about the tongue, that can hopefully help you begin to map it more thoroughly and move with greater ease and freedom:

  • The tongue is a “muscular hydrostat” – in other words, it never changes in volume, and although it has no skeletal structure, it can change in shape and thickness and do various things because its muscles pull it in many different ways. This is, of course, an oversimplification, and you can find a lot of detailed info in this Wikipedia article if you’d like:

  • The tongue is made up of pairs of extrinsic muscles (these have bony attachments and work to change the position of the tongue) as well as pairs of intrinsic muscles and one intrinsic muscle that is not paired (these have no bony attachments, thus are located solely within what can be called the blade of the tongue, and they work to change the shape of the tongue).

  • Among aiding in other activities, the intrinsic muscles participate in forming vowel shapes, help articulate some consonants, and move the apex (tip) of the tongue in rapid articulation patterns. The intrinsic muscles can not move freely when the tongue is trying to do something related to another function such as swallowing!

  • For the most part, the extrinsic muscles do not participate in speaking, singing, or playing wind instruments!

All this is to say, your tongue is not just one “thing” … and your tongue moves, so it will never “just relax” when you use it to make music.

Looking at this picture, it is easy to imagine that different muscles work with and against each other. All the tongue muscles do not work at the same time in all activities.

If you palpate the geniohyoid and hyoglossus muscles and swallow, you can feel them both contract. When you breathe, they do not need to do this work! Can they remain supple while you breathe? Now attempt to sing a rolled “r” or do a “double-tongue” motion after you inhale … notice that if they try to contract, you can’t do it! But if they remain soft and supple, your tongue can move with more freedom. 

Music is movement! The tongue is an amazing thing, and you can move it in many different ways to do many different things. So, don’t “just relax” your tongue, but instead map it so you can move it with ease and freedom when you sing or play!

Book recommendation

Nair, Angelika. The Tongue as a Gateway to Voice, Resonance, Style and Intelligibility.  San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2021.

While written for singers and teachers of singing, this book will also be valuable to anyone who wants to learn more about the complexities of the tongue. It includes great exercises to help increase freedom of tongue movement and flexibility of the tongue muscles as well.

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