Is Whispering Bad for Your Voice?

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Psssssst. Wanna hear a secret? Whispering might be the near-silent voice-killer.

It’s in an actor’s best interest to maintain their voice in the same way a master musician cares for their instrument. Vocal fatigue is a real concern for working actors, and particularly for those who specialize in voice acting, commercial voiceovers, or musical theater. Strain on the vocal cords from improper use or overuse can compromise voice quality and result in unbooked gigs and lost earnings. 

Common sense measures like staying hydrated and avoiding shouting matches are a given for any vocal pro on the mend. But many singers and actors may not have heard of another curious prescription: Avoid whispering. 

The idea that whispering can damage your voice may feel counterintuitive; quiet utterances seem to be far less taxing to one’s throat than screaming. Gossips and ASMR artists alike earn their keep just fine by whispering. Is this unfounded showbiz folk wisdom, or is there evidence to back it up?

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Why is whispering bad for your voice?

Before we examine whispering, let’s take a short “Magic School Bus”–esque journey into the human anatomy to explore how speech is made. Speech production involves three complex physiological systems:

  1. Articulatory, where the tongue, lips, and oral and nasal cavities sculpt the vowel and consonant sounds we recognize as language.
  2. Respiratory, where the diaphragm and lungs pump air through the trachea (or windpipe) to produce breath.
  3. Phonatory, which sits between those two in the throat and regulates air from the lungs to create sound waves. 

Here, atop the trachea, is a complex valve-like system of muscles, tissues, and cartilage called the larynx (or voice box). At the top of the larynx are the wedge-shaped vocal cords (or folds), which comprise a ligament, muscle, and mucus membrane covering. Activation of those muscles changes the amount of tension in the larynx and causes the vocal cords to vibrate. The frequency of this vibration and intensity of airflow modulate the pitch and power of the sounds that ultimately travel up to the articulatory system. When we whisper, the vocal cords tense up such that they do not vibrate—which is also why it’s difficult to change or detect pitch when whispering.

Vocal cord diagramVectorMine/Shutterstock

If an athlete sustains a sprained ankle on the court, they can expect doctor’s orders to not put weight on that ankle. For performers in vocal vocations, one of the most common causes of a vocal injury is laryngitis, which refers to a swelling and/or irritation of the larynx caused by strain from overuse. One is typically advised by doctors to not “put weight” on the injured laryngeal muscles by avoiding speaking. Otolaryngologists (or ENTs, who specialize in ear, nose, and throat concerns) and voice therapists also warn that whispering may cause even more trauma than loud or normal speaking.

What does the research say about the effects of whispering?

Woman whispering in man's earwavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Earlier studies indicated a negative effect of whispering on the vocal healing process, but it wasn’t until 2006 that a clinical study, led by otolaryngologist and professional opera baritone Dr. Robert T. Sataloff, tested the effects of whispering among a larger number of patients. He and a team of clinicians fiber-optically examined 100 patients with voice complaints and had them count from one to 10 both in a normal voice and a whisper. Sixty-nine of those patients displayed “more severe hyperfunction” in the vocal cords when whispering than when speaking. 

“They were squeezing their vocal cords together more tightly to produce the whisper, which is more traumatic,” according to study co-author Dr. Adam D. Rubin of the Michigan-based Lakeshore Professional Voice Center. The results of the study suggest that, rather than being a healing modification, whispering can exacerbate vocal fatigue for a voice injury.

It is important to note that this was not the case for all of the participants, just as it may not be the case for all voice actors. Some displayed no difference in vocal trauma between speaking and whispering, and whispering was actually less traumatic for 13 subjects. But a sizable majority found that keeping their volume to a whisper only made things worse.

How to recover from vocal fatigue

Vocal cord damageAdam Gregor/Shutterstock

For working voice actors, their voice is their livelihood, and it needs to be in peak form both to land parts and perform them well. After all, show business doesn’t stop while you’re healing, nor do bills stop coming. So what’s the best way to bounce back from vocal fatigue while also being able to communicate in the real world? 

  • Communicate without your voice. During the recovery period, the least harmful route may be to communicate by texting or jotting down what you need to say on a notepad. “Whispering is OK in principle, but most people do not whisper in a way that is good for the voice,” cautions otolaryngologist Dr. Lesley Childs. She says that most people overcompensate for volume when they whisper and strain to be heard. “If you are trying to rest your voice, we recommend you not talk, not even in a whisper.”
  • Stay hydrated. The way in which whispering tightens the vocal cords can expose them to dehydration. Dr. Childs recommends drinking 64 ounces of water daily both as a restorative and preventative way to keep the mucosal vocal cord lining lubricated. She also notes that taking excess vitamin C can have a drying effect, and excess garlic and ginger can increase the risk of vocal hemorrhaging.
  • Warm up before using your voice. Remember to perform vocal warmups to prime the vocal fold muscles for action.
  • Be careful when you speak. If you have to vocally communicate during a recovery period, ENT Dr. Isaac Namdar recommends that you speak as you normally would, albeit with caution: “Patients who absolutely need to use their voice…are advised to try to generate whatever voice comes out as opposed to intentionally trying to whisper. Although the quality of voice coming out at that point may not be as pleasant to listen to, this would be the least stressful use of the voice box.”

Voice work can be an exciting and dynamic field for an actor to pursue. But remember to be just as careful whispering about your successes as you are when shouting them from the rooftops.

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