The Unknown discovery by a Russian anatomist

The article was written by Vladimir Buchel. English translation by George Yohng. 

The vocal cords have long been considered the main source of humankind’s ability to sing. However, this assumption is incomplete.

The teachings of most contemporary singing schools are based upon this partial truth. This article presents a discovery made by the Russian anatomist Ilya Grusinov that contradicts assumption of many vocal coaches. Although it is not yet a widely known fact, Grusinov long ago concluded that the main source of the resonant singing voice is the trachea and bronchi.

In 1812, Grusinov discovered that the actual source of the deep and pleasant sound of singing is the membrane which serves as a posterior wall of the trachea and bronchi. Unfortunately, this discovery has not yet affected the way singers are taught, and we are only left to wonder how many potential talents have been lost as a result.

Ilya Grusinov was anatomizing dead bodies after the Napoleonic War when he first described the audible properties of the membrane. By blowing air through the windpipe he discovered that it produced a sound which was very similar to the human voice. He described this discovery as follows: ‘While anatomizing dead bodies, by inflating the windpipe and stretching the membranous posterior wall of a trachea I have managed to produce a perfect vocal sound without engaging vocal cords...’

As previously mentioned, this discovery is still not widely known and has yet to find a generic application in singing education. Instead, many singing teachers base their instruction on a dubious foundation of suppositions and rough assumptions. However, several great singers, including Shalyapin and Caruso, understood Grusinov’s theory very well and used it to achieve great success in singing.

In the 1930s, another scientist named Leonid Robotnov hypothesised that the bronchial system plays the most important role in vocal formation. He also described techniques regarding how singers can use their breath effectively by minimizing physical efforts and maximizing resonance. As the author's experience in vocal pedagogy shows, this is indeed the most effective practical way to teach and study solo singing. When used efficiently, the membrane itself has great capability. Great singers can sing as loud as 120–130 dB, and we know that this amplitude is impossible to reach through the use of vocal cords alone.

When the author of this article first read about these discoveries, he also had an opportunity to visit a dissection room where he carefully examined the tracheae and bronchi of several bodies. Between VI and VII, the neck bones in the larynx eventually connect to the trachea, and below the trachea they connect to the large bronchial tubes (left and right bronchi). For different body constitutions, the length of the tracheae may vary from 3.5 to 6 inches, while the width varies from 0.5 to 1 inch. The large bronchial tubes eventually branch out asymmetrically. The right bronchial tube is around 1 to 2 inches long, while the left one is around 1.5 to 2.5 inches long. The membrane serves as the posterior wall of the stack of arched cartilage rings. Its width varies from 0.5 to 1 inch.

The membrane itself consists of plain elastic longitudinal and transverse muscle fibres. The inner surface of the trachea and bronchi is covered by a mucous layer that is loosely attached to pieces of cartilage. Despite the fact that the mucous layer is also covered with various glands, the membrane still has enough freedom to vibrate and produce a sound.

The large bronchial tubes eventually branch into the median and minor bronchi. This structure provides the biological ‘organ tubes’ and the elastic membrane muscle which help the human voice produce a bright and resonant sound. It is also worth noting that the membrane is much thicker and more substantial in the lower parts attached to the large bronchial tubes.

The aim of an educated singer is to learn how to intentionally control the vibration of the membrane by adjusting the respiratory system.