What is a False Vocal Cord?

T. Carrier

Most people are familiar with membranes in the throat that allow the human body to make noise called the vocal cords. Many may not realize the prominence or even the existence of two membranes located near the body's voice boxes, however. False vocal cords — also known as vestibular cords or superior vocal cords — differentiate from true vocal cords in a couple of important ways. True vocal cords are used primarily in voice production, and the general inability of vestibular cords to produce the sounds associated with speech is what gives these structures the distinction of "false." True vocal cords are also made of more delicate epithelial tissue, which helps give them their vibrating capacity. The tissue of false vocal cords is thicker and, unlike true vocal cords, can actually regenerate when removed.

The larynx is commonly called the voice box.
The larynx is commonly called the voice box.

A false vocal cord has a simple composition. Layers of tissue called mucous membranes fold to form the basic material of the false vocal cord. Connective tissues known as thyroid and arytenoid cartilage help the cords with movement, and the true vocal cords and false vocal cords collectively are known as thyroarytenoid muscles. False vocal cords form the upper, superior portion of these muscles, and thus they are part of the supraglottic larynx. This portion of the larynx, although sturdier, is more susceptible to disease: supraglottic tumors make up nearly one-third of all laryngeal cancers.

Supraglottic tumors make of nearly one third of all laryngeal cancers.
Supraglottic tumors make of nearly one third of all laryngeal cancers.

The cords surround connective tissue called the ventricular ligament. This ligament connects to portions of the larynx and thus to the tissues in the mouth that regulate swallowing called the epiglottis. False vocal cords help protect these tissues. The false vocal cord, in turn, helps protect one’s swallowing capacity by refusing a foreign object's entrance. One’s voice is protected as well because false vocal cords help lubricate the true vocal cords, and they also contain immune response cells that shield the vocal tract from infectious bacteria or fungi.

True vocal cords are used primarily in voice production.
True vocal cords are used primarily in voice production.

Although false vocal cords are used rarely in regular speech, their highest value in sound production arises from their ability to produce deep tones, such as screaming and growling. The false vocal cord serves as the centerpiece of many alternative and creative vocal pursuits, such as throat singing, Tibetan chanting, and death growl vocals. These deep, guttural sounds are produced when the false vocal cords press together and muffle the true vocal cords. Practitioners generally achieve this result by filling the lungs with air and pushing it out in such a way that tightens the throat. Overuse of this technique, however, can lead to a disorder known as hyperfunctional voice disorder.

Pain when swallowing is a common symptom of laryngeal cancer.
Pain when swallowing is a common symptom of laryngeal cancer.
Unexpected weight loss may be a symptom of laryngeal cancer.
Unexpected weight loss may be a symptom of laryngeal cancer.

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Discussion Comments


Sporkasia, If your saying that at one time, in the past, the false vocal cords may have been replacement vocal cords, then it would appear that we evolved backwards. That wouldn't be evolution at all; the same vocals cords exist today with the same conditions affecting them.


@Drentel: In the article, the screaming mentioned is the musical version, often found in rock/metal bands. The false folds themselves produce a very low-pitched sound. You will almost never hear them alone unless you are clearing your throat heavily.

When you scream at the TV, it's your true vocal folds making most of the sound. The false vocal folds, if they are even activated, just add distortion to your regular voice. (Scientifically, they ring at half the frequency of your true folds if at the same time).

@Sporkasia: You may be correct. With a little practice, these folds can be used to replace the true folds, although it's quite uncomfortable at first. They also make a very very low-pitched sound which would sound, for lack of a better word, creepy when used as a speaking voice.


Okay, if I am reading this correctly, when I scream at the TV because my favorite team is losing I am using my false vocal cords to change the pitch of my voice. So it seems to me that even though we don't use them for normal speech everyday conversations, the false cords are still important to the ways we communicate.


Sporkasia - Another explanation for why the false vocal cords are able to regrow themselves, unlike the actual vocal cord may be found when we think of disease. As this article indicated, the false vocal cords are more likely to be infected by disease. So it is reasonable that the area more prone to vocal cord dysfunction possesses the ability to repair or actually regrow itself?

Since the true cords are without lymphatics, they are less likely to develop cancer. When vocal cord surgery is performed to remove cancerous growths on the false cords, they stand a good chance of returning to normal because of the ability to regenerate.


I find it interesting that the false vocal cords are able to regenerate while the true vocal cords are not. This makes me wonder whether the false vocal cords may have at one time been replacement vocal cords, capable of taking over when the true vocal cord was damaged and rendered impotent.

This replacement theory put into action would be great in cases of vocal cord cancer in which the primary vocal cord is affected. Of course, this is simply my fascination with evolution talking.

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