Smoking is dangerous for everybody, regardless of your job, but singers are particularly at-risk because of the impacts smoking has on your singing voice.
You can’t even buy a pack of cigarettes without being reminded of the multitude of negative health effects from smoking, ranging from lung cancer to heart disease, stroke and COPD, but not all of the impacts of smoking are so widely known. Smoking and singing have a complex relationship. Many singers who smoke actually like the raspy element smoking can lend to a voice, which is well-known through singers like Adele. However, the reality is that smoking has such a negative impact on your singing voice that it’s far from worth it for that raspy, gravelly quality.
Smoking and Vocal Fold Irritation
The vocal folds – often called the vocal “cords,” though they’re more like folds – are irritated and dried out by smoking, along with the rest of your throat. The problem is that improper lubrication of the vocal folds prevents them from vibrating and functioning as they should. The irritation caused by smoking is also made worse by the fact that smoking makes acid reflux more likely, and this also irritates the vocal folds.
Some singers think that if they smoke but don’t talk or sing while they’re smoking, the damage won’t occur, but this is actually false. The smoke passes over the vocal folds – irritating and drying them out – whether or not they’re currently vibrating, so whether you’re talking while you smoke or not, the same damage will be done. This is one of the many reasons that smoking and singing is not a good combination, even if you don’t do them at the same time.
Smoking and Lung Capacity
Smoking is very hard on your lungs, and will reduce the functioning of your lungs in comparison to a non-smokers’. This is bad news no matter what your profession, but for a singer who smokes, it’s particularly devastating. Not only does this mean you can’t get as much airflow through your vocal folds as a smoker, it also decreases your stamina and ability to hold a note for a long period of time. In fact, this is one of the biggest impacts of smoking on your singing ability.
Smoker’s Coughs and Mucus
A “smoker’s cough” is one of the characteristic symptoms of smoking, and it’s caused by the effect smoking has on the cilia in your airways. These are little hair-like structures designed to control the build-up of phlegm and keep your lungs functioning as they should. Smoking damages these cilia, and they get coated with tar from cigarettes. This means the phlegm they were designed to remove starts to build up. Periodically, the body tries to fix this by coughing up the phlegm, and the same thing can happen in the morning, because the cilia start to recover and work again after a period without smoking. This is really what a smoker’s cough is.
For smoking and singing, the problems from this are two-fold. Firstly, the tar coating the inside of your airways further decreases your lung capacity. It also means you’ll have to either clear your throat or cough more often, which can obviously ruin a performance.
Smoking and Swollen Vocal Folds
The final major impact of smoking on your singing ability comes down to the swelling of the vocal folds when you smoke. The vocal folds are complex, finely-tuned structures, and even a small amount of swelling can seriously impede their function. When your vocal folds swell, it means their water content has increased, and the result is a deepening of the tone of your voice, whether you’re singing or speaking. This also contributes the raspy quality heavily smoke-damaged voices get.
The problems are even bigger for smoking and your singing voice when it comes to swelling, though. Singing itself puts stress on your vocal folds, and this makes it more likely they will bleed or become scarred. This can impact on the higher end of your vocal range, and the change may be permanent. However, the lower tone smokers naturally sing in doesn’t mean that your vocal range expands, because other factors like the size of your throat and the physical structure of your vocal folds puts limits on this.
Want to Sound Like Tom Jones, Not Tom Waits? Stop Smoking
This post has covered some of the main reasons smoking and singing is not a good combination. Even before you consider the health risks of smoking – including the possibility of developing throat cancer – the effects of smoking on your vocal folds are almost entirely negative. You might be able to get a raspy quality in your singing you wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise, but you’ll impact on your range, the control you have over your voice and your stamina as a performer. The only way to protect your voice is to stop smoking as soon as you can.