Coughing vs Singing

There is a silent battle going on in each of us.  The battle between our muscle memory and our conscious, discerning choices.  This battle exists in thousands of areas of our lives – such as confirmation or unconscious biases, nutritional habits or speech patterns.

This is largely to do with the brain’s love of recognising and forming patterns.  Which is great…until that pattern becomes the path of least resistance, and we require more from the brain to create a new and better pattern instead of settling for what is familiar and comfortable.

Today we’re looking at how that silent battle sets up a competition between our body’s autopilot cough reflex and our singer’s intention to prioritise vocal fold health and flexibility.


Straight up, I want to propose that you take a new approach to illness.  Unlike other instrumentalists, you never pack your instrument away.  It is always with you.  It is exposed to everything you inhale and ingest.  It rides every wave of emotional, hormonal, psychosocial and biochemical change.  You are never not a singer!

Therefore, I believe that you need to do what is in your power to minimise the influence of illness and medication on your voice.

Now – I did say what is in your power.  And that is a very important caveat.  There will be a lot of times in your life when the best course of treatment to preserve your existence may not be what is optimal for your voice.  Guess what?  Saving your life trumps singing (to be fair, I think Dr Dan said that!).

Therefore, what I’m talking about here is the stuff you CAN control.  The minor health conditions that roll our way seasonally fit into this category and are the focus here.


“Our philosophy with any of the players here at the WACA is you need to be fit to perform rather than fit to play.”

Justin Langer, Australian cricket coach and retired player


Langer made this statement concerning a Western Australian player, Jason Behrendorff, who was returning to training following a stress fracture in his back.  And the statement struck me as something that singers could relate to a lot.  Jason was fit to train, but he needed time in the nets to establish he was fit to perform under intense conditions and expectations.

Any performance (musical or sporting) requires a degree of adaptability, cognitive focus and physical resilience. Therefore, being “just well enough” to train or play the game isn’t enough.  It is barely a minimum requirement.

The parallels to singing are obvious.  You may be fit enough to practice, maybe even to rehearse – but are you fit to run the full gamut of pre-show routine, plus show delivery, plus post-show foyer time and self-care engagement?


“Anyone whose livelihood depends on their vocal quality becomes at least a little anxious at the threat of infection to their respiratory tract.  Although well-trained actors and singers will frequently be able to perform whilst suffering from a cold, the full glory of their voice is unlikely to be heard.  Singers have to work far harder than usual to sing on top of a cold whilst ensuring that their audience doesn’t feel short-changed.”

Pat Wilson


My working hypothesis is that the way you manage an upper respiratory tract impairment, like a head cold, chest infection, allergy or influenza will determine how fit your voice is when you recover and return to singing.  And not just that base-line fitness, but your full vocal range, resonant capacity, technical stamina and performance energy.

Particularly, as indicated by the title Coughing Vs Singing, the way you manage your coughing while you are unwell will directly impact how long it takes you to return to performance fitness…not just training fitness.

You might be thinking “but I can’t control my urge to cough”!!!  Well…I think you can.  Most of the time.  But not all the time.  I have only had pneumonia once in my life…but that was definitely a game-changer.  All bets were off and singing rehab was going to look very different.  And so, I had to change my teaching and performance commitments to allow for proper recovery and rehabilitation (which ended up being somewhere in the vicinity of 6-10 weeks).

So…this advice is going to be for your (mostly) garden-variety seasonal viruses and allergies.  For the times when a cold or reaction is just starting to take hold and you can make early choices about how you will rest and treat it.


This is a phrase frequently used by laryngologists and speech pathologists.  I first heard it during a fascinating webinar about the voice and drugs (medicinal and recreational) with Australian ENT surgeons Dr Georgina Harris & Dr Paul Paddle.  It simply means that the more you cough, the more you will cough.  In their words, “the more you cough, the more cough receptors in your throat and brain are activated.”

I recommend that you start managing your cough response in such a way that the subconscious muscle memory habit doesn’t take hold or become overactive.

It is worth mentioning here that throat-clearing falls into this category too.  In fact, throat clearing is more violent and damaging to the voice as it recruits a much higher rate of collision forces and rarely produces phlegm after one attempt.  It is more likely to move the irritant laterally around the throat or larynx, rather than propel it up and out like a cough does.

Throat-clearing is frequently triggered by post-nasal drip, particularly from allergies.  You might want to read more about that if this is an area you struggle with.  Managing illnesses like allergies is vital for all singers, whether professional or singing for leisure.



If you are struggling with vocal hoarseness, a lack of vocal flexibility or localised throat discomfort…ask yourself this question:

“How many times did I cough or clear my throat in the last hour?

How about in the last five minutes?”

If you can’t answer that question, then the first step to take is to find a way to increase your conscious awareness of each cough or clear.

This self-awareness is critical to being able to intentionally try another strategy before you CHOOSE to cough.


Honestly…I’m not saying you should never cough.  The body is designed to use this mechanical process to “produce” the thicker, sometimes infected, phlegm in your lungs.  It is also a VITAL response to save your life when something “goes down the wrong way” – when the epiglottis misbehaves and matter heads through the larynx toward the trachea instead of toward the oesophagus.

But how often have you had a lingering dry cough for weeks after the “productive” wet cough went away?  And how often has that dry cough co-existed with a frustration reduction of your singing range and vitality?


“A sequence of events is initiated by the sensitivity of the lining of the passageways of the lung,

mediated by the medulla as a consequence of impulses transmitted by the ages nerve.”

Ingo Titze

“Coughing is a reflex action designed to clear your larger breathing passages of

excess secretions, irritants and any bits and pieces that your body doesn’t want in your lungs.”

Pat Wilson

The vocal folds can move in two distinct ways – and unpacking these behaviours goes a long way to understanding your voice.  Appreciating that making sound is their second priority is crucial in your overall vocal health management plan.

  1. Opening/closing
    a. to protect the airway from inhaling substances that will damage the lungs and lead to death
    b. to assist in bearing weight – for lifting, bowel motions and giving birth
  2. Valving
    a. to ripple wave along their length and mass to phonate, permitting the creation of language and music

So, if the major job of the vocal folds is to protect and clear the airway, it is no wonder that they initiate coughing behaviour unconsciously to help you out when your health is compromised by excess or thickened mucus.

That is why they bang together when you cough – they’re part of the process of clearing your airway and getting the phlegm out.  However, that violent banging of the vocal folds will produce what is known as phonotrauma – a change in vocal fold vibration from voluntary or involuntary vocal behaviour that impacts on sound and function.

There are two ways to stimulate a cough:

  1. Body – throat or lungs send a message through the nervous system to the brain flagging an irritation or breathing difficulty
  2. Brain – sends a message to the upper respiratory tract to setup the cough mechanism in order to clear the phlegm

Sometimes when you’re progressing to a recovery stage from a virus and you no longer have thickened phlegm, the cough transitions to being behavioural – the brain stimulus to cough has been so intensely triggered that it is overactive.  Such a cough tends to be dry and unproductive, i.e. the cough no longer has a purpose. A doctor might diagnose this as a post-viral cough, although this is not exclusively behavioural.


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Australian Voice Association webinar.  Drugs in Voice.  27 October 2020

Cameron, Louis

In-lesson conversation with Emily Mullamphy

LeBorgne, W.D. & Rosenberg, M. (2014). The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, San Diego

Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Titze, I. R. & Verdolini-Abbott, K.  (2012).  Vocology: The Science and Practice of Voice Habilitation.  National Center for Voice & Speech, Utah.

Wilson, P.H. (2010). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual (2nd Ed.). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney

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