Anatomy for Singers: Pyramids and Pearls… The Spine

The spine is a central hub in our body. It serves as protection for the spinal cord, provides structural support for the body and serves as a place of attachment for muscles and ligaments. It also connects upper and lower body, like a a suspension bridge. 

When the spine is well balanced it allows for fluid movement throughout the body. With the ribcage attaching to the spine and the larynx sitting just inside the cervical vertebrae, spinal function is crucial to the singing body.

Structure of the Spine

The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, and 23 discs stacked and grouped into 4 segments, each with its own curve. 

  • Neck: 7 Cervical vertebrae referred to as C1-C7. 
  • Mid-Back: (ribcage) 12 Thoracic vertebrae, referred to as T1-T12. 
  • Low back:  5 Lumbar vertebrae, referred to as L1-L5, 
  • Sacrum/Coccyx: 5 vertebrae fused together to form a triangular shaped structure and the Coccyx, 3 bones, referred to as the tailbone. 

The spinal discs, located between the vertebrae, are tough and membranous on the outside and more gel-like on the inside. They act as shock absorbers, if you will, between the vertebrae.

Pyramids and Pearls

We can think of the spine like a pyramid. When we view it from bottom to top we see that the lumbar vertebrae at the bottom are larger and get smaller as you ascend to the cervical vertebrae. A pyramidal structure creates a sense of inherent stability.

We can also think of the spine like a string of pearls. Each vertebrae is like a pearl strung on a necklace with the potential to move independently and fluidly in addition to moving in segments and as a whole. A structure like a necklace has an inherent sense of mobility.

The Shape of the Spine

When it comes to the shape of the spine, we have multiple curves that are naturally occurring.

Cervical – inward curve, called lordotic

Thoracic – outward curve, called kyphotic 

Lumbar – inward curve, lordotic

Sacral/Coccygeal – outward curve, kyphotic

It is possible in any body to have a lack of curvature, a straightening of the spine, and/or excess curve called hyper-lordotic or hyper-kyphotic. Many of us have curves that are lessened or exaggerated, but we are able to compensate for those changes for a long time before the body will ask for a change.

When we have issues in a spine they often occur at transition points, where the curves change shape in these locations:

  • C7-T1
  • T12-L1
  • L5-S1

When we lack good movement above or below, we tend to borrow the movement from these places.

How the Spine Moves

The spine has the potential to move in 6 directions – Flexion (forward bending), Extension (back bending), Right Lateral (side bending), Left Lateral (side bending), Right Rotating (twisting) and Left Rotating (twisting). 

When considering these movements, let’s think about the difference in the anterior and posterior portions of the spine.

The anterior spine (or the part facing the inside of the body) has smooth vertebrae edges and is more densely structured. This is the weight bearing portion of the spine and is the part that handles compressive forces (think pushing things together). When we flex the spine, we bring the anterior portion of the spine closer together

The posterior spine (the part facing the outside of the body) has spinous processes emerging from vertebrae. There is more space potential here, lots of ligaments are attaching to the processes and this part of the spine handles forces of tension (think pulling things apart). When we extend the spine we bring the posterior portion of the spine closer together.

What do you see?

It is easy to look at a body and think we see issues with the shape of the spine. In fact, it can be quite hard to determine the shape of a spine under clothing and layers of muscle and other tissues.  Too often postural directives are given to ‘fix’ the shape of the spine that just end up creating a new issue. Pro Tip: we are almost never going to create a viable long term shift in the body just through posture.

We can use bony markers to line the body up and discover places we are lacking curve or have too much, but I find the best way to evaluate the spine is through movement. 

Begin with the Spine in Mind.

Simple movements can tell us a lot about how well the spine moves.

I often use cat and cow as one of the first movements to observe in a body when we work together. Working with flexion and extension we can get a good sense of where we move well and where we don’t.

Movement Observations:

When we move in a cat-cow shape we might find

…a spine that can move ok as a whole, but not well segmentally.

…a spine that likes to live in extension, where we are arched and tense on the regular.

…a spine that likes to flex, but does not extend well in the thoracic region.

…heads that move a lot to compensate for lack of movement elsewhere in the spine.

…a pelvis that doesn’t move well in cat pose.

…muscling into the poses using the abdominals.

…over arching in the low back region of the spine.

…collapsing in the shoulders in cow pose.

…tensing in the neck and jutting the chin forward.

…an inability for the mover to sense sections of the spine.

What about my spine?

If you’ve read this far and are now filled with questions about your own spine, how it moves and what you can do to begin to improve your spinal movement so your body and voice can function with greater ease and fluidity, please sign up for a Singer Synergy Assessment. In this one hour session we can take a look at your spinal movement and identify simple yet powerful movements to help you.


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