Despite their name, the vocal cords are not cords at all, but folds of muscle tissue in the throat. Because of this they are sometimes referred to as the vocal folds. When looking down into the throat from the mouth (see Gray's Anatomy image), the muscle ligaments appear to form a “V” in the airway. The space between the vocal folds is the glottis. Above the vocal cords are the false vocal cords, also known as the vestibular folds - mucus membranes separating the laryngeal ventricle (muscle) and vestibule (open area immediately above the vocal cords).
The portion of the throat that contains the vocal cords is the larynx. The larynx connects the oral cavity to the windpipe (also known as the trachea), as well as the esophagus, the upper portion of the digestive tract. As illustrated by the University of Maryland Medical Center, a flap of cartilage above the vocal cords, the epiglottis, closes off the windpipe and voice box when food is swallowed.
The larynx is surrounded by cartilage and often referred to as the voice box. As highlighted in the University of Michigan Medical School’s gross anatomy images, the top portion of the voice box is the hyoid bone (and against which the epiglottis rests), and the bottom portion is the cricoid cartilage. A large section of cartilage around the front of the larynx is the thyroid cartilage (click for interior view). In men, the outer thyroid cartilage of the voice box region is visible under the skin of the throat as the Adam’s apple. As explained by KidsHealth, women have this cartilage, too, but it usually does not grow as much during puberty in girls as it does in boys. Smaller sections of cartilage are present in the larynx to aid in keeping the airway open.
The function of the vocal cords is vocalization – the production of sound from the respiratory system. Air is breathed out from the lungs through the trachea and larynx, and then out the mouth or nose. At the most basic level, as the air passes through the glottis, the vocal cords vibrate, producing sound. Vocalization relies on the vocal cords controlling the size and shape of the glottis. Muscles involved in the use of the vocal cords are the posterior cricoarytenoid, oblique and transverse arytenoids, cricothyroid, lateral cricoarytenoid, thyroarytenoid, and vocalis. The vagus nerve (cranial nerve X) controls these muscles via the inferior laryngeal nerve.
A full listing and descriptions of all anatomical parts, both major and minor, associated with the larynx can be found at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (here).