Vocal registers are confusing. We use terms like “belt voice”, “chest register”, “head voice” and “falsetto”. Vocal coaches have been using these for years, but they mean many different things. People can’t seem to agree.
Speech pathologists and other voice experts don’t have this problem because they know plenty about how the throat works. We should use the same terms as the experts, so we can better understand our voice and each other. The more we understand our voice; the more we can improve our singing. In this article, I’ll show you how a little anatomy and science can help you become a better singer.
TRADITIONAL VOICE REGISTERS
We’ve been trying to classify the voice for hundreds of years, and a few terms have stuck. Here’s a general idea of what the common traditional terms mean.
THREE TRADITIONAL VOCAL REGISTERS
There are three common registers: chest register (or belt), head register and falsetto. Chest voice refers to the mid-range, powerful voice we use the most, and falsetto is our soft high voice. Some people say head register sits between chest voice and falsetto, others say that head voice is falsetto. I think you’ll agree that there’s room for improvement.
THE PROBLEM WITH TRADITIONAL REGISTERS
The traditional terms are confusing because they try to describe two things at the same time. There are two different concepts involved – the voice register and the vocal resonance. We tend to mix these together and talk about them as if they are one thing.
Vocal Registers vs. Vocal Resonances
WHAT ARE VOCAL REGISTERS?
Vocal registers are different functions of the throat. Sound comes from vibration, and our voice can vibrate in one of four different patterns. We use these functions unknowingly to talk and sing in different vocal ranges. There are areas of overlap where you can sing the same note in different registers (but not at the same time).
What are Vocal Resonances?
Vocal resonances are changes in vocal timbre (tone colour). Timbre is the distinctive sound quality, like “twangy”, “hoarse”, or “airy”. We create timbres by changing the shape of our mouth or throat. Vocal resonances are based on the idea that sound travels and changes through “resonators” in our body. We say this because it feels like things are happening in our body. We even name them after body parts (chest, head etc). In reality, most (if not all) of these changes in timbre occur in our throat and mouth.
The Myth of Mixing
As singers, we often talk about the concept of a “mixed” voice, but what does that mean? You can only ever use one vocal register at a time – there’s no such thing as a mixed register. There’s no mixed version of vocal resonances either because they’re mixed all the time! Changing your resonance sounds a bit like combining registers, but it’s not the same thing. A voice that sounds mixed is likely singing a bright timbre in a low register, or a rich timbre in a higher register.
How do Vocal Registers Work?
The Vocal Folds
Your voice originates in the vocal folds. It was once thought that the voice had vocal cords that work like violin strings when air passes over them. Our vocal folds aren’t shaped like cords but they work in a similar way.
The vocal folds are a pair of mucous membranes stretched across the larynx. When we sing or talk, the folds come together enough that they vibrate when we exhale. Our voice creates pitches by changing the shape and size of the vocal folds. When we switch registers, our larynx changes the pattern of vibration.
THE FOUR (NEW) VOCAL REGISTERS
The Modal Register
Our normal singing and talking voice is the modal register. You might think of this as “chest voice” or “belt voice”, but neither term is very helpful or accurate. Nothing unusual happens in your chest, and most of the time you’re not belting when you use it!
Modal voice uses the best combination of airflow and glottal tension to achieve the most vibration. We call this balance of airflow and tension the “resonant mode”, thus the term “modal register”. When we sing, the vocal cords contact each other completely as they vibrate (see the animation). As our pitch increases, the vocal folds tense and lengthen.
The Falsetto Register
Falsetto is the breathy, flute-like sound used to sing in the upper range. When singing falsetto, the vocal folds are further apart than in the modal register.
Contrary to popular belief, women have falsetto too – in fact, it was proven decades ago. Studies into the female falsetto date back to the 50s and 60s. The timbre is very similar between female falsetto and modal voice. This may explain why many people still refuse to believe it exists.
The Whistle Register
The whistle register, named after its shrill sound, can produce the highest pitches. It is produced using only the back of the vocal folds. We don’t know as much about whistle register because the mechanisms of the throat close up, making it harder to film and study. As we don’t use the whistle register very often, it can take a lot more practice to become proficient.
Vocal Fry Register
The lowest register is vocal fry. It’s produced by air bubbling through a loose opening between the vocal folds. It creates an obvious “gurgling” sound. While vocal fry is very common in everyday speech, we don’t see it used as often in singing. Some genres discourage its use for stylistic reasons. Vocal fry is useful for obtaining very low bass notes, but some consider it a false bass sound.
The Confusion Behind The Term “Head Voice”
Head voice is a popular term but what does it mean? Can we even translate it to this new system? It’s not clear whether “head voice” corresponds to whistle, falsetto or even modal register. Depending on who you ask, it could sit between chest and falsetto voice, above falsetto, or it could be identical to falsetto. The anatomical terms describe exactly what our body is doing. No confusion.
UNDERSTANDING IT ALL
Remember this – vocal resonances describe timbre. They’re named after parts of the body because they “feel like” they make those regions vibrate. Vocal Registers define your vocal range. They are different vibration patterns or functions of the throat.
HOW TO APPLY IT
Understanding registers of the throat will help you to use and develop your voice. The voice is a difficult instrument to master. Unlike most instruments, you can’t peek inside while singing to see what’s happening. You can’t look at a person and know which muscles to use. You have to “discover” how the voice feels.
In speech, you use all the registers unconsciously. As a singer, you need to know what they feel like and when to use them. Experiment with vocal registers, and try to see which ones you can sing. It may take some time to learn how to switch to your whistle and vocal fry registers at will. You might get tired after a while of using a new voice register but stop immediately if it starts to hurt.