Falsetto and Head Voice – What The Difference Is, and When to Use Each

female vocalist

Do you dream of reaching those soaring high notes, but aren’t sure how to get up there?

Accessing the higher portion of your vocal range can seem like an uphill struggle when you don’t know how to approach it. It’s natural to feel apprehensive about making a loud sound with your voice when you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to control it, or what it will sound like.

As you continue to explore and develop your singing voice and read about how voice production works, you may come across the terms ‘falsetto’ and ‘head voice’ – and you may also hear them used interchangeably.

While both falsetto and head voice describe singing at a higher pitch and they do have a few things in common, they are not produced in the same way, and they don’t actually sound all that similar either.

Learning the two differences will help you understand how to use each technique to your advantage. There will be times when you will want to hit high notes using your rich and powerful head voice, and there will be times when you will want to approach them in a softer, gentler falsetto – either way, you will need to be in full control of both techniques so you can choose which one will best suit what you’re singing.

We’re going to look at the characteristics, the mechanics, and some examples of both of these singing techniques – and we’re also going to teach you a few practice tips to help you get the hang of them.

Let’s start by looking at how your body produces each of these high-pitched sounds:

How is head voice produced?

Much in the same way that ‘chest voice’ is produced, ‘head voice’ is produced when air is forced through the vocal cords (also called ‘vocal folds’), causing them to vibrate.

When you breathe, your vocal cords are kept apart to let more air pass, so they don’t resist or restrict your outward airflow. When you produce a sound, they’re brought closer together, which enables you to build up air pressure, then push your air out through the smaller gap between them.

When we speak, we’re using our ‘chest voice’, so if you’re new to singing, you’ll probably find singing in your chest voice feels the most comfortable.

But when you move into ‘head voice’, you’re actually using different muscles than the ones you use to sing in your chest voice.

These different arrangements of muscles are known as ‘vocal registers’, and in each vocal register, different muscles in your voice box (or ‘larynx’) take charge to affect your vocal cords:

  • in your chest register, which is also called ‘M1’, your vocal cords are short and thick, with their whole edges vibrating together
  • in your head register, or ‘M2’, your vocal cords are long and thin, with only part of their edges coming into contact

Read our article about vocal registers to find out how this works in more detail.

When should I sing in head voice?

When you want your voice to sound rich and powerful at a higher pitch. If you’re singing over loud, energetic music, and you’re singing lyrics about outward emotions, you want to sing in head voice to match the energy of the song.

How is falsetto produced?

You’ve probably used your falsetto voice before, even if you didn’t know that you were doing it!

When people describe falsetto, they usually use such adjectives as ‘breathy’,’thin’, ‘airy’ and ‘flutey’. You may well have slipped into falsetto when you were last putting on a baby voice to talk to your pet, or doing an impression of Mickey Mouse.

Now that you have an understanding of what’s going on inside your larynx when you transition from chest voice (M1) into head voice (M2), it’s time to answer the question: where does falsetto fit into all of this?

Most singing teachers and vocal coaches would agree that falsetto does belong in the same category as head voice, placing them both in the M2 register. As we know, the pitch of your voice is determined by how thick or thin your vocal cords are, and the pitch of your voice when you sing in falsetto and in head voice is higher than the pitch of your chest voice.

The difference between head voice and falsetto is all to do with airflow – or, to be more precise, the difference in how much the vocal cords are closing.

For both chest voice (M1) and head voice (M2), the vocal cords are kept very close together to restrict airflow as much as possible. This way, air pressure builds up, giving you a more powerful airflow to force between the cords.

For falsetto (also M2), the vocal cords are not kept as close together – in fact, they’re disconnected from each other – which leaves you with a more open throat, allowing more air to flow between them with little to no resistance. This is why your falsetto voice has an airy, whispery quality.

The act of vocal production is called ‘phonation’, and you phonate in different ways depending on how closed (‘abducted’) or open (‘adducted’) your vocal cords are.

For head voice, your vocal cords are more abducted, and when you sing in this style, it’s known as ‘flow phonation’.

For falsetto, your vocal cords are adducted, and when you sing in this style, it’s known as ‘breathy phonation’.

You can also sing in ‘pressed phonation’, which works better lower down in your chest register – if you try to phonate at a pitch at the high end of your chest register with vocal cords that are too adducted, then you could strain your voice.

A common myth you might hear is that only male vocalists can sing using falsetto, which probably comes from the way that the term ‘falsetto’, which means ‘false voice’, was used to describe how male vocalists would sing in this register in an effort to match the pitch of soprano parts.

However, we now know that both male vocalists and female vocalists can sing in falsetto – all that’s happening is that you’re singing with disconnected vocal cords. If more air is allowed to pass through as you sing, it follows that your voice then sounds more breathy and less powerful.

When should I sing in falsetto?

When you want your voice to sound gentle and delicate. If the music you’re singing over is quiet, and the words you’re singing reflect inward emotions, you want to sing in falsetto to keep the vibe intimate.

What are some examples of head voice and falsetto?

When you think of famous high-pitched singers, you might immediately think of groups such as the Bee Gees or Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, and such famous singers as Mariah Carey and Minnie Ripperton.

These are all great examples of vocalists who made entire careers out of singing in head voice, falsetto, and parts beyond – so great, in fact, that it would be impossible to pick a song of theirs that would showcase their talents better than any other!

We’re instead going to take a closer look at how 3 male vocalists and 3 female vocalists make use of both head voice and falsetto in the same song, and whereabouts in that song you can hear the different vocal style being used:

3 songs with male head voice and falsetto

Kiss – Prince

An accomplished vocalist with an impressive vocal range, Prince uses a high falsetto throughout his hit song ‘Kiss’. And rightly so – Prince’s intimate lyrics read as though they are intended for one pair of ears only, and as such are delivered in the hushed tones of a secret.

You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on

I just need your body, baby, from dusk till dawn (falsetto)

The intensity of Prince’s vocal delivery increases as the song reaches its final chorus, with the singer scooping from a low chest voice all the way up to a harsh, almost screamed head voice:

You (chest voice)

Don’t have to be rich to rule my world (head voice)

Head Over Heels – Tears For Fears

Co-frontman and chief songwriter Roland Orzabal switches between chest voice and falsetto throughout this huge 80s hit, to great effect. You can first hear him doing so during the very first line of the verse – the line ‘with you alone’ is singled out for falsetto, to help get the privacy of the singer’s desire across:

I wanted to be (chest voice)

with you alone (falsetto)

and talk about the weather (chest voice)

Roland then takes us one step further at the end of the second verse, switching from falsetto to hit a top note, then switching to head voice to carry him back down:

I feel (falsetto)

So…(head voice)

Paranoid Android – Radiohead

Another great example of a singer veering between head voice and falsetto within the same line occurs at the start of this Radiohead masterpiece. It sounds almost as if lead vocalist Thom Yorke is starting to tell off his noisy neighbours in a strong head voice, then relents into a more gentle falsetto so he doesn’t become as loud as he’s accusing them of being:

Please can you stop (head voice)

The noise I’m trying to get (falsetto)

Some rest (head voice)

There’s another great leap later in the song, this time from a C4 in chest voice up to a C5 in falsetto, like a cry of despair following a build-up of frustration:

Why don’t you remember my name? I guess he does (chest voice)

Ahh! (falsetto)

3 songs with female head voice and falsetto

No Angel – Beyonce

You can recognise the breathiness of Beyonce’s falsetto technique in ‘No Angel’ from the moment she starts singing, as she takes her gentle delivery of the first verse almost to the point of a whisper. This, combined with the sparse, minimal ‘chillwave’-style, is the perfect way to set the scene for such private, confessional lyrics as:

Baby put your arms around me, tell me I’m the problem

No, I’m not the girl you thought you knew and thought you wanted (falsetto)

Queen B also demonstrates the power and control she has over each of her vocal registers, shifting effortlessly between each as she sings. On the second ‘ride’, you can hear her begin to close the gap between her vocal cords, adding pressure and power to her voice:

Tell me do you wanna (chest voice)

Ride (falsetto)

Tell me do you wanna (chest voice)

Ri- (falsetto)

-ide (head voice)

Don’t Speak – No Doubt

In this ultimate break-up track, Gwen Stefani uses the transition from a weaker, more defeated falsetto to the stronger, more commanding head voice to align her vocals perfectly with the transition from the single guitar playing in the first verse to the full band joining in for the chorus:

It looks as though you’re letting go (falsetto)

And if it’s real, well, I don’t want to know (head voice)

Interestingly, Gwen reverses this dynamic towards the end of the song, switching back to falsetto during the outro chorus. This gentle pleading shows a total mood shift from the authoritative “don’t tell me ‘cause it hurts” she sings in the main choruses:

Hush, hush, darlin’

Hush, hush, don’t tell me ’cause it hurts (falsetto)

Moonlight – Ariana Grande

To tell such a romantic tale of sweet, innocent love, Ariana Grande adopts a low, airy singing style, as if she doesn’t want to break the spell cast over their magical night. Falsetto is a perfect fit when you’re singing to somebody who’s right beside you:

The sun is setting and you’re right here by my side

And the movie is playing, but we won’t be watching tonight (falsetto)

You can really hear the difference between the tender moments of the verse the powerful emotional cries of the chorus – although Ariana does switch back to falsetto when she sings the word “moonlight” to make it stand out:

I never knew, I never knew

You could hold (head voice)

moonlight in your hands (falsetto)

How can I practice singing in head voice?

Vocal sirens

Because most of us will naturally be used to singing in the lower M1 register, you need to get used to lengthening and shortening your vocal cords so you can get used to what the M2 register feels like.

Sing a long ‘uh’, starting on a lower note, and slide the pitch of your voice up to a higher note, and back down again. Repeat this a few times, so it sounds like you’re imitating the siren of an emergency vehicle. You will feel a tightening in your throat as you get higher, and a loosening as you get lower.

The aim is to slide your voice up as high as you can without any vocal breaks, which will become easier as you warm up, as well as with regular singing practice. Once you know how high you can slide your voice without breaking, you’ll know how high you can take your head voice.

‘Gee’ and ‘ing’

Certain word sounds we make actually affect our throat muscles too, and knowing how can help you access different parts of your voice.

To make the sounds needed for K and G, we actually stop our airflow, then release it. This is why these sounds are called ‘stop consonants’.

For the G sound especially (which is described as ‘voiced’, because you do make a sound when you say ‘guh’, whereas you just let a hiss of air out for the ‘unvoiced’ K), warming up with this sound can help you keep your larynx low and your cords closed.

As you approach the M2 register, if you’re unsure whether your voice will sound good when it’s that high pitched, you might accidentally switch to the less powerful falsetto, disconnect your vocal cords, and let out a much quieter sound that you were aiming for.

Singing a scale or an arpeggio that crosses from M1 to M2 is a good way to practice keeping your voice level on each note, and if you use the G sound by singing ‘gee’ or ‘ing’ as you raise the pitch of your voice, you’ll find it much easier to stay in your head voice when you hit notes that would otherwise send you into falsetto.

How can I practice singing in falsetto?

Sighing

You need to have excellent breath control for any type of singing you’re doing – after all, air is to your voice what fuel is to a car, so if you run out, you won’t be going anywhere.

However, because you are letting more air pass through the larger gap between your vocal cords when you use falsetto, you need to get used to releasing your air in a different way when you sing.

Take a deep breath and make a long sighing sound. When you sigh, the muscles inside your throat and larynx are set up in the same way as when you sing in falsetto, so this exercise will help you get used to the feeling of disconnected vocal cords.

Yodeling

This is not just for alpine cowherds and cowboys from old western movies – it’s a legitimate vocal warm up that will help you get used to changing straight from the M1 register to the M2 register

The classic yodel you’ve probably heard goes something like: ‘yo – da – lay – hee – hoo’, and it is usually split between the M1 and M2 registers.
Try singing the whole ‘yo – da – lay – hee – hoo’ phrase, and see if you can feel the difference between singing ‘yo – da – lay’, which is your M1 register, and ‘hee – hoo’, which is your M2 register. To sing in M2, remember: hee – hoo’!