Should I Sing This in My Head Voice or Chest Voice

A discussion about vocal range, register and tone placement for intermediate and advanced singers.

As an experienced vocal coach and perpetual student, I have spent twenty years studying and analyzing the singing voice. I often hear complaints from disciplined training students wondering why they are still faced with range limitations or undesirable tone quality changes after weeks, months or even years of diligent practice. Sometimes the answer lies in the much-overlooked vocal component, the pharynx, and the understanding of vocal registers.

The pharynx is simply a passageway from the nasal cavity down to the larynx (and then continuing into the oesophagus). It is known to have three different regions: the nasopharynx (located behind the nose), the oropharynx (located in the rear of the mouth), and the laryngopharynx (behind the throat). Understanding the pharynx and how it works with regard to singing can make a huge difference in a singer’s voice

Just like the pharynx is actually one component divided into three regions for easy reference, singing voices are often categorized in registers (chest voice, middle voice, head voice, falsetto). These regions/registers have assigned names which indicate the tonal quality changes that occur when moving from pitch range to pitch range.

The chest voice is often associated with deep, warm, rich, thick sounds.

The middle voice is generally associated with middle pitch ranges, and warm, rich tones. The middle voice also extends to the inclusion of the vocal mask and a warm, heady sound.

The head voice (women) and falsetto (men) are associated with light, bright singing tones that are higher in pitch and resonate within the upper sinus cavities. (Some singers consider warm, heady tones associated with the vocal mask as the head voice and never reach their range potential. )

When addressed with the question, “Should I sing this in my chest voice or head voice?” my answer is always the same: sing the note. My coaching goals include teaching the student to balance all of the vocal components to achieve the best sound. That requires blending, not separating. Each individual should listen to the note and decide, does it need more warmth or more brightness – and then adjust the vocal instrument to create that sound. Not sure how to do this? The pharynx, the available avenue between most of the resonating cavities, is a major part of the solution.

Review the diagram above (be sure to note the pharynx & resonating cavities) and consider the following analogy and theory: The vocal instrument, your body, is a multi-level building and the pharynx is the elevator inside running from top to bottom.

Sinus cavities are the penthouse and associated with the highest pitches.

The nasal cavity, nasopharynx, and vocal mask represent the top floors.

The oral cavity, oropharynx, and soft palate represent the middle floors.

The upper chest cavity and laryngopharynx represent the first floors.

The lower chest cavity represents the building basement and associated with the lowest pitches.

Many singers refuse to use the elevator which moves effortlessly to the next pitch. Instead, they laboriously climb the building staircase, often taking mental note of each and every stair landing (register or note change). Instead of concentrating on one floor (or one note) at a time, learn to use the pharynx to your advantage and improve the overall tonality of your voice. This technique will also increase your range. Use the following glissando vocal exercise to test out the concept. Be sure your body and instrument are free of tension before beginning.

On the syllable “HEEE” we are going to start on a comfortable low note in our range and slide one pitch at a time to a comfortable high note in our range (from the bottom floor to the top floor of the building, currently ignore the basement and penthouse). Follow these exact instructions:

1. Think about the comfortable low pitch you are going to start on – hear it in your head.

2. As you initiate the pitch, actually create the mind picture of the elevator beginning in your chest.

3. Begin to slide on the syllable “HEEE“, pitch to pitch, up to the comfortable high note. With each note, picture the elevator on a steady, smooth and effortless rise to the top.

4. You will need to gradually increase your airflow with each pitch.

5. Know your top pitch. Hear the top note you wish to hit in your head. As the educated elevator doorman, make a definite yet easy stop once the destination is reached.

The transition between one registers often produces a vocal tone that breaks and cracks, or experiences a great change in quality. The first goal is to sing the “HEEE” syllable strongly over each note; even through a break or tone change should one occur. Repeating this exercise over time will help you gain the necessary strength and coordination to negotiate pitch changes without cracks or breaks. It will also help you develop a full and natural singing voice, with an enviable singing range. This brings us to our next step:

So you want a higher range?

Developing a higher range can be a daunting task and is an eluding goal to many singers. Many students are taught to focus primarily in the vocal mask. As a result, even after years of training, some singers sing up to a certain note and get stuck as if they were hitting their head on the ceiling. Returning to our analogy, it is as if the elevator is reaching the top of the building, or nasal cavity ceiling, and is permitted to go no further. The sound created using this type of focus is often a bit heady or even covered sounding. In order to increase your singing range past this point, we need to access the penthouse, the frontal sinus cavities and cavities in the top and back of the head. The tonal sound created will be light and bright, without the headiness associated with the vocal mask.

For those of you familiar with the fictional character, Willy Wonka, and the famous glass elevator shooting through the roof of the building, this concept may be easier for you because you have a true mind picture of what needs to happen. That’s right; to increase your singing range you need to shoot the elevator through the roof. This requires a minor increase in air flow and a change in focus. Move your focus from behind the bridge of your nose/eyebrow area and turn it to the top of the head. Float the notes easily. You may need to drop your jaw to add space. Don’t search for volume or strength too soon. Sing easily. Repeating this exercise often will help to develop strength, dexterity and stamina within this pitch range.

Follow the steps listed above and do the vocal sirens again, only this time allow the elevator (and focus) to access the Penthouse. Shoot your focus through the roof and sing higher than you ever have before. Use the elevator theory and related mind pictures to help you understand where the tone is focused for every pitch. Remember that the resulting tone should be light and bright, but with a sense of warmth and richness. Although the sensation may seem uncomfortable at first, there is no vocal straining involved. In fact, when done properly, singing very high notes is quite easy.

Remember to drink room temperature water every few exercises to prevent dehydration of your voice instrument.

So you want a lower range?

Now that we have discussed the penthouse portion of the elevator theory, you probably have a notion of where we are going with the basement idea. Let’s call again upon the training exercise vocal sirens to demonstrate the idea, this time beginning on a high note.

1. Think about the comfortable high pitch to start on – hear it in your head first.

2. Initiate the pitch with the mind picture of the elevator starting in the Penthouse.

3. Begin to slide on the syllable “HEEE“, pitch to pitch, down to the lowest note of your singing range. With each note, picture the elevator on a steady, smooth and effortless ride to the bottom.

4. As you reach the bottom of your range it is important to balance the decrease in airflow, the amount of resonating space in the chest cavity, and the amount of muscular control used. As the doorman, experiment with access to these areas. The ability to negotiate the space in the “basement” is directly related to how low you can sing and how warm your tone sounds.

NOTE: Do not “push” the voice in this range at all. It is much better to relax and decrease your airflow, while continuing to support with the diaphragm. With productive vocal practice and repetition the strength of that vocal range will increase. Pushing the voice in this range will only result in stress/damage to the voice organ and delayed vocal development.

Yvonne DeBandi, author of this article, created the vocal training method known as Ten Steps to Singing Success™