Head Voice vs Chest Voice: What’s The Difference?

female vocalist

Understanding the difference between head voice and chest voice is essential for anyone serious about singing. Whether you’re belting out rock anthems or crooning jazz standards, understanding head and chest voice, and the techniques for transitioning between the two can be your ticket to next-level vocal mastery. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about vocal registers, including what they are, how they’re used, and practical tips for seamless transitions.

What Are Vocal Registers?

Before we delve deep into head voice and chest voice, it’s pivotal to understand the role vocal registers play in shaping our vocal tone. Vocal registers are specific tonal ranges in your voice, determined by unique sets of muscle configurations within your vocal folds, commonly referred to as vocal cords.

When you sing, air from your lungs flows through these vocal cords, causing them to vibrate and produce sound. This sound’s pitch is governed by the tension and length of the vocal cords. In the world of singing, different vocal registers—like chest voice, head voice and falsetto—are utilised through varying muscle coordination, air pressure, and even posture, to produce distinct tones and pitches.

What is Chest Voice?

Chest voice is the vocal register predominantly used during casual conversation and is often the most familiar register for many singers. This register is defined by its robust, full-bodied sound that appears to originate from the chest area, giving it its name. 

When you employ chest voice, the vocal cords are more relaxed and thicker, allowing for less air to pass through. This results in a lower pitch and vibrations that can typically be felt in the chest and throat area. These specific characteristics of the vocal cords contribute to the sound’s rich, warm, and resonant qualities, making chest voice an ideal choice for conveying emotional depth and raw power in your singing.

What is Head Voice?

Head Voice is a vocal register often used to hit higher notes and is characterised by a lighter, more ethereal sound. Unlike chest voice, where the vibrations are felt primarily in the chest, the head voice creates vibrations felt in the head or sinus cavity, thus its name. 

When singing in head voice, the vocal cords are stretched and thinned, allowing more air to pass through, resulting in a higher pitch. This stretching of the vocal cords creates a sound that’s often described as bright and clear. Employing head voice provides the versatility to traverse higher octaves while maintaining vocal clarity, making it essential in just about every vocal style, including classical, gospel, and pop.

Comparing Chest Voice and Head Voice

To understand the key differences between chest voice and head voice, we’ve put together a side-by-side comparison for easy reference. Here’s how they compare:

AspectChest VoiceHead Voice
Tone and ResonanceProduces a rich, full-bodied tone that feels like it’s emanating from your chest.Yields a lighter, more ethereal sound that resonates in the head or sinus cavity.
Vocal Cord ConfigurationThe vocal cords are thicker and the vibrations are primarily felt in the chest.The vocal cords are stretched and thinner, allowing for higher pitches to be achieved.
Physical SensationOften feels like you’re speaking or projecting from your chest.You’ll likely sense vibrations in your head or sinus area, giving a ‘floaty’ feel to your sound.
VersatilityCommon in genres that require a strong, robust vocal like rock, blues, and soul.Frequently used in classical music, pop ballads, and musical theatre where a broader range is often necessary.
Strength and WeaknessPowerful but can be straining when pushing to hit higher notes.Allows for more range but may lack the robustness and power that chest voice delivers.
Chest Voice vs Head Voice

Understanding Mixed Voice and the Passaggio

Now that you’re well-acquainted with the nuances of head and chest voice, the next logical step is to master the art of transitioning between them. This brings us to the realm of mixed voice and the passaggio. While they’re not the same thing, they are closely related and crucial for a smooth vocal journey.

Passaggio

The passaggio refers to the specific notes or pitch range where your voice naturally transitions between two vocal registers, such as from chest voice to head voice. Understanding where your own passaggio lies is crucial for gaining control over those transitional moments in your vocal performance.

Mixed Voice

Once you’ve got a handle on your passaggio, you’ll find mixed voice is your go-to technique for navigating these transitions smoothly. Mixed voice blends the characteristics of both chest and head voice, thereby creating a unified, seamless sound across a wide range of pitches.

Where does ‘Middle Voice’ come into this?

While “mixed voice” is a technique, “middle voice” is sometimes used to describe the sound that results from this blend. 

Understanding these concepts will significantly improve your ability to transition between registers, making for a more dynamic and versatile vocal performance.

Recognising Chest & Head Voice

When you’re singing, your body offers invaluable feedback through physical sensations. These sensations can help you identify whether you’re in head voice or chest voice, and how to make purposeful shifts between them.

How it Feels to Sing in Chest Voice

Singing in chest voice typically feels grounded and resonant. You might sense vibrations primarily in your chest and throat, almost as if the sound is emanating from these areas. This physical feeling mirrors the deep, full tones associated with chest voice.

How it Feels to Sing in Head Voice

Switching to head voice, you’ll likely notice that the vibrations shift upwards, resonating more in the mask of your face, or even in the head or sinus cavity. This corresponds to the lighter, clearer tones you produce when singing in this register.

Exercises to Identify Each

To better understand these sensations, try these exercises:

  1. Chest Voice: Start by speaking as you normally would and notice where you feel the vibrations. Gradually pitch your voice higher and higher until you notice a shift in vibration and resonance. This will give you a sense of your chest voice range.
  2. Head Voice: Hum a high note and pay attention to where you feel the resonance. Slowly slide down your range while maintaining that feeling of head resonance. This exercise will help you get a feel for your head voice.

Notable Singers and Examples

When it comes to mastering the art of vocal registers, there’s no better way to learn than by observing those who’ve perfected it. Here are some stellar artists renowned for their expertise in both chest and head voice:

Chest Voice Maestros

Aretha Franklin: Known as the Queen of Soul, her powerful chest voice has become the stuff of legends, setting the gold standard for emotive, resonant singing.

Johnny Cash: His deep, resonant chest voice is instantly recognisable and a cornerstone of country music.

Head Voice Virtuosos

Mariah Carey: With her phenomenal vocal range, Mariah’s head voice is as iconic as her chart-topping hits. She frequently employs whistle tones, which take head voice to an even higher level.

Jeff Buckley: Famous for his hauntingly beautiful cover of “Hallelujah”, his head voice transitions are so fluid they seem almost ethereal.

Masters of Both Worlds

Whitney Houston: Her ability to transition effortlessly between chest and head voice is one of the reasons she’s considered one of the greatest singers of all time.

Freddie Mercury: The Queen frontman’s vocal prowess lies not just in his incredible range, but also in his seamless ability to switch between different vocal registers.

Head Voice and Falsetto: Are They the Same?

Now that we’ve covered the differences between head voice and chest voice, the next inevitable question that comes to mind may well be, what’s the difference between head voice and Falsetto?

While they may seem similar, head voice and falsetto are not interchangeable. A common mix-up, so let’s set the record straight. Both registers deal in the high-note arena, but they’re governed by different vocal cord configurations and have unique sonic identities.

In head voice, the vocal cords are stretched but remain engaged, offering you a balanced blend of power and range. It’s a full-bodied sound that allows for tonal richness even in higher pitches.

Falsetto, on the other hand, is the ethereal cousin you bring out for special occasions. Here, the vocal cords are more separated, vibrating only at the edges, which produces a lighter, airier sound. Think of it as the vocal equivalent of floating on a cloud; it’s dreamy but lacks the robustness that head voice delivers.

Falsetto in Male and Female Vocalists

It’s worth noting that the line between head voice and falsetto tends to be more pronounced among male vocalists. Men often use falsetto to reach pitches that are higher than their head voice range, usually resulting in a more noticeably different texture and tonality. For female singers, the distinction is often subtler, but it’s still an essential aspect to grasp.

Wrapping Up Chest Voice and Head Voice

Getting to grips with the differences between chest voice, head voice, and the transitional art of the Passaggio can be your gateway to vocal excellence. It’s not just about hitting the high notes or belting out the low ones; it’s about understanding the mechanics and sensations behind your voice to become a more versatile and emotive singer.