Voice Registers

Say ‘Hello’ to the Voice!

This tutorial on Voice Register is aimed at the complete beginner, who we suggest should read the article on Passaggio next!

First of all, the singer has to understand that there is only one set of vocal cords which are used in conjunction with the rest of the vocal mechanism (resonating spaces, airflow, support) to produce sound. This is called ‘Phonation‘. The sound of the voice can vary considerably in range, colour, tone, pitch and registry breaks, sometimes to such an extent that it appears as if the untrained singer has a bottom, middle and top ‘voice’, each of which may display differences in timbre or quality.

Over time various terms were invented and are still used to explain these different resonance areas in the voice. This whole subject area has it’s own terminology known as ‘Pedagogy‘ which is far too extensive for us to go into here. For now, it is enough to know that words like register, chest voice etc. are essentially just convenient labels used to describe the difference in Placement throughout the singer’s range.

The Vocal Cords (Folds)

The vocal cords (folds) are muscles that change in thickness and length. As you sing ascending pitches, the vocal cords (folds) automatically lengthen and thin, whilst singing descending pitches causes the folds to become shorter and thicker. Sound is produced by passing air through the vocal chords (or folds) as they open and close (known as adducting), whilst an individual’s range or amount of notes that they can use is decided by their physical make up, i.e. the length and thickness of the vocal folds and their elasticity, plus other factors like the shape and depth of the resonating chambers (mouth and nasal passages).

What is Placement?

Placement is the term used to describe the technique of being guided by the vibrations and resonances of the body when singing. These sensations can usually be felt in the chest, face, nose, mouth etc.,

What is Register?

Like most things singing related, peoples opinions and descriptive terms differ on this subject, but generally speaking the word ‘register’ is used to describe a section of the voice. These ‘sections’ are loosely catagorised by how cords vibrate, glottal and pharyngeal shape, where the voice resonates in the body and the resulting quality or timbre of the voice.

What is a Register Break?

This is an area of the voice which is situated between one register and another, when the voice breaks or drops a note consistently in the same area, it is usually considered to be a transition point or Passaggio between one register and another, i.e., from a heavy voice to a light voice.

What is Vocal Fry?

Glottal or Vocal Fry is the term used by some to describe lowest part of the voice. It is effectively a toneless “rattle”, rasp or roughness produced by the vocal cords at the lower end of the range which is often used as an effect in rock singing. Click Here for an audio example of spoken glottal fry at Lions Voice Clinic website.

What is Chest Voice or Chest Register

Usually a deep or rich full sound that is most commonly used during speech. Air flows over the vocal folds which are are fully apart and the vibration or resonance can often be felt in the upper chest. This is the area of the voice where you should be singing the lower notes of your range.

What is Middle Voice or Middle Register?

The term Middle Voice is not as commonly used as some of the other descriptions like chest and head voice. This section of the voice may also be referred to as mix or blend and it describes an area where a vocal bridge or passaggio may occur. Once the singer has mastered the art of moving smoothly through this transition area it is considered to be mixed or blended.

What is Head Voice or Upper Register?

Remember those lengthening cords as you ascend the range? Well you’ll need these to access ‘Head Voice’ which is where you should be singing those high notes. The resonance is usually felt in the cheekbone, teeth/lips area which is sometimes referred to as the mask or masque.

What is Whistle Voice or SuperHead?

This is the top end of the vocal range which sounds similar to a whistle or squeal. Few singers use the whistle register although it has gained popularity amongst some female commercial artists.

What is Falsetto or False Voice?

Falsetto is the lightest register and requires loose vocal cords and incomplete closure which produces a breathy voice that can sound quite feminine although it is generally used by men rather than women.

Read more about Falsetto.

How do you know if your singing in Head or Chest Voice?

Place your fingers on your breast bone and then sing a few notes from the bottom end of your range, you should be able to feel the vibration in your chest through your fingers, if you don’t feel anything try belting ‘Hello’ – if your singing in chest voice you should feel something there. If you are singing in your head voice, you should feel the vibrations somewhere in the region of your teeth/lips, cheekbones, nasal cavity, or forehead.

Related Singing Articles and Links

Should I Sing This in my Head Voice or Chest Voice?
A discussion about range, register and tone placement for intermediate and advanced singers, Part I by Yvonne deBandi.

These are just a small example of the extensive links to online exercises and lessons we have available in the Singers Articles section, which contains complete listings of lessons, exercises or articles available on each site with direct links to the page (when not a framed site) plus answers to pretty much everything a beginner, intermediate, advanced singer or teacher needs to know! (All links open in a new window).

Addressing Vocal Register Discrepancies:
An Alternative, Science-Based Theory of Register Phenomena by Leon Thurman, Ed.D., Graham Welch, Ph.D., Axel Theimer, D.M.A., Carol Klitzke, M.S., CCC/SLP at Second International Conference, The Physiology and Acoustics of Singing, National Center for Voice and Speech, Denver, Colorado, USA. 6 – 9 October 2004. (Excellent article on registers including flute/whistle register).

Baroque Tenor
Tako Oda’s response and explanation of head voices and falsetto in Tenors.

Falsetto Pedagogy vs SLS
A technically orientated and informative posting on head voice and falsetto at The Vocalist discussion group by Lloyd W. Hanson.

Registers & Passaggio
Article by voice teacher Paul Mason contains explanatory definitions of vocal registers and passaggio.