You’ve probably heard one or all of the following terms: chest voice, head voice, mixed voice and falsetto.
But do you know what each means? More importantly, do you know how to make use of each to improve your singing?
There are a lot of misconceptions, especially when it comes to head voice and falsetto. We will clear up any of those.
We will also provide a number of exercises to help you transition from one register to another and to help you learn how to mix your head and chest voice together.
It is important to understand the terms, but it is even more important to use each of the voice types correctly. And eventually, after a lot of hard work, it is important to be able to transition between them easily and without any breaks. This is difficult to learn, but we will give you the exercises to get you there.
Let’s begin by explaining the terms.
Our chest voice is basically our normal speaking voice. It is referred to as ‘chest voice,’ because the main resonance cavity (the area of our body that vibrates) is the chest, specifically the lower neck and sternum
Give it a try now. Put a hand on your chest and say the word ‘at.’ Draw out the ‘a’ sound and feel the vibration in your chest.
Our chest voice occupies the lower part of our vocal range. When we use it, our vocal cords come together and form a firm seal. As the air flows between the cords, they vibrate along their entire length.
Here’s a video that demonstrates chest voice and shows you how to work on it.
The chest voice has a firm and rich tone, but there is one problem. As we move into the higher notes and our vocal cords tighten, we reach a point where the cords can’t stretch any further. If we push higher beyond this point, our vocal cords prevent damage by breaking apart (and actually changing their thickness) and entering the falsetto range.
Whereas the chest voice is firm and rich, the falsetto voice is airy and light. As a singer, we would love to maintain that rich sounds for higher notes as well.
Luckily, we can do just that. The secret lies in practicing singing through the break, so that we can smoothly transition from a predominantly chest voice to a predominantly head voice. Notice the use of the word ‘predominantly.’ Ideally, we want to use both our chest and head voices at the same time, something generally referred to as our mixed voice. More on all of this below.
A lot of people mistakenly believe that head voice and falsetto are basically the same thing. This is not the case at all.
Unlike falsetto, the vocal cords stay in contact with each other when using your head voice. No excess air escapes, making for a clean and clear sound that is very different from the airy falsetto sound.
The term ‘head voice’ refers to the fact that you feel vibration in the upper half of your face, with the main resonator being your nasal and sinus cavities.
Here’s a video that demonstrates head voice and how to work on it.
Falsetto literally means ‘false voice.’ It is characterized by a very airy sound. When your tone changes from clear and firm to airy, you know you are singing falsetto.
The reason for the airy tone is how the vocal cords act. In falsetto, the vocal folds come close enough to one another to cause the edges to vibrate as the air flows between them, but they do not make contact. The airy sound is the result of the air escaping through the space left between the cords.
Differences between head voice and falsetto
The head voice and falsetto can sound very similar. In fact some people say they are the same. They both use a ‘head’ tone where the sound is felt in the head and not the chest.
Falsetto is a thinner sound and is strictly in the head. It only uses the thin, leading edges of the vocal folds to vibrate. Head voice is actually a mix of chest and head voice (it should be anyway), which is generally a stronger sound than falsetto.
As mentioned, these two are often used interchangeably and they can sound similar, which is why some people say they are the same. With both, the sound is felt in the head and not the chest. Despite the similarities, they are actually very different.
In falsetto there is no natural vibrato. Yes, you can add vibrato, but you have to force it. When singing using your head voice, vibrato occurs naturally.
The head voice also goes along with the modal register (i.e. head and chest voice) and it is sung with an open throat and a lowered larynx, similar to when you yawn. Falsetto, on the other hand, is achieved by stretching the vocal folds with only the ends vibrating. Your throat is closed and your larynx is up. For this reason, head voice is sometimes referred to as ‘open throat falsetto.’
Falsetto can reach much higher notes than head voice. The tonal difference between head voice and falsetto is very pronounced in men, due to the dark nature of the modal register. In women, the difference is much more subtle, due to their more feminine timber. They have falsetto just as men do, but it simply is not as noticeable.
Should I Use My Head Voice Or Chest Voice?
This is a trick question. You should always use both in what is referred to as your ‘mixed voice.’ This does not always mean an equal mix. At times it will be mostly chest voice and at other times largely head voice. But you never want to use only your head or your chest voice.
The reason you always want to use your mixed voice is that when you sing completely in one register, it makes it difficult to navigate to the register above or below. When you are already using some head voice to sing a lower note, it makes it much easier to move up to a higher note that requires the use of head voice.
Ideally, the audience should not be able to tell whether you are using your head voice or chest voice. The goal is a solid, evenly flowing tone throughout your vocal range.
For male singers, the point at which the chest voice breaks is around the notes E, F, F-sharp, or G above middle C. For females, it is at A-flat, A, B-flat, or B above middle C. You want to learn how to ‘fade’ into the next register, i.e. your head voice. Once you get this down, your vocal cords no longer break apart in order to protect themselves.
Instead, they begin to thin out like falsetto, but they stay together as they thin. As you get up into the highest notes, they actually zip up a little, which results in a clear tone, since the cords maintain good contact with each other. They do not need to tense up in order for you to hit higher notes.
With a mixed voice that takes you through the registers, your voice ends up sounding huge in both tone and range. It might be a bit difficult to learn to mix your chest and head voices, but there are a number of exercises that can get you there. And they’re not difficult either. First, a video.
Exercises For Practicing Your Mixed Voice
The following exercises are all ones you can do on your own. That said, it is always better to work with an experienced vocal coach, since they can ensure you do not end up with any bad habits and they will also speed up the learning process considerably.
One of the simplest and best exercises for practicing your mixed voice is the lip trill (covered in this post). Lip trills allow you to flow through each part of your voice.
Another great exercise is to sing an ‘ah’ on a descending 5 note scale, going down by half steps. Start on a high note in falsetto and keep the tone in falsetto as far down as you can. This exercise helps you bridge the gap between falsetto, head voice and chest voice. You can do this exercise in reverse as well, starting in a soft chest voice and taking it as high as you can into falsetto.
Working through the transitions is difficult and not fun, but it is vital if you want a free and relaxed tone in all areas of your voice. Keep at it and you will eventually have a smooth voice that can easily sing through any transition.
To further help you achieve this, here are six more great exercises that were adapted from Thought Co.
As the name might suggest, you want to move from a yawn to a sigh. Start with the highest note you can hit and slide down to the lowest note with an exaggerated sigh. You want to slide down the scale as slowly as possible, especially during the transitions where you generally have trouble with your voice breaking. For male singers, this is usually the transition between falsetto and the head voice. For female singers, it is the transition from baritone to bass. You want to repeat the yawn-sigh several times, going slower through the challenging sections every time.
Place your hand on your chest and make a long grunting sound. You should be feeling vibrations in your chest, which means you are using your chest voice. Next, raise your pitch slowly and grunt again. You’ll notice that the vibrations will be harder to feel the higher you go. The goal is to adjust the tone and vibration in the higher registers. Once you have achieved that, you’ve successfully combined the low and high registers of your voice.
This is a very methodical exercise that will help you determine your weaknesses in moving up the chromatic scale. Start at the bottom of the scale and slide up into the next note. Pay close attention to each pitch between the two notes. Take your time. You want to sing and discern every pitch between each note. When you feel happy with your transition, start again on the last note you ended on and slur up to the next pitch.
Portamento is an Italian word meaning “to carry the voice.” A more common name for this warm-up exercise is “slides.” It is similar to slurring up the scale in that it relies on an in-depth understanding of the pitches and tones between notes. Begin by choosing a vowel sound and creating a note with it. Buzz your lips throughout the exercise and slide from high to low and back.
The Portamento exercise helps you learn how to mix and connect registers. Sliding from the top to the bottom of your voice or from the bottom to the top allows you to work on specific transitions between them. The best way to do this exercise is to choose two pitches, one above and one below the break with which you are having trouble. Slide between the two over and over and eventually, you should be able to eliminate any vocal “bumps.”
The Messa Di Voce
This is another Italian word and it means “placing of voice.” This exercise involves singing a certain pitch in crescendo then decrescendo. By singing soft-to-loud and then loud-to-soft on one pitch, you learn to sing the note in question in both registers.
This is a very difficult exercise, so I recommend beginning on a pitch you are comfortable singing. Generally, people with start of with “la,” but you can pick any syllable or vowel.
The Messa di Voce exercises allows you to assess the power of specific pitches within your vocal range. It gives you a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses at opposite ends of the scale, which then makes it easier to transition between high and low notes.
The Octave Leap
This refers to jumping 8 notes at a time, which means you are basically singing the same note, but at a higher or lower octave. Ideally, you want to start on a note above or below the point where your voice generally cracks. Then leap up or down one octave, which results in you having sung both registers.
The difference between an octave leap and a slide is that you are not moving through every note in between, but jumping directly to the next register up or down. The goal is to achieve a fluid transition.