Now I’m getting into dangerous territory for a voice teacher. Coming right out and saying what you believe are the “official registers” is akin to declaring your political party in a social gathering. As soon as the words come out of your mouth, other voice teachers are going to start judging you. Ha ha!
While I think most voice teachers can agree on a few names, it’s the middle ones that start to get murky and are called by all kinds of names, but here is my take on it.
What’s important is not the names of the registers, or even that you can sing in more than one. What’s important is having facility in the registers that are most appropriate for your message at the moment. If you tend to have a big personality and have big messages that you want to get across in a loud manner, then you are definitely going to want to be able to “belt.” If you are wanting to sing lullabies to your children, then a soft chest voice for men and perhaps a head voice for women.
After after 50 years of singing and over 25 years of teaching singing, here is my take on helpful terminology from low to high:
Vocal Fry or Pulse Register
This is your lowest register and the one that has gotten a lot of attention lately because of controversies surrounding the use of it by more and more young women today. Here is Amelia Clark demonstrating the use of it in speaking:
From Wikipedia: “It is produced through a loose glottal closure that permits air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency.”
Because it is so annoying to me in speech, I was on the band wagon of “it must be bad for you.” (I slip into it myself and annoy myself.) But then I heard a very persuasive podcast by vocologist Dr. Heather Nelson who explained that is just a register like any of the other registers, and using it does not harm your voice. That makes a lot of sense.
This is the register most of us speak in (when not dipping down into fry). What’s interesting to me is that when beginning male singers come in for their first lesson, they usually start out singing in their chest registers, but when beginning female singers come in for their first lesson, they usually start out singing in their head register (coming up next).
In order to get the women to sing in their chest register, I usually go through a whole series of exercises that go something like this:
- “Say ‘Hey! How’s it going?'”
- They say it.
- “Now say, ‘Heeeeeeeyyy! How’s it going?’ and stretch out the ‘Hey!'”
- They say it like that.
- I find the pitch on the piano, which is usually below middle C.
- “Now, say the whole phrase on this one pitch and stretch out each word: ‘Heeeeey! Hoooooow’s iiiiit gooooing?”
- They do it.
- “Now, you’re actually singing in your chest voice.”
- “Now, sing it up a half step here.”
- They do it.
- “Now, sing it up another half step here.” and I continue until they’re well up above middle C, and I exclaim, with joy, “Now! You’re singing in your chest voice!”
- And they ALWAYS say, “Yeah, but that’s just yelling!”
Ha ha! Yeah, well, it kind of is.
I have to admit, I only ever officially learned about this register when I took a few lessons with Billy DiCrosta over in East Haven. I had my suspicions about it long ago, but Billy helped me really find it.
He used to bust me all the time for talking about my “break.” I hated that, but I did come around to his way of thinking because I believe him now. What you call it has power, and if, instead, you call it a BRIDGE, then you are more likely to find a way to manage that part of your range. A “break” is the word many people use to describe the point at which their voice changes drastically into their head voice. It goes from a strong sound to a soft sound, and a lot of people don’t like that. So, if you want to learn how to smooth out that part of your range, then you need to develop a bridge in your range using mixed voice. We could talk about this for hours, but just check out my demonstration at the end of this discussion.
Head or Falsetto Register
This is the higher part of your range that is more flutey sounding. Amateur female singers tend to make much more use of it than amateur male singers, but it is a powerful tool for expression that all singers everywhere would do well to develop.
Many teachers would distinguish between head and falsetto calling falsetto the part of your range between head and whistle. Unless you’re singing classical music, I don’t think it’s a helpful distinction.
I’ve had many students ask me how to develop strength in their head voice, and I say the same thing every time: USE IT! Just sing anything up there a lot. Take any song and sing it way up high in your range until you have to use your head voice to sing it. Many people who don’t sing on a regular basis don’t even know they can do it.
Here are some examples of current singers using it:
- Here’s Aaron Neville right at the point of the song where he’s using it.
- Here’s one of Adam Levine’s most amazing moments, in my book, where he seamlessly goes from chest to mix to head and back and forth. Check it out from this point in the song.
- Here’s Christina Aguilera using her head register singing, “…reflection show who I am inside.”
This guy, Mark Baxter, has put together a really great video of him singing an entire song while overlaying the audio with a discussion of which voice he’s using when.
This is that crazy high-pitched voice that little kids use on a regular basis to scream. People describe it as ear-piercing, and it usually carries a negative connotation to it, but singers over centuries have been using it to wow their audiences. Here is a really great video showing singers over the last hundred years using it. You might want to turn down the volume on your speakers or headphones.
Many students ask me in the first lesson, “Am I an alto?” (or soprano or tenor or baritone or bass). My answer is always to say, “You might feel more comfortable in one range or another, but I consider it my job to help you stretch your range out to about three octaves and learn how to use every register available to you.”
If you are wanting to improve your singing, I encourage you to experiment by singing in every register on a regular basis. Whether you want to identify as a soprano, mezzo soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, or bass is a discussion for another blog post.