It sounds like a battle—the Incredible Hulk vs Iron Man, though definitely not as exciting. Probably less damage to public property however. Joking aside, this topic is the source of much confusion in the singing world. We’re sure many of you are saying, “Aren’t they basically the same thing?” Well, in this article we hope to be able to clear up the differences between these two vocal qualities and shine some light on the pros and cons of each one. This is, of course, only our understanding of it so far. There are many opinions on what each sounds like across the singing world… so we are totally open to debate on if you want to chip in via the mag!
If you’re asking yourself what the use is in knowing the differences between these two vocal registers, then here are a couple of thoughts. The big one is in communication; either for you to discuss what you want to do with your voice or from the other end so a singing teacher, an MD or a producer can communicate their ideas to you. If you are clear about what each voice register is, and what it sounds like, then the process of working with someone who’s directing you will be smoother. The other reason belongs in the technique camp; what each can do for, or against, your voice.
Let’s dig into why these two vocal registers are often confused. Firstly, this is because they are normally produced around a similar group of pitches. Some would classify this ‘group’ as anything above the first bridge or ‘passaggio’ (covered in iSing Issue 3). In more simple terms it’s where the high notes are. For guys this would start (and ascend) on or around Eb4. So knowing that these two vocal registers usually exist around the same pitches, how on earth can they be so different?
Google ‘what’s the difference between head voice and falsetto’, and you’re likely to see a vast amount of attempts at defining the difference. Some discuss what it isn’t and most define it by what it sounds like. Vocal geeks (like us) will want to understand exactly what is happening at the source: the vocal cords. This way, at the very least, you can unleash your newfound wisdom at your next singers’ meet. For this, we have to enlist the help of some voice scientists, namely our good friends at the National Center for Voice and Speech in Iowa, USA.
Some basic anatomy
It’s said that the main distinction occurs at the vocal cord level. If you didn’t already know, the vocal cords are made from several different layers and types of tissue. Remember the cross sections of planet earth that we used to look at in science lessons at school? Visualise the cross section of a vocal cord in the same way, but replace the names of the different layers of rock with the tissues within the vocal fold structure. These are: the epithelium (outer skin), three layers of vocal ligaments and the thyroarytenoid muscle (TA) at the core.
DIAGRAM OF VOCAL CORD CROSS SECTION
The point to remember is that the distinct falsetto sound is created by the exclusive use of the ‘superficial’ layers of the vocal cord. The deeper layers of the vocal cords are disengaged when they vibrate so contact is made solely by these outer, and more pliable layers. We can’t help but think that we’ve been unnecessarily pretentious in our explanation here and so another way to put it is: during the time that the singer is choosing to sing in falsetto, a large proportion of the vocal cord is taking some “time out”.
As far as creating these same notes in head voice, we can simply say that more of the vocal cord mass is being used to create the sound. Like falsetto, the outer layers of the vocal cord are vibrating, but more of the deeper layers are involved in vibration. This generates a richer sound wave with more harmonic energy, which, in head voice range, resonates mostly in the mouth cavity. This resonance sends vibrations throughout the bone structures of the head. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where it gets its name!
Some singers, especially those in the early stages of head voice development, may feel like there isn’t much of a difference between the sensations and sounds of falsetto and head voice. We must remember that although falsetto and head voice each have a unique vocal cord setup, it’s still one instrument that is being used. In real life, these vocal cord configurations don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We may be experiencing a little bit of everything from time to time and across phrases.
Now you’ve been armed with the anatomical knowledge, what kind of sound can you expect?
Let’s start with the head voice.
Due to the extra body of the vocal cord vibrating, the head voice sound is very clean, round in tone, with no breathiness and clear as a bell. We know you’re all probably ‘Rockers and Poppers’, but a classical soprano is a great example of an exclusive head voice user. She will be able to fill a theatre (and break some windows), un-mic’d, with her head voice without having to add much effort, chest-like quality or belt sound. This is because the rich sound wave coming from the body of the vocal cord is carrying like a dream. If you were to ask her to go into falsetto you would immediately notice a sharp drop in volume and energy. This is because falsetto loses a lot of the sound energy due to the lack of vibrating vocal cord body.
The Falsetto Sound
Falsetto, on the other hand, is flute-like and a little softer typically, but not exclusively.
Some singers, e.g. Frankie Valli, have managed to develop a very strong falsetto sound.
Singing in falsetto can also requires quite a bit of effort if it’s breathy. This is because you get less output for the same (or often more) effort than head voice. This makes falsetto an inefficient sound. Which means going soft and airy on a sound in order to “save our voice” can often leave us more ragged due to this principle.
Another pro of head voice is its muscular similarity with the chest voice. As we’ve already said, in head voice the vocal cords are together and active in their different layers. Because chest voice also has more beef in the vocal cord, it has some common ground with head voice and can smoothly blend there. Huge benefit: Not only can you blend there, but you can add more vocal cord activity to it, resulting in what many may describe as the elusive ‘mixed voice’ [OOOOOOOOH]. However, when moving to a falsetto sound from chest, much of the vocal cord muscle has to switch off. This is why we hear such a difference in tone when moving between them, often called a ‘flip’.
There are no rules when style is concerned
When it comes to vocal style anything goes of course! You could quack through a song in the name of ‘freedom of expression’, who are we to argue? However, if you would like to sell a few albums or get people to turn up to your show then the farmyard stuff might have to stop. Instead you could choose falsetto to get very tender lyrics across. Flipping into falsetto from your chest will deliver a more dreamy and emotive dynamic. Here’s a great example from David Ruffin as he sings “…break my heart..” In the chorus of Walk Away from Love.
Typical contemporary genres that use both the falsetto and head voice are soul/RnB, pop, country and folk. Singers that create a feast of both falsetto and head are:
Male – Frankie Valli, Philip Bailey (Earth Wind & Fire), Barry Gibb (Bee Gees), Justin Timberlake, and UK’s very own 2015 Grammy Award winner, Sam Smith.
Female – Ellie Goulding, Donna Summer, Dido, Sarah McLaughlin, Sade.
When it comes to classical music, and the more ‘legit’ (stage speak for ‘classical-style’) musical theatre, a clean head voice is often the preferred sound for the ladies and sometimes the guys, for example in parts of Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.
The Round Up
Head voice and falsetto can compliment each other, and any style of singing. They are, simply, two different vocal cord settings used over a similar pitch range producing different sound colours. Because of the insane amount of variety there is in our voices and genetics, falsetto and head voice can sound wildly different between singers. Which is why it’s sometimes hard to figure out which one is which! But, in a general sense (and this is very, very general) one is usually clearer, fuller and cleaner than the other. Whatever the resulting sound is, it’s about what level of emotion and connection that head or falsetto respectively bring to a piece. That’s their best attribute!
Chris Johnson and Steve Giles are both experienced vocal coaches working in Southampton and London. They are with the Vocology In Practice teacher network and specialize in training clients in advanced vocal technique, style and improvisation. They are co-founders and presenters of the popular iTunes singer’s interest podcast The Naked Vocalist. As well as coaching and pod casting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts. www.thenakedvocalist.com
SUBSCRIBE AND NEVER MISS OUT ON MORE GREAT ARTICLES LIKE THIS