Getting the best out of falsetto

When George Michael hits that top note in Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, it makes me feel uplifted and I (in true karaoke style) belt out that high note with him. The feeling that follows is one of total satisfaction. That is just one example of an artist using falsetto to connect with the lyric of a song, e.g. singing the word ‘high’ and using his high falsetto to highlight the lyric – I consider this “Intelligent Singing”.

George Michael, Maxwell, Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Prince and Eddie Kendricks (from The Temptations) are just a few of the artists who use falsetto to emphasise meaning in their songs. Check out some prime examples listed at the end of this article.

Let’s check out Wikipedia’s description of falsetto:

Falsetto literally means “false” (Italian diminutive of falso) and is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register, overlapping with it by approximately one octave. It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords, in whole or in part. Commonly cited in the context of singing, falsetto, a characteristic of phonation by both men and women, is also one of four main spoken vocal registers recognised by speech pathology.

In my opinion, there is nothing false or fake about falsetto, rather it is a very “true” and important part of expressing yourself as a singer. Falsetto enables a singer to express a plethora of feelings, emotions and sentiments that cannot be described by mere words alone. It allows the singer’s soul and spirit to soar above the clouds.

Stand up everyone and give falsetto a round of applause…

  • Without you, we would have never had the unique sound of the Bee Gees, (everybody sing) ha ha-ha-ha- Stayin’ Aliiiive.
  • Without you Pharrell Williams’ anthemic song would not have become a viral phenomenon, causing us to clap along and take the roof off our rooms so that we feel what it’s like to be Happyeee!
  • Where would we be without Prince and his high, resonating, edgy …OW!

Yes, we celebrate your universal appeal, whether you’re edgy, breathy, hooty, smooth or rough. Whatever genre you wear, be it rock, pop, soul, gospel, R&B, musical theatre, or out in the ‘country’…you are loved the world over, there is no denying your ability to evoke emotions.

It puzzles me when I hear singers tell me how their falsetto lacks variation and tonal qualities. I don’t believe it lacks a single thing.

Describing falsetto

Falsetto has its own unique personality, colour, and nuance. Falsetto can touch people in a way that a “mixed” voice, a belt or a chest voice just can’t. It’s subtle, soft, breathy, edgy, high, mature and smooth. But by nature, it carries with it its own challenges, challenges that need mastering in order for falsetto to reach its full potential and power to move people. Perfecting falsetto requires daily discipline.

Generally speaking, falsetto is thought of as predominantly breathy or ‘hooty’, but it can also be done with a little bit more “edge” on it. Think of the Bee Gees or Eric Benét in his song Love The Hurt Away listen from 3:56 to hear the example.

Eric Benét

The falsetto range will differ from singer to singer. Guys can typically start going into falsetto from as low as D4 onwards. Ladies can typically start going into falsetto (also called whistle tone) from G4 up. Falsetto in a woman’s voice is sometimes harder to detect as the female vocal apparatus is a lot smaller and able to cope more easily with higher pitches than the male apparatus. A woman’s chest voice needs to be well established for the contrast of falsetto to be apparent.

Does falsetto = head voice?

There are some on-going debates about falsetto, including whether falsetto and head voice are the same, whether you can strengthen it, or even if it is healthy to sing in falsetto all the time. I have heard people say, “it is a breathy quality” as well as “it’s quite edgy and powerful”. So, which one is it? Take it from someone who is mastering the use of falsetto – it can be what you want it to be.

I am of the school that there is only one voice, however, singers can experience ‘sympathetic vibrations’ (sensations of resonance) when singing different pitches.

This is how I like to explain the difference between falsetto and head voice.

To start:

Chest voice references the sympathetic vibrations a singer feels when singing in the lower range.

Head voice references the sympathetic vibrations a singer feels when singing in the higher range.

In head voice there are 2 voice qualities/postures: the mixed/middle voice quality and the falsetto quality.

(I use quality/posture to refer to micro positions of the vocal folds, larynx, air, vowels, soft pallet and hard pallet and the amount of each being used. In other words, the position all of these are in whilst singing.)

Postures include:

  1. The position of the vocal folds – whether closed or open.
  2. The vocal fold closed quotient – meaning the percentage of time the vocal fold is closed during an oscillation, also called a mucosal wave.
  3. The vocal folds can close in head voice and still be falsetto in quality but the tone has less of the breathiness or hootyness by directing sound more towards the hard pallet, thus creating an ‘edge’ or bite to the sound. How much of the vocal fold is actually closed during the mucosal wave can be the difference between falsetto and middle/mixed voice in the higher ranges? The mixed voice in the higher pitches feels like it sits in the head voice area of resonance, but the quality has much more of an anchor to the chest voice sound.
  4. Larynx position and tongue positions.
  5. How much air is being used?  Ultimately, when a singer is fully in control of his or her vocal technique, they are at liberty to do as they please.

I hope that this has given you some good food for thought with regard to using falsetto, and celebrating its use in your own voice, and ultimately in your songs. Check out the video below where we’ll explore using falsetto in my song, ‘A Kiss’.


Top examples of falsetto

George Michael Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

Pharrell Williams Happy

Justin Timberlake Cry Me a River

Mariah Carey I Give My All

Whitney Houston I Wanna Run to You

Earth, Wind and Fire (Phillip Bailey) Fantasy

The Temptations (Eddie Kendricks) Get Ready

Joshua Alamu is a professional voice coach with over 15 years experience as a singing teacher in the music and television industry. He has been a voice coach for the TV talent show The Voice UK and is currently vocal coach stars such as Fleur East, Little Mix and JP Cooper. Joshua’s video-enhanced vocal style course Mad About Vocal Style part 1 was launched in 2014 to rave reviews. Joshua is also the co-founder of Ultimate Artists, the UK’s most in-demand artist development camp (eight days of music industry mentorship and artist development).