The Passaggio

Passaggio (pl. passaggi) is one of the most talked about elements of singing. Some refer to it as the bridge, break, mix, middle, or simply the place where things go wrong. So why does this vocal phenomenon receive such widespread consideration?

Passaggio is Italian for passage or crossing, which may give us slightly more indication of what it is and where it lies: a passage from one place to another. When considering the main passaggio, the point of departure is chest voice and we take a vocal journey, sometimes an extremely emotional one, towards head voice.

If asked, most people would probably say that singing in the lower part of the voice (referred to as chest voice) is relatively easy. Equally, if we ignore the aesthetics of singing, finding the higher part of the voice (referred to as head voice) can also be a fairly straightforward process for many. However, having the ability to create a smooth transition between these two areas of the voice, both audibly and anatomically, is what often creates the most momentous developmental journey for singers. Hopefully this article can give you a starting point and help you on your momentous journey. Separating the passaggio in terms of chest and head voice gives us a clear and easy way to understand it. That said, we do think that this can also encourage an unnecessary psychological separation with the voice. Meaning: “I have this really deep low voice, and this really wispy high voice and they need to be joined somehow”. Another way to think about it to dissolve this separation would be to say that every pitch we sing has its own ‘thing’. For those who are thinking this is the most vague article you’ve ever read, let’s put some substance behind the ‘thing’. The ‘thing’ is a number of adjustments made with the cords, resonance chambers (basically, the throat and mouth) which results in settings that are unique for every pitch. From the singer’s lowest note to the highest. In this case, the passaggi relate to the places where these adjustments become a little trickier.

The Passaggio Scientific Crash Course

For the sake of clarity, we’re going to refer to the passaggio as the bridge throughout this section. The bridge is a funny old animal. It’s not necessarily a question of “you bridge, or you don’t”. You can go through the bridge in a variety of ways, some awesome and some not so awesome. But either way, you can still make it through. In other attempts, you might not make it through and the result could be something cat-like. That’s why dealing with the bridge often gets a wide-berth.

There is value knowing what actually happens in the passaggio, so let us open up this can of worms for you…


1a_iSing 3_VocalNerds Passaggio resonnanceThis part can be difficult to digest as the principles of formants, harmonics, and acoustic science gets a bit heavy for some. I will try to simplify it as much as possible, but it is worth doing some research into vocal science and resonance if you want the deeper understanding. Bear with us… There are two resonators that energise the vibrations, or sound waves, that originate from your vocal cords when you sing. These are the throat and the mouth, specifically separated by the tongue. They both add energy to your voice all of the time, but one resonator provides the majority (I repeat, the majority, but not all) of the energy boost depending on the pitch. In the chest voice it’s the throat chamber. This is because a longer space resonates lower pitches (or frequencies for you nerds) more effectively, and your throat is the longer of the two. For your head voice it’s the mouth chamber that becomes the main resonator. This is because it is the shorter of the two spaces and can resonate the higher pitches more effectively. That’s vocal/acoustic science in a nutshell (cue the scientists wincing).

As you ascend in pitch there is a gradual handover from one resonator to another, of which the main tipping point is at the first bridge. At this point the throat becomes unable to effectively boost the sound waves because it is too long, and so the perfect resolution is to hand it over to the mouth. The mouth can then boost resonance further into the higher ranges. We do this by shaping our vocal tract and resonators in such a way that it facilitates the passing over of resonance between the throat and mouth. We can do this through vowel shaping, because by saying a vowel we shape our throat and mouth to help, or sometimes accidentally hinder, the bridging process. Are you still with me?

For a seamless transition through the bridge with no loss of power, no strain, and continued range, we must shape both resonators just right. Think of two sprinters in a relay. The first one (simulating chest voice) is racing toward the other (simulating head voice) and needs to hand over the baton (which is the resonance). They both have to be traveling at a similar speed for a smooth handover and to keep up with the race. This is the metaphoric way of saying that both resonators need to be shaped correctly to be able to bridge the resonance. In summary, they must work together for an optimal passaggio. Also, the better they are shaped the more powerful the resonance. In a relay you must also hand over the baton in the specific handover area, which is like the several notes of the bridge for us. When the relay team gets all of these elements just right they get a kick-ass race.

However, when a team doesn’t get all of these things right they will lose time. They might still pass the baton and win the race if there are only small errors, but if one sets off too early or doesn’t keep the pace then the baton, or in our case the resonance, may never get passed and the race is over. For singers, if the throat and mouth don’t work well together and drop the proverbial baton, we get a whole manner of audible uglies. This could be yelling, thinning tone, cracking, flipping, squeaking… we’re sure you guys can think of a hundred other terrible words for the sounds you make, so we’ll stop rubbing it in. We will however show you how to get them to work together later on in the article, so please stick around.

The Source

1b_iSing 3_VocalNerds_passaggio vocal folds 1And by the source we mean the vocal cords. They are where the sound waves originate. They vibrate under the air pressure from the lungs and send vibrations in to the vocal tract. Pitch is determined largely by a relationship between two pairs of muscles, one for each cord. We’ll start with the muscle that gives you the bottom notes, and the chesty sound: the Thyroarytenoid muscle (TA).

This muscle forms the body of the vocal cord and has several parts or layers. It can change pitch all on its own at the very bottom of the range, approximately the first 5 or 6 notes in your range. It does this by increasing its tension and hence raising pitch. After the first few pitches you can only ascend further with the help of the antagonist, the Cricothyroid (CT). When this muscle gets involved it pulls the cartilage that is attached to the front end of the TA muscle and stretches it. This raises the pitch further and increases tension in the TA muscle. The CT muscle is the primary pitch changer for the rest of the available range.

1c_iSing 3_VocalNerds_Passaggio vocal folds 2Much like the resonance, there is teamwork between both muscle groups. With the ex ception of the very bottom, they are both active all of the time. If one is more active than the other then you get a different sound and a different function (examples being belt or falsetto), which could affect range and comfort considerably.

There has been some confusion in various schools of thought around the vocal muscles and their actual role in bridging. As well as resonance, many teachers believe that the TA is dominant in the bottom voice and that there is a handover to the CT muscle at the first bridge too. As mentioned above, we know the CT muscle comes in well below the bridge notes from solid vocal research, so it would be for another discussion as to why that has been believed for so long.

In any case, vocal research also shows that the resonance supports the muscle function and vice versa. And so is born the relay analogy between the resonance and the source. Anything out of whack in one will adversely affect the other. That’s why singing well in the bridge is such a pain in the butt!

Where is the passaggio?

It really is no coincidence that we often have difficulty singing songs with melodies that fall around the same place. If you were to extract the pitches of that melody you’d probably find that they fall around one of these two areas: for men, Eb4 (just above middle C) to G4, and Ab4 to C# for the ladies. These are the two main passagi for male and female voices, sometimes called a bridge.

It’s worth mentioning that those notes are just a guide and that the passaggio pitch placement will differ slightly for everyone. Also, as we described this as a passage or journey, it’s needs to be just that. Gradual adjustments need to be made on the approach to each of the above pitches in order to encourage a smooth transition and seamless handover.

There are also other areas that can behave like a passaggio, both above and below the 1st bridge. For many, there will be sensations approximately a perfect 4th below the 1st bridge. This can be related to the more subtle resonance changes through the upper part of chest voice and can be solved in a similar way using the tools below. It can also relate to the singer’s voice type. True basses and contraltos, the lowest of all singers, have their 1st bridge much deeper in the range than the rest of us.

There are also passaggio-like transitions much higher in our range, but we’ll
only concern ourselves with the 1st bridge for now. This one is difficult enough!

How to develop the bridge

First and foremost, the basics need to be in place before we can develop the passaggio. By basics we mean, chest and head voice. Why? If the voice isn’t making decent adjustments in the places we generally find it easier to do so, what chance do we have in the trickier parts? It’s like building a house on dodgy foundations. We can’t have an awesome middle floor without the base or roof. Apologies for the terrible analogy.

Let’s assume our house is in order. The notes in our chest and head voice area are feeling comfortable and sounding clear. What do we do to develop the passaggio?

It’s a bit of a no-brainer that we’ll be choosing scales that fall in and around
the passaggio notes, but the rest depends on how the singer sings in this area.

Scenario 1

If you’re a singer who sounds a bit squeezed or loud here, we could start with:

• Exercises working pitches toward the upper  end of the passaggio (Men = G4 or G#4 Ladies = C5 or C#5) and walking down through the passaggio

• Encourage  head voice  using more  closed vowels  with softer  consonants (see tables below). OO, OUH and EE are good choices, along with the W consonant. Try WEE or WOOF.

1d_iSing 3 VocalNerds_PassaggioImage

• Use a lower larynx if needed (dopey Homer Simpson-like sound)

• Experiment with bratty/ witchy/nasal sounds

• Use sustains with vibrato to ‘live’ in the experience

• Remember to relax!

Scenario 2

If your tone is soft and breathy when singing within the passaggio, we can try:

• Exercises working pitches toward the lower end of the passaggio (Men = D4 Ladies= G#5) and walking up through the bridge.

• Exposing chest voice using more open vowels (see table above) with harder consonants like G, D, B, K and N. Try NA, NEH or GA.

• Experimenting with bratty/ witchy/nasal sounds

Scenario 3

Is for those who are comfortable singing within the bridge and are looking to

develop or increase intensity.

• Exercise working pitches in the middle of the passaggio (Men = F#4 Ladies = B4) and walking up and down through the bridge.

• Use the neutral ‘uh’ vowel (as in the word ‘nut’) added to the consonant ‘m’.
The word is MUM.

• Use sustains with vibrato to develop more comfort.

• Cycle through vowel sounds whilst sustaining. Take care to try and maintain the sound quality and feeling between the vowel changes to show balance.

These exercises are best condensed into a 15 or 20-minute workout, repeating and adjusting each time. Move on to another scenario if the goal posts move after a while. Spending time doing this every day will develop muscle memory and familiarity with the sounds and sensations of the passaggio.

Let it happen, don’t make it happen

Going through the passaggio can be a very new, weird or off-putting experience initially, especially if you’ve been used to yelling your way through in the hope that you don’t explode. We’ve all been there, right? If you’ve been one of those people then you often have to allow yourself to transition, and in the short term even encourage a noticeable switch or flip from chest voice to head voice. You’ll feel lifted and released into the upper voice as a result. Conversely, if you’ve been lacking in chest voice and have had a weak entrance to the bridge then you may be concentrating hard on keeping some of the bottom voice as you go through, and not to switch so abruptly. It really depends on where you are right now. Everyone is wildly different.

On saying all of that, when you’ve spent time doing the above it’s time to develop the bridge. That’s where we aren’t necessarily looking to feel the same things. Some singers are searching so deeply for the feeling of lift and release they end up influencing their voice too much. This can end up in a softer upper register and more noticeable bridge. It will still have a nice quality about it but might not excite the listener enough. It may not suit a stronger style of singing, like rock, either. Searching for a lifted sensation may often be accompanied by a few visible clues like raising on tiptoes, lifting the back of the head, raising the eyebrows or dropping the chin.

Eventually the trick is to not think too much about it. The concept of speech- like, or speech level, singing has its merits here. If you use a speech-like approach to develop the bridge you would be more likely to arrive at a good balance of resonance through the bridge. You will be less likely to over-indulge the chest or head voice. The TA and CT activity will be in harmony and volume will be generally under control. When everything is working in synergy, and there are no imbalances, your 1st bridge may even sound and feel like it almost doesn’t exist.

How important is passaggio development in today’s world?

Most songs will end up in the passaggio at one time or another. When you consider that the pitches within the passaggio produce some of the most exciting acoustic energy, you can understand why the likes of Gary Barlow, Stephen Schwartz and every other pop or musical theatre writer like to stick their choruses there. With this in mind, it becomes fairly obvious that passaggio development is a pretty big deal for almost every singer performing today. Not only are singers expected to sing songs in this area, but they are also expected to do it night after night, one tour after another. The inability to execute the pitches within the passaggio effectively can lead to vocal fatigue and, in long-term cases, further vocal problems.

Is it possible to have a successful career without working on it? Of course! I overheard a conversation once explaining how Chris Martin (Coldplay) wished that he had developed his passaggio. Have a listen to every single Coldplay song and the obvious shift in vocal production when Martin approaches his passaggio. But would his voice be as unique? Would Coldplay have sold so many records if he had done what his teacher had asked and developed a smoother transition? It’s fair to say the answer would probably be ‘no’.

That said, having control of the passaggio can create many stylistic options. It
opens new doors and gives singers the freedom to be increasingly creative with their instrument – another reason we are massive proponents of passaggio development. Once we have control, we then have the choice to sing hard into these exciting parts of the voice or, indeed, use a ‘Chris Martin Flip’ if we deem it appropriate at that time.

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 specialise 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 podcasting they are also in-demand performers and manage their own successful soul acts.