Human voice

Human voice consists of sound made by a person using the vocal folds for talking, singing, laughing, screaming or crying. The vocal folds in combination with the teeth, the tongue, and the lips, are capable of producing highly intricate arrays of sound, and vast differences in meaning can often be achieved through highly subtle manipulation of the sounds produced (especially in the expression of language). These differences can be in the individual noises produced, or in the overall tone in which they are uttered.

The tone of voice may suggest that a sentence is a question, even if it grammatically is not, and shows emotions such as anger, surprise, happiness; in a request the tone reveals much about how much one wants something, and whether it is asking a favor or more like an order; the tone of saying e.g. "I am sorry" says a lot: it may vary from begging for forgiveness to "I have the right to do this even if you do not like it". See nonverbal communication.

Singers use the human voice as an instrument for creating music.

Voice registers

The human voice is a complex instrument. Humans have vocal cords which can loosen or tighten or change their thickness and over which breath can be transferred at varying pressures. The shape of chest and neck, the position of the tongue, and the tightness of otherwise unrelated muscles can be altered. Any one of these actions results in a change in pitch, volume, timbre, or tone of the sound produced.

One important categorisation which can be applied to the sounds singers make relates to the register; or the "voice" which we use. Singers refer to these registers according to the part of the body in which the sound most generally resonates, and which have correspondingly different tonal qualities. There are widely differing opinions and theories about what a register is, how they are produced and how many there are. The following definitions refer to the different ranges of the voice.

Vocal Registration is the term used to denote various theories of how the human voice changes, both subjectively and objectively, as it moves through its pitch range.

General features of vocal registration

Nearly all untrained voices have noticable differences in timbre at different pitches. This is most easily seen in males, who are generally aware that they can speak in both their usual voice, which sounds "male," and in another, higher voice that is lighter, breathier, and sounds "female." Each of these timbres is referred to as a "register," hence "vocal registration." This is the clearest example, though it is also extremely common for singers who have recently begun studying voice formally to notice more subtle differences in their voice as they move through their vocal range.

Beyond these facts, it should be noted that registration is somewhat controversial, with disagreement on how many registers there are and indeed whether they exist at all. Further complication arises from the fact that registration is, broadly, unique to a particular singer and is to some extent subjective - a head note for a bass is a chest note for a soprano.

Theories of registration:

As mentioned above, registration is a controversial topic in vocal pedagogy. In this section, we outline the more popular theories of vocal registration.

No Registers

A notable minority believes that registration simply does not exist. They argue that any technique for any given pitch that does not lead to optimal vocal production for a given singer is harmful and should not be used at all. The more extreme adherenents of this view hold that, in essence, any person can produce any pitch with sufficient practice.

Two Registers:

Chest Register

The chest register is roughly the lower half of a person's vocal range. It is called chest voice because, subjectively, the pitch resonates in the chest cavity, creating a deep and complex sound most notable in lower voices.

Head Register

The head register is roughly the upper half of a person's vocal range. It is called head voice because, subjectively, the pitch resonates in the head, particularly the face and forehead.

Three Registers

This is similar to the two register theory, but the middle of the singer's range is considered distinct from the chest and head registers. Alternatively, some three register theoreticans hold that, for men, there is a chest voice, a head voice, and falsetto, while for females there is a chest voice, a head voice, and a whistle register, at least for some singers.

Other theories

In addition to those detailed here, a variety of theories of register have been proffered. At the extreme, they may propose more than a dozen distinct vocal registers. Those listed above are the most commonly seen today. For an introduction to other theories, see Caldwell, 2001.

What is Register?

Like most things singing related, peoples opinions and descriptive terms differ on this subject, but generally speaking the word 'register' is used to describe a section of the voice. These 'sections' are loosely catagorised by how cords vibrate, glottal and pharyngeal shape, where the voice resonates in the body and the resulting quality or timbre of the voice.

What is a Register Break?

This is an area of the voice which is situated between one register and another, when the voice breaks or drops a note consistently in the same area, it is usually considered to be a transition point or Passaggio between one register and another, i.e., from a heavy voice to a light voice.

What is Vocal Fry?

Glottal or Vocal Fry is the term used by some to describe lowest part of the voice. It is effectively a toneless "rattle", rasp or roughness produced by the vocal cords at the lower end of the range which is often used as an effect in rock singing.

Creaky voice (also called laryngealisation or vocal fry, especially in the US), is a special kind of phonation in which the arytenoid cartilages in the larynx are drawn together; as a result, the vocal folds are compressed rather tightly, becoming relatively slack and compact, and forming a large, irregularly vibrating mass. The frequency of the vibration is very low (20–50 pulses per second, about two octaves below normal voice) and the airflow through the glottis is very slow. A slight degree of laryngealisation, occurring e.g. in some Korean consonants is called "stiff voice".

Creaky voice manifests itself in the idiolects of some American English speakers, particularly at the beginnings of sentences that the speaker wishes to "soft-pedal". The "eh" of "Eh, I don't know about that." is frequently pronounced in creaky voice. This phenomenon is more prominent among female American English speakers than among male speakers.

It can also occur accidentally when the speaker's throat is tired.

What is Chest Voice or Chest Register?

Usually a deep or rich full sound that is most commonly used during speech. Air flows over the vocal folds which are are fully apart and the vibration or resonance can often be felt in the upper chest. This is the area of the voice where you should be singing the lower notes of your range.

The chest voice is the register used in everyday speech. When you talk to the person next to you in a normal voice, you can feel that the sound seems to be "coming from" your upper chest. This is because lower frequency sounds have longer wavelengths, and resonate mostly in the larger cavity of the chest. When you sing notes at the bottom of your range, you are using your chest voice. The tonal qualities of the chest voice are usually described as being rich, full, deep, loud and strong.

The chest register is generalized to be the range of vocal notes below middle C (C4). Technically, it can be said to be the lower half of a person's vocal range. It is called the chest register because the pitch resonates throughout the chest cavity, creating a deep and colorful sound, particularly in lower voices, such as bass, where it is rich and strong.

What is Middle Voice or Middle Register?

The term Middle Voice is not as commonly used as some of the other descriptions like chest and head voice. This section of the voice may also be referred to as mix or blend and it describes an area where a vocal bridge or passaggio may occur. Once the singer has mastered the art of moving smoothly through this transition area it is considered to be mixed or blended.

The middle voice, also known as the "blend", is the term used to describe the range of notes which marks the crossover between the chest and head voices. It may be a distinct change (a passaggio) or a more gradual blending. With training, many singers can choose whether to sing notes in this range in the head or chest voice.

What is Head Voice or Upper Register?

Remember those lengthening cords as you ascend the range? Well you'll need these to access 'Head Voice' which is where you should be singing those high notes. The resonance is usually felt in the cheekbone, teeth/lips area which is sometimes referred to as the mask or masque.

The head voice is often used when we shout, or are highly excited. In these situations we tend to produce higher pitches, and these resonate in the mouth and in the bones of the skull - so the sound feels as if it is "coming from" our head. When you sing the notes at the upper end of your vocal range, you are using your head voice.
The tonal qualities of the head voice are usually described as being sweet, balladic, lilting, and pure. It is usually more tonally precise but less loud than the chest voice.

The head register is a vocal mechanism used in singing. It is found in all voice types from the lowest male bass to the highest female soprano. It is not associated with any particular musical pitch, but rather with the position and use of the vocal cords and larynx. The human voice is commonly divided into two registers: the upper register called the head regisiter and the lower register called the chest register.
When singing in the head register, laryngeal behavior is quite different from that of the chest register. The vocal cords are thin and have a wide amplitude. There is no firm glottal closure. The crico-thyroid muscles become much more active, while the action of the vocalis muscle decreases. All of the these actions reduce the volume and number of partial harmonics.

The term head register reflects the perceptions of many singers who feel that when they sing in this register the sound vibrates in their heads rather than their chests. While scientists and physicians have disproved this idea, the term is still very common.

What is Falsetto or False Voice?

Falsetto is the lightest register and requires loose vocal cords and incomplete closure which produces a breathy voice that can sound quite feminine although it is generally used by men rather than women.

Falsetto is a higher range than the head voice; it relies on completely relaxed vocal folds and may sound breathy. Imagine the Bee Gees singing "Stayin' Alive", or Terry Jones playing an old woman in Monty Python; that is the sound of the falsetto voice. It is generally more obvious in men using it, but women, in the higher voices, usually use falsetto voice adjustments. It is a difficult register to sing accurately in, and it tends to be rather soft, except when there is amplification through resonance by a well-tuned vocal tract. It also requires an uncomfortable muscle effort for many men.

It is a quite distinct range from the head voice, and generally when singers describe their range they exclude the falsetto voice.

Falsetto is a singing technique that produces sounds pitched higher than the singer's normal range.
Falsetto can also mean an artificially raised speaking pitch. This often occurs momentarily if repeatedly in males during puberty for psychosocial reasons. The break between voice registers, audible or not, is called the passaggio.

The falsetto register is used by male countertenors to approximate the register in classical voice that previously employed castrati, in pieces written before castratism became socially unacceptable and eventually universally outlawed. It is also used by many male rock and roll singers such as Jon Anderson of Yes, King Diamond of Mercyful Fate, Justin Hawkins of the Darkness and the solo artist David Usher to produce their over-the-top soaring vocals.

Many people consider women, because of physical differences from males, to not have or be capable of falsetto. However, many female singers, such as Mariah Carey, do employ falsetto to extend their range.

How do you know if your singing in Head or Chest Voice?

Place your fingers on your breast bone and then sing a few notes from the bottom end of your range, you should be able to feel the vibration in your chest through your fingers, if you don't feel anything try belting 'Hello' - if your singing in chest voice you should feel something there. If you are singing in your head voice, you should feel the vibrations somewhere in the region of your teeth/lips, cheekbones, nasal cavity, or forehead.

What is Whistle Voice or SuperHead?

This is the top end of the vocal range which sounds similar to a whistle or squeal. Few singers use the whistle register although it has gained popularity amongst some female commercial artists.

The whistle register (also commonly called the flageloet register) is the highest register of the human voice. It is typically used to produce pitches above E6. The ability to produce pitches in this register is believed to be rare.

Physiology and definition

The physiology of the whistle register is the most poorly understood of the vocal registers. It is known that when producing pitches in this register vibration occurs only in some anterior portion of the vocal folds. This shorter vibrating length naturally allows for easier production of high pitches. The physiological process that causes this is not currently known.

Though the whistle register is most commonly used to produce pitches above E6, it can be used to produce lower pitches. By the physiological definition just detailed, it is a configuration of the vocal folds and not a range of pitches. There is, however, no universally agreed upon scheme for classifying vocal registers, so it is common to see other definitions. See the article on vocal registration for a discussion.

Uses of the whistle register

In the European classical music, the whistle register is only rarely called for. When it is, it is exclusively used by coloratura sopranos to produce pitches above C6. Probably the most well-known example of the whistle register in European classical music is the aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" from the opera Die Zauberflöte; it calls for several pitches above C6, up to F6.

In the popular music of the West, the whistle register is used more often than in its classical music. It is used with more variety and to produce much higher pitches than are called for in classical music. It is most often used by females - its best known exponent almost certainly being Mariah Carey - though there are a few male singers who use it. See the category "Whistle register singers" (linked below) for a more comprehensive list and individual singers' articles for more detail.

There are also non-musical uses of the whistle register. Famously, a properly pitched whistle register tone can shatter glass. It is also common for children of all sexes and for young women to shriek loudly in a way that sounds much like the whistle register, though it is unknown whether the physiological mechanism is in fact the same.


Yodeling (or Yodelling) is a form of singing that involves rapidly switching from the "chest voice" to the "head voice" making a high-low-high-low sound. This vocal technique is found in many cultures throughout the world.

In Swiss folk music, it was probably developed in the Swiss Alps as a method of communication between mountain peaks, and it later became a part of the traditional music of the region. In Persian and Azeri Classical musics, singers frequently use tahrir, a yodeling technique that oscillates on neighbor tones. In Georgian traditional music, yodelling takes the form of krimanchuli technique. In Central Africa, Pygmy singers use yodels within their elaborate polyphonic singing. Yodeling is often used in American bluegrass and country music.

To yodel, one sings a scale continuously upwards, until one's voice "breaks" (switches octaves) into one's "head voice" (also known as falsetto in men). This point is one's "voice break". Then one must go back down a note, and up again, over the voice break. This is done repeatedly at a loud volume.

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