Singing 101: Range & Registers

Chest Voice, Head Voice, and The Mix, oh my.

I'm gonna come right out the gate and say it: when it comes to Vocal Range, contrary to popular (and very stubborn) belief, size does not matter. It's about what you do with your range that matters.

Yes, really. 

Vocal Range refers to all the pitches a person's voice can produce, from the very lowest note, to the highest. There are a few genetic and determining factors that relate to an individual's Vocal Range (which I won't get into right this moment), and how high or low their voices will sit, as well as how many pitches they can produce. I can certainly jump down this rabbit hole in a future post, but for now, it's important to know that a person's vocal range is 1) somewhat genetic/pre-determined/set and 2) malleable, in the sense that, once properly developed, and with correct technique utilized to create pitches, one's perceived range may either shift, or notes can be added, etc. 

That being said, ALL OF US (yes, even you, Basses, and Sopranos) have three Vocal Registers available to us. And I absolutely insist that every one of my students builds out all three. Even if you never want to sing high notes, even if you never want to sing anything other than ridiculously-high-glass-shattering Pop songs - it's absolutely imperative for a well-rounded, well-developed, dynamic voice to have your full range developed. I've written previously about how ridiculous it would be to build a house without a roof, or a foundation, for that matter. And the voice is kind of the same way. Want to be able to belt, to sing with power, to *sound like your voice is one register all the way up? Then you gotta put in the work, babies. 

First Things First: What is Pitch? What Is Tone?

Pitch and Tone are two different things. 

Pitch is the actual note (or frequency) you are singing in a melody or scale. Very simply put, it is the "highness" or "lowness" of a note. When you sing, you create pitch according to the speed at which your vocal cords vibrate.

Tone is the color of a pitch. Tones can be described as warm, bright, strident, clear, ringing, rich, shrill, breathy, smoky, etc. Tone is partly innate and personal to you, but different tones can also be honed as vocal effects. 

How We Produce Pitch

Pitch is sound frequency - the highness, or lowness, of a note being sung or played. This waveform is created by how fast or slow our vocal cords vibrate. A faster vibration creates what we perceive to be a higher frequency/pitch, whereas a slower vibration creates a lower frequency/pitch. As mentioned above, there are a couple genetic/physical factors that determine the physical makeup of our vocal cords (these involve the thickness and length of the vocal cords), but for our purposes today, I only want to focus on Tension.

Thinking of our vocal cords sort of like a rubber band, imagine tightening and loosening a rubber band to make a looser or more taut opening. This is basically how our vocal cords work. As mentioned in my Singing 101: How The Voice Works post, there are two sets of muscles that control the vocal cords: The Thyroid Muscle Group and the Arytenoid Muscle Group. These muscles are responsible for the tension of the vocal cords. The tighter the tension means less slack, which means the vocal cords vibrate at a faster rate: creating a higher pitch. Alternately, looser/less slack creates a slower vibration, creating lower notes. It is very important to teach our bodies how to effectively and properly produce these notes so that when we hear a note we want to sing, we have built up enough muscle memory for the brain to send a signal to the Thyroid and Arytenoid muscles to create the EXACT amount of tension needed to create that note. 

Let me pause to say: Don't overthink this too much. This is an unconscious physical act that your body KNOWS how to achieve. It isn't your job to intellectualize pitch and thus get all tense about it (which will make it harder to hit the note, frustratingly). You only need to get comfortable with relying on your ear and trusting that you KNOW innately how to match a pitch you hear. If you find you cannot do this reliably, Ear Training is a good fix for this. :)

The Three Registers - All The Notes In Our Range

Let's start by thinking of our voices as a spectrum, with a multitude of colors, tones, and textures throughout. I'll let you pick the color scheme that best suits you. Have a ball. It can be rainbow-colored or totally morose. I'm into 70s, Frank Lloyd Wright tones myself, but I can get down with some sparkle in my vocal-color-scheme. Anyway. 

A spectrum, and it is sort of loosely divided into three different sections: Chest Voice, Mix, and Head Voice.

Chest Voice

Chest Voice refers to our low notes. Think warm, full, heavy tones. This is the "bottom" of our range, and is likely (though not always - Sopranos and Tenors - lookin' at you, maybe) pretty comfortable for most of you. We speak in our Chest Voices. It's a pretty full sound, and we can feel it resonating in our bodies (namely, in our chest cavity) when we are singing or speaking here. 

The Chest Voice is controlled by a set of muscles called the Thyroid Muscle group. The Thyroid group is a heavier set of muscles than the Arytenoids, which control the Head Voice. The Thyroid muscle group is located in the front of the larynx (the front of the throat). Another interesting (super cool) fact about Chest Voice is that we are using the full vocal cord (called the Basic layer - there are also three layers to your vocal cord) when we sing down here. That's partly why the sound is so much more heavy and full.  

Head Voice

Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have our Head Voice. Head Voice is our high notes. (This is what most men commonly refer to as "Falsetto", although Falsetto is truly another register/technique altogether, and has been pretty widely misused, causing a lot of confusion). For our purposes, I am going to refer to Head Voice for both men and women, to describe our higher register. 

Head Voice is experienced as a "lighter" tone quality than the Chest Voice. This is the spot in our voices that is light, floaty, ethereal, bright. You may feel it in your forehead, temples, or top of your head when you sing up here. You may even experience feeling lightheaded when you start singing up here - this is normal, and the sensation will go away the more you train the voice. 

The Head Voice is controlled by the Arytenoid Muscle group - a smaller set of muscles at the back of the larynx. Another thing to note when singing in Head Voice is that only the inner edge of the vocal cords is vibrating together, creating sound - we are no longer using the full weight of the vocal cord (known as the Basic Layer) when singing our high notes. Again, think of how this translates to how Head Voice feels: lighter, and almost as if it is coming from another place almost outside of our bodies. 

Mixed Voice

Now, imagine there is a little bridge connecting the Chest and Head Voices. This is your Mix. This is commonly also referred to as your Middle Voice, Break, or the Passagio, for those Classical peeps out there. Simply put, this part of your voice is a "mix" of both Chest Voice and Head Voice. This is the spot in most peoples' voices that feels strained, weak, or may even crack or break. This is NORMAL and it is OKAY. The reason the Mix is often so hard to sing in is because if you think about a bridge, the middle part is the most structurally-weak. If you think of it from a physiological standpoint, this is the point in your voice where BOTH sets of muscles need to be working equally - each pulling their own weight, so to speak. If one of them is weaker than the other, it makes this part of the voice - and the ensuing just-so tension required to sing successfully here - very challenging indeed. I usually like to use the analogy of doing a push-up. If I told you to do a push-up and then asked you to pause - and hold - halfway back up, it would be harder than getting the full extension and release. It would require a different kind of strength and training to hold the tension just so. It's kind of similar with your mix. 

So....how the hell do we work through this? The answer is to first ensure proper development of both the Chest and Head registers. Head Voice, in particular, is critical to developing a strong Mixed Voice. Most people's Head Voices are under-developed due to the simple fact that we don't spend a lot of time up in here - we don't speak up high at these higher pitches, so those muscles don't have a lot of strength or even opportunity to really work. Therefore, they're not really holding up their end of the bargain. This is why I make everyone, regardless of how high or low their natural voice is pitched, work on developing a healthy and strong Head Voice. 

Vocal Cracks: A Note 

I want to pause really quickly to say something about Vocal Cracks. I get it. NO ONE likes to hear (or feel) their voice crack, or break. Some people's "break" manifests in literal cracks or breaks; other peoples' do not. Whether yours does literally crack and break or not, it's important to know that vocal cracks are caused by nothing more than weak muscle groups. Again, going back to the idea of both muscle groups needing to be holding their own weight and tension to create a certain pitch frequency: if one of the muscle groups is too weak to "hold" their level of tension, they will fatigue, and basically "drop" the tension, throwing the entire job to the other register. This is what causes the voice to crack. Imagine if you and your buddy were moving and carrying a heavy couch. Now. imagine one of you drops your end of the couch unexpectedly. Aside from this being decidedly not cool, it would cause the other person to have to take on ALL the weight of the couch, and they'd stumble under this sudden weight shift. Developing strength in BOTH sets of muscles will help to smooth out vocal cracks. If cracks persist, placement (how you are approaching a certain pitch - another post coming soon on this idea!), and tension need to be looked at, as well as any psychological blocks around nervousness and singing. When we're tense, this can lead to cracks, too. We'll discuss further at a later date. 

*Sounding Like One Register All The Way Up: A Fallacy

One more note on this notion of your voice needing to sound like one register all the way up. 

I pretty much wholeheartedly disagree with this notion. I think it is not only incredibly misleading in terms of how the voice actually works, but has even caused A LOT of damage and unrealistic expectations for a lot of singers. 

Sure, I understand what people MEAN when they express this desire. You don't want your voice to sound powerful, and then, all the sudden, flip into a weaker place that is jarring and unsupported-sounding. I get this. I don't want that for you either. But the idea that your voice should sound like one register (i.e. Chest Voice) the whole way up is going to lead to some majorly problematic vocal approaches - namely, taking your Chest Voice up way too high, which can result in a strained tone quality at best, and some significant vocal damage at worst. 

As described above, your voice is a spectrum, and it NEEDS to move through different pitch frequencies in order to move through itself. Therefore, what works at one frequency is not going to work successfully for another. The voice needs to be able to move freely, make adjustments, and explore (and express) a wide range of sounds and colors. This is literally how it works. Trying to force it to all sound like a Chest Voice is not only vocally unhealthy, it is very one-dimensional. This idea of one whole register seems, to me, to be rooted in Musical Theatre, and has permeated popular opinion so much that people spout it off as "good singing" left and right. I am by no means vilifying the Musical Theatre community, but an important thing to understand about a lot of those badass Broadway singers is not that their voice IS one register the whole way up, but that they've TRAINED to make it SOUND AS IF it is strong all the way up. There is a big difference here. You can absolutely do this, too - if you (you guessed it) do all your vocal technique due diligence and develop a voice that is healthy, well-balanced, strong - and ready to learn these techniques. 

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Returning to the idea of everyone having these three registers available to them, it is important to note that everyone DOES indeed have a lower register, upper register, and a combination of the two. If you are a Bass, that will be relative to the potential range of notes that are physically  available to you to produce. This will be entirely different for you than it will be for someone who is a Soprano. Your Head Voice will exist in a certain range of pitches, just as your Chest Voice will, and Mix. But it is still a Head Voice - it is where YOURS sits. Once Chest Voice and Head Voice are properly developed, that will start to fill-in some of these Mixed Voice notes. At that point, you will be ready to deepen your Vocal practice by diving into the murky (but exhilarating!) waters of the Mixed Voice, where you can start exploring different sounds, tones, and timbres, as well as other really cool vocal techniques such as Belting and the Pharyngeal Voice (an advanced vocal technique, not another register, per se). 

I hope this was illuminating, and can explain some of what you might be experiencing with your voice but might not have been able to put words to. 

As always, keep kicking ass and singing your damn hearts out. <3