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Aug
20th

Head Voice, Chest Voice, and Middle Voice Explained

Categories: Voice |

There is a common misconception that there are two discrete vocal registers, “head register” and “chest register.” The truth is, in speech pathology terms, there are actually four vocal registers, but only one of them is used in everyday singing—the modal register. Belief in this disconnected head and chest register is dangerous; the implication is there are only two separate, mutually-exclusive modes your voice can occupy—head and chest—which you can flip on and off like you would a light switch. This makes it difficult to feel and manipulate your voice, because that’s not how it actually works. There is a continuum between chest voice, middle voice, and head voice, and the terms refer not to separate registers, but to where you predominantly feel your voice resonating in your body. In order to understand, let’s talk a little bit about the vocal instrument.

Vocal Resonance

Vocal resonance is the process by which sound is intensified or “colored” after leaving the vocal cords, but before leaving the body. Our unique voices are not only a product of the thickness and length of our vocal cords, but also, the size and shape of surrounding structures around the vocal tract. There are a number of structures in your body that resonate when you sing, including your chest, larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, nasal cavity, and sinuses.

Resonance Chambers of the Vocal Tract

Notice that these structures range as low as your ribcage, and as high as the top of your face. The only structures you can actually consciously manipulate are your throat, mouth, and diaphragm, and this transitively affects the rest of the resonators. Head voice, chest voice, and middle voice simply refer to where you feel the majority of resonance when you sing.

Head Voice

When you sing in your “head voice” it means you should feel vibration around the upper half of your face, because, at that moment, the predominant resonator is your sinuses. This doesn’t mean the other vocal structures aren’t resonating. It means that more resonance is occurring in your sinuses than anywhere else.

Middle Voice

When you sing in your “middle voice” you should feel more vibration around the lower half of your face, chin, and upper neck. What you are primarily feeling is your hard palate resonating, but again, this doesn’t mean the remaining structures, including your chest and sinuses aren’t vibrating sympathetically.

Chest Voice

When you sing in your “chest voice” you should feel more vibration around your lower neck, and sternum. If you want to know what this feels like, talk in your regular speaking voice, and put your hand in the middle of your chest. It’s vibrating.

The Continuum of your Voice

Vocal Spectrum
From the above explanation, you should be able to glean that your three “voices” form more of a spectrum than they do discrete vocal modes. Your voice should almost always mix the three resonance areas, with one area predominating over the others. So that’s why you’ll hear me say “sing with more chest voice,” but you’ll never hear me say, “switch into your chest register.” And great news! Your voice as a spectrum means that you can eliminate your “vocal breaks” with practice, by working to seamlessly mix your resonance zones (but more about that later).

Play With It!

There is no better way to get familiar with your voice than to experiment. I could tell you what to do a thousand times, but if you can’t feel what you are doing to reproduce it, you’re wasting your time. Your vocal tract is an incredibly complicated place, with almost endless ways to sing any given pitch. Here are a few fun exercises to get you started:

Hum a note, and siren it up and down in pitch. Close your eyes. Do you feel the vibration moving up and down the front of your body? Try doing the same thing on different vowel sounds. Does “ee” resonate differently than “oo” or “ah”? What happens if you pretend to yawn while singing a note? What happens if you try to buzz like a bee while singing a note? Try playing around with releasing a lot of air as you sing, and then a little. Almost everything is fair game—just be sure not to overtly shout, and if something hurts your voice, stop.

9 Comments

  1. Comment by: Oblomov
    Posted on: 16th Oct 2016Reply

    Hi. Cool, low, middle and high voice as places of optimal resonance within the vocal tract, the first and the last commonly called “chest” and “head”.
    I might ask, as the voice is supposed to automatically, naturally shift its resonance with pitch variation, what’s out active part, why do we have sometimes or often, depending on our skills, a bad resonance?
    Well, from what I know, different pitches and overtones – formant like different resonating spaces and shapes to amplify and replicate themselves, usually higher pitches “prefer” tinier and smaller spaces, isn’t it, so we have to shape our flexible mouth and pharinx accordingly.

    So, I like to know, is head resonance a form of “twang” of the epiglottis, which channels the sound into a pharingeal resonance, and we need it more in high notes than in low notes?

    The vowel “change” too, the mouth has to shape vowels so that they sound like themselves in different pitch and that same position would be uncorrect at different pitches.

    Is the bad resonance can lead to forcing to be heard, straining the throat?

    But with head and chest, we are talking about resonance here, many talk about registers. You say we shouldn’t ever change registers, though? Why so? Is the same for men and women?

    Thanks so much.

    • Comment by: Molly Webb
      Posted on: 19th Oct 2016Reply

      Hi Oblomov, thanks for the great comments and questions! To answer your first question, while our voices may naturally shift in resonance with pitch variation, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to get the sound we’re after. There’s so much that goes into the way our voices sound: our tongues help determine whether we get enough frontal resonance, the position of our soft palates help determine how nasal we sound, the position of our cricoid helps determine how belty a sound is…I could go on and on. What our voices do naturally (including what our natural resonance shifts sound like) is more a matter of conditioning and muscle memory than something essential about our voices that we don’t shape. You’re right about higher pitches preferring smaller spaces and that we adjust our vocal tracts accordingly.

      To answer your second question, it’s not so much that head resonance is a form of twang as that twang is one way to bring out head voice (and all other parts of your voice). Twang will help narrow and focus your resonance and drive it forward, and it’ll keep your head voice from sounding too hooty. You can use twang throughout your whole voice, but yes, higher notes do tend to require a narrower AES (areoeppilglottic spynchter) to not sound woofy than lower notes do.

      To answer your third question, it depends what type of “bad resonance.” There are so many entirely different but correct ways to use resonance, and sometimes that can even include not using a lot of volume and requiring amplification (depending on your genre). But yes, it’s definitely feasible that a singer could be in a situation where they weren’t using their resonance optimally and started straining and forcing air as a result.

      To clarify, it’s not so much that we should never change registers as that what people call registers are actually part of a continuum of a variety of different sounds you can make. To borrow some useful imagery from one of my colleagues, think of chesty sounds as the color blue and heady sounds as the color yellow. But then there’s this vast area in the middle where you can blend the colors and make varying shades of green, maybe a shade of green that’s closer to blue when you want to sound chestier and maybe a shade of green that’s closer to yellow when you want lighter, headier sounds. So while it’s not that you should never think about when to switch registers (or resonance, or however we want to define it) it’s much more useful to think about the many, many ways we can color any given tone. This is the case for both men and women, though of course there are both anatomical and stylistic differences that will determine how you’ll want to manipulate your resonance depending on your gender.

      Thanks again for the comment. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

      • Comment by: Oblomov
        Posted on: 13th Dec 2016Reply

        Hey thanks so much Molly, I’m back, though a bit late.
        Yes, definitely good to think at registers as a continuum, there are not this serie of sound timbres and this other serie completely separated one another. But registers seem to have to to with vocal masses or weights and you said that the position of our thyroid define the “beltyness”, as the less we resist tilting when increasing pitch, the more the vocal muscle thin and decontract (that’s why I think you meant thyroid position, rather than cricoid) and the fold bulge less one into each other.
        This masses goes from the full muscle, to the ligament and surface only, to borders only and hardly ever, like in falsetto, to whistle, probably with a possible continuum, although yodeling, voluntary or involuntary breaks this continuum which we must build and jumps to registers.

        I agree, I meant “good” resonance, which has an infinity of colours, hardness, softnes, edgyness darkness etc, at most some less maximally resonant, but all efficient, without being accademically restricet by “correct sounds” isn’t it?

        I personally don’t think, though that all kinds of tilting render a sound less “belty”, as I might sort of belt an F4, but I can’t take the full mass up there.
        I have to work hard on notes above G4 and getting the “head” thinner section more credible and fluid, but F4 can sound covered and thinned or more plaintive, but changing the vowel variant or color, the mouth opening, tongue, more twang, it sounds much more like a belt.
        And many baritones (Jeff Scott Soto, Russell Allen) also sound belty on an A4. To be a “true” belt it would sound strainy, like Springsteen.

        • Comment by: Molly Webb
          Posted on: 19th Dec 2016Reply

          Thanks for the comment and for being so engaged in general! I actually did mean cricoid. Evidence shows that your cricoid muscle tilts when you belt. You’re absolutely right though that your thyroid plays a role as well. To make a belt sound more well balanced and less brassy, I’ll have my students add a thyroid tilt as well.

          And yes, I agree that vocal fold mass has to do with how we perceive registers. Thicker folds sound chestier, and thinner folds sound headier, so learning to slowly thin out your folds instead of doing it abruptly helps eliminate your “break.”

          As far as belt, again, I think it depends what we’re calling a belt. There’s so much disagreement in the vocal world about what a “true” belt is: whether it has to have that shriller high-larynx sound, or whether a relaxed mixed belt qualifies. I think it’s most useful to develop an ear for the type of sound you’re hoping to produce (whatever you want to call that sound) and then figure out what you need to do anatomically to produce that sound. It sounds like that’s what you’re doing–it’s great that you’re so thoughtful and curious about your singing.

        • Comment by: Oblomov
          Posted on: 24th Dec 2016Reply

          Thanks, sorry, I thought you were relating beltyness and thyroid tilt, because it’s typically true that with tilting and fold thinning, the tone has a tendency to sound whinier unless adequately “covered” to sound straighter and more modern and upfront in face, unless of course a Stevie Wonder quality (which is great btw) is desired. You were relating the cricoid tilt with more beltyness, nice as I want to explore all voice possibilities as long as they are healthy (if done well of course).
          I read your source and as I thought, the cricoid is thought to tilt forward in belting, supposedly compressing the folds.

          Until recently I figured such thing as sort of misconceived and maybe the tilt being confused with Twang, and correct belting simply using less tilting, more compression and brighter resonance than more classical or earlier thinned (yet twangy) tones.
          But as people described me how the cricoid could advace if the folds shorten as long as it is possible to hold it still and opposing the thyroid to hold the vocalis muscle tension while allowing it to stay contracted.

          Popeil, in your source also talks about cartilages possibly being held actively still, either or both:
          “Previous research (Estill 1988) has sug-
          gested that the cricoid cartilage tilts
          upward with the thyroid cartilage held
          stable for belting, and others anecdo-
          tally have mentioned to me that the
          thyroid cartilage may tilt down and
          forward for belting. ”

          either way, one of them has to stay still and held, either the Ct preventing thyroid from being brought back more than desired, or if it can’t tilt backwards, allowing the cricoid to come forward, a bit brainy even for the technical me, I know :D.
          If the cricoid is not prevented to tilt during usual “Tilt & thin” approach or even the “keep it thick” approach, it would tilt with the thyroid as the folds increase their tension :).

          Coming now to less theoretical or anatomical stuff, I picture such cricoid tilt might even serve a purpose other than just keeping the folds thick, which can happen even with a simple thyroid back tilt.

          One word might be Jeremy Jordan :D.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TppJMa8apkc
          I speculated that his belting might also be of the Tilt & Thin approach as he really doesn’t strain, it seems.

          But Lisa Popeil talks about a free sound with no false fold constriction which is great.
          Although too thick fold and too much contact surface up high has always being described as cause of hyperwork and hyperkinetis on high notes of beginner singers (the shouter type, i might add ^_^) , which usually don’t even belt, just keep the neutral speaking thickness up high, which with no cricoid tilt is supposedly less than belting.

          But this singer doesn’t even seem such a high tenor voice, as he retain some depth compared to light voices, yet he climbs up to repeaded A’s all time in the chorus and pre chorus, up to even some final upward key shifting on “baby baby”, where he hits some high C#5, which sound full and belted, not power rock distorted, very clean.

          I read some scientific unsound explanation of cricoid tilting compressing the folds hence shortening them, but we know it’s not possible, as you thick strings certainly lose no mass when they are squashed, so I figure one thing, might cricoid tild “fret” the folds, especially in combo with thyroid tilt?
          Would be a sensational breakthrough!

          Thank

  2. Comment by: nikki
    Posted on: 1st Dec 2016Reply

    Hey there! I was wondering, I can go really high in my head voice, but what are some exercises I can use to strengthen it, or bring up my chest voice? My chest voice is really strong, but it doesn’t go high at all.
    Thank you so much 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Comment by: Molly Webb
      Posted on: 5th Dec 2016Reply

      Hi Nikki! Thanks for the question. Head voice strengthening has to do with a number of factors, but some major component of it are learning to a) hold back air and b) narrow your AES (aryepiglottic sphincter), which helps facilitate a narrow, forward resonant sound. To make chest and head voice sound more alike, I like exercises with narrow, bright vowels, like “ee,” “ay” and “a” (as in “cat.”) Try this one. You can switch off between vowels, but the main thing to concentrate on is making the sound kind of thin and bratty, as you hold back air: https://soundcloud.com/molly-webb-4/na-na-exercise/s-qLier

      Sticking your tongue out and singing on an “a” is also great, again, keeping it thin and squeaky-violin like: https://soundcloud.com/molly-webb-4/a-vocal-exercise-5-22-15-321-pm/s-4efgP

      I wrote a blog about extending your belt that you can find here that includes some belt exercises as well.

  3. Comment by: Oblomov
    Posted on: 24th Dec 2016Reply

    On modal voice and register graduality.
    Speech pathology seems to regard partial mass of vocal fold to m2 or falsetto. This tone can be full, but modal is typically referred as the one with full fold vibraiton. Classical women head voice after passaggio apparently transition to such register.
    Passaggio means technically changing a laryngeal register gradually without a break, but usually not avoiding the change. Assuming we start from modal, the thinner register above it, is technically not modal, it can sound like it, as modal, like falsetto is a conventionaly term.
    Is falsetto a breathy head voice? I’d agree, both women and baritone countertnors in the 5th octave are far from breathy in their head voice

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8F2Y-fjmuI

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHRmHROe24o
    This mezzo soprano technically exceeds the typical mezzo range reaching a quite ringing full C6, but that’s hardly falsetto.

    Would falsetto be then just a character or a laryingeal function?
    If it’s a laryngeal function, would we include the full range of it or add some conventions, like type of resonance, level of breathyness or fold closure quotient. This would blend, like with belting both character, style and laryngeal consideration.
    so maybe
    sounding breathy and/or witchy, shrill, non supported in head voice, using it lower than where it would be supposed to resonate (but some classical singers start using it from F#4, dunno), for men and women.

  4. Comment by: Oblomov
    Posted on: 26th Feb 2017Reply

    Hi Molly, relistening Jeremy – epitome of belting – Jordan, I’d say that approaching the highest “there were night of endless pleasure, it was more than any law allows”, or the highest “it’s all coming back to me now” the end of each chorus, especially the last one where he raises the key (hitting as I said some incredibly full C#5’s with “Baby – baby!”), I think he sort of thins out and “cry” on his voice, more evident with narrower transitional vowels, but to hit the open belty vowels, I think he doesn’t change position, he just tunes to the speaking formant instead of traditional covering, it’s unlikely that he cries before approaching the highest notes and the forces thick folds again to hit the very highest ones especially the sustained long ones.
    Wide open mouth, twang and maybe stable larynx.

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