Do Females Have a Falsetto Register?
At some point, you’ve probably heard someone sing in falsetto, that disconnected (usually higher) sound in males. But do females have falsetto, or just head voice? In the vocal pedagogy world, there’s a lot of controversy about the topic. You’ll hear that women’s vocal folds are too small to have a falsetto, and sometimes even that voices as low as tenors lack a falsetto register. However, as with many non-researched based claims made by well-intentioned voice teachers, this is one of those myths that isn’t born out by science. Ever since the 1950’s, we’ve had electromyographic studies by leading speech pathologists that demonstrate that females have a falsetto register.
What Is Falsetto Anatomically?
So what exactly is falsetto? To understand it, it’s useful to know that the vocal fold has multiple layers: from deepest to the most superficial, there’s the vocalis muscle, the ligament, the superficial lamina propria, and the epithelium. In modal register (think chest voice and a strong, full-bodied head voice), the vocalis muscle continues to contract–although less so in head voice. Falsetto, on the other hand, typically occurs when the vocalis muscle (the muscular part of the vocal fold) goes lax, and only the outer layers are vibrating, resulting in a more disembodied sound. It features a unique vibratory pattern that differs from the grounded and connected chest/middle/head voice combination that makes up the modal register.
What Does Falsetto Sound Like?
To hear the difference between falsetto and a more connected head voice, it’s most useful to listen to samples of male singers because that’s where the difference is the most pronounced.
Watch this before contining article
Listen to the choruses and to how connected Sam Smith’s voice sounds. It’s not that none of the notes slip into falsetto, but on a whole, there’s a grounded quality to everything.
Watch this before contining article
Now listen to Prince in “Kiss.” His voice, especially at the beginning, feels more disembodied, like it’s floating there without any mass to it. That mass that it seems to lack is the vocalis muscle not engaging. Note that vocals don’t need to sound breathy to be in falsetto. There’s a common misconception that falsetto always needs to be obviously breathy, but it’s more about the lack of chest connection that defines the sound.
Not a Value Judgment
Sometimes you’ll hear voice teachers talk disdainfully about falsetto, while propping up a connected head voice as “good technique.” That’s not what we’re doing here. Singers use both devices to wonderful stylistic ends. The only important thing here is that you’re in control of it and choose the one that fits your aesthetic needs.
Do Women Have Falsetto?
As we discussed earlier, yes! Women have a falsetto register.
So Why Don’t People Talk About It?
Women’s vocal folds are much smaller than men’s. The result is that there’s a thinner depth of contact and a much less pronounced difference between women’s modal head voice and falsetto register. You can often hear the difference better in thicker-voiced women than in sopranos, but no matter what, it doesn’t tend to sound as extreme as when men flip into falsetto.
Why Is it Still Controversial With Voice Teachers?
As a profession, voice teaching has been susceptible to a number of myths because vocal wisdom has largely been passed down by a sort of apprenticeship system. In other words, a voice teacher in the 19th century without much in the way of science to help him out, taught his student the tools he needed to be successful in his operatic craft. In turn, that student may have become a teacher and passed down the wisdom. Over the years, what was at one point a very functional singer’s toolkit became a bunch of half-truths not fully relevant to modern singing and not backed up by what’s become accepted fact in the scientific community. A lot of what we think we know about vocal registers falls into this trap.
And Why Should We Care?
It may be subtle, but knowing when you’re using falsetto can be very useful. Being able to stay rooted in the modal register instead of flipping into falsetto is crucial for a warm, rich connected sound. Conversely, learning to use your falsetto register effectively can be a wonderful stylistic device when you want to enrich your music with new colors.
Molly is the founder of Molly’s Music. She is a dedicated singer and pianist whose musical journey spans 2.5 decades, with stops along the way to sing for the pope, pass Certificate of Merit at the highest level, study with Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen, and record an original album.