How to Know Which Vocal Register to Use

Vocal registers are one of the most confusing singing-related topics out there, because there are so many myths flying around about how you must shift into chest, middle, or head voice at certain unbending places. When I was a teenager, I once worked with a Speech Level Singing teacher who told me, “These aren’t my rules. These are the laws of physics.” I remember wondering, “Well then how are there so many singers out there defying physics so effectively?” It’s because deciding which vocal register to use is subjective, not some unshakeable law.

What You Often Hear

Many teachers I’ve worked with have offered a very limiting guide to where each of my registers should be. Chest voice was Eb4 and below; middle voice was Eb4 to Eb5; and head voice was Eb5 and above. If I was too chesty above E4, I’d get called out on it. If I was too heady below Eb4, that wasn’t right either.

What’s the Truth Behind the Myth

Whenever I debunk myths, I like to spend some time explaining where it came from, because most have a kernel of truth to them. Speech Level Singing teachers (and many others) are right about one thing: our voices have certain registers we’re the most comfortable in on a given note, simply because of our own habits and, of course, biomechanics.

How Pitch is Created

To understand registers, it’s useful to know what pitch is. The pitches we sing are created by the frequency with which our vocal folds vibrate. When you stretch a band out, it’ll vibrate faster than when the band isn’t stretched out, so it makes sense that low pitches are facilitated by shorter, thicker vocal folds and that high pitches are facilitated by longer, thinner ones.

How Does This Relate to Vocal Registers?

Chest voice occurs when our vibrating vocal folds are thick enough, and head voice occurs when our vibrating vocal folds are thin enough. So it makes sense biomechanically that low pitches, thick vocal folds, and chest voice would all be linked up and that high pitches, thin vocal folds, and head voice would go together. This combination of habit and biomechanics is something Estill voice teachers refer to as an “attractor state.”

Why is This so Limiting?

Just because we have attractor states, or places our voices tend to feel at home, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possibilities. Our vocal apparatus is extremely versatile. Subtle changes in our resonance chambers (i.e. altering the shape of your mouth or moving your soft palate), changes in breath support, and shifts in our laryngeal structures can all shape what’s possible to do with our voices. When you’re totally relaxed, Middle C might be easier for you to sing in chest voice without your voice getting wobbly, but with some added breath support, it’s possible to sing the note in a beautiful head-mix. An F5 might be totally out of reach to sing in a belt-mix if your effort levels are low, but given some added support, a more horizontal-shaped mouth, and some false fold retraction, it’s very possible to do healthily.

So How Do You Know What Register to Sing in Then?

The bottom line is it depends on the genre, it depends on the song, it depends on the mood you’re trying to create on a particular line, it depends on your voice, and it depends where you are in your vocal training. For classical singing (as a female in particular) you’ll be shifting out of chest voice on a much lower note than you would for a Broadway belt or Katy Perry-styled pop. You’ll also need to figure out what’s possible for your own voice. If you’re trying to stay chesty on the highest note in “Defying Gravity” and you feel like you’re screaming and your throat is being ripped apart, I would recommend that you hold off on going full-on Idina Menzel. This doesn’t mean that it’ll always be uncomfortable. After working on supporting your belt for a year, your voice may feel completely different than it does now.

Even registration on individual lines of a song is subjective. Listen to Denee Benton build the song “No One Else.” The beginning of it is almost all in head tones, but it builds into chest tones later in the song. I might also point out that many of the head tones at the beginning of the song are lower notes than the chest tones that happen later on. She chooses registers in order to tell her story and build to the emotional climax of the song, not simply because of the lows and highs of the pitches.

Be playful. Figure out what feels good, what sounds good, and what expresses what you want to say with your song. And don’t forget: Your voice is constantly changing, and the way you sing can change with it. What works one year may not work the next, and what is out of reach may suddenly become possible.

Happy Singing!

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