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Kelly Clarkson AIS Arena, Canberra, 2005, by Jeaneeemunder CC BY 2.0

There’s so much written about how to sing high notes, how to find your mixed voice, and how to belt. But many voice teachers take for granted that singers already know how to sing in chest voice. After all, it’s a vocal register that most people are comfortable speaking in when they’re relaxed and not energetically or nervously pitching their voices up. First let’s get a few things straight.

What is Chest Voice (and Why are Vocal Registers so Confusing?)

Chest voice is the lowest part of the modal register, where many people’s speaking voices fall when speaking in a neutral, relaxed way. Because of this, it’s the easiest part of the voice for most singers to find. For men, a larynx-neutral chest voice usually falls around Ab3 to Eb4 and below. For women, it usually falls around Eb4 to Bb4 and below. The notes that chest voice is used for depend both on the anatomy of the singer and the stylistic choices he or she makes.

The concept of vocal registers is a hot mess in the vocal world right now, as it has been for a while. You’ll hear well respected teachers disagree over how many registers there are, how to use these registers, and if there even are registers. In my blog entry about mixed voice, I explain why there’s so much confusion. In short, while even trained singers do experience register breaks brought about adjustments in the thyroarytenoid and cricothyroid muscles in the larynx, these registers are rarely, if ever, distinct. The mix can have a lot of chest resonance mixed in with only a little head resonance (a configuration that sounds like a belt), or a lot of head resonance mixed in with a little chest resonance (a configuration that sounds lighter, and possibly more legit or classical). Singers rarely sing in a pure chest voice without any other resonance mixed in, but “chest voice” is still a useful designation. The next brief section is about the anatomy of chest voice, so if you aren’t a vocal nerd like I am, feel free to skip right on over to the next section.

What is Chest Voice Anatomically?

  • Vocal ligaments are short, lax, and the most adducted (closed) of the registers
  • Very engaged thyrorarytenoid muscle (TA): the muscle responsible for relaxing and shortening the vocal cords
  • Medial edge of vocal cords is a rectangular shape
  • As pitch in chest voice increases, so too does the use of the TA muscle
  • Use of the cricothyroid muscle (CT)–the muscle responsible for tensing and elongating the vocal folds–increases gradually with pitch. Surprisingly to many voice teachers, studies have shown that CT is used more in a chestier belt than in a chest-mix. Less CT, however, is used in chest voice than in a head-mix or head voice.

What Does Chest Voice Sound Like

Chest voice is a heavier sound than middle and head voice. When notes are low enough, it sounds a lot like your speaking range. When notes are higher, it sounds like a heavy, thick belt.

How to Sing in Chest Voice

If you aren’t sure how to access chest voice, try putting your hand on your chest and bellowing “euh!” in a loud, manly tone, as if you’re picking up something heavy. Do you feel the vibration near your chest? What about in your throat and mouth? If you can’t feel the vibrations, take heart! Not everyone feels sympathetic resonance the same way.

I’ve found two major reasons why singers have weak or wobbly chest voices. Oddly enough, the first two reasons are opposite of one another. The first is not pushing hard enough; the second is pushing too hard.

Reason 1: Not Pushing Hard Enough!

Singers often fear sounding too heavy or ugly. Especially for those of you who’ve grown up with any mediocre classical or choral training (please note that this is not the case with good classical training!), it’s easy to shy away from any sound that may not be light and beautiful. In the quest to stay away from these “ugly” sounds, singers will drag their middle or head voices down so far that the sound becomes harder and harder to support, resulting in a weak sound that drops out more and more the lower they go. The best remedy is to have confidence that pushing more from your chest when you’re singing these lower notes will actually thicken your vocal cords, give you more power, and allow you sound better.

Try this exercise: On a descending scale, sing “Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!” as if you’re Santa Claus.

Don’t be afraid to push these notes. Imagine the sound coming from your chest. Slightly sustain the last “ho” each time you sing the pattern, so that you can get practice sustaining in chest voice.

Giving the exercise that extra push will help your TA activate so that your cords thicken and give you a bigger sound.

Reason 2: Pushing Too Hard!

Often the problem isn’t holding back, but rather pushing too hard. This is most frequently true at the very bottom of a singer’s range, where support becomes even more difficult. All singers have a natural end to their range at their lowest tones, because there reaches a point in which their vocal cords can’t thicken any further. This doesn’t mean you can’t slowly work to gain a few lower notes, but it’s not as quick a process as gaining higher notes.

To hit the lowest frequencies in your range, your vocal cords need to stay relaxed and loose, and your larynx needs to very slightly tilt downward. If you push too hard, you’ll increase your laryngeal tension and lose your lowest notes in your range as a result.

Try this exercise: Work on keeping your voice light, but maintaining good breath support (i.e. not letting too much air out as you sing), and sing descending 5-note lines. You can start with a hum.

As the hum becomes easier, repeat the exercise using an “Ooh,” followed by an “Ah.” The “Ooh” vowel still has a light quality to it, but the “Ah” vowel is easy to push too hard and is, therefore, the most difficult to keep light for many singers.

Voice Lessons for the 21st Century

Traditional voice lessons are great! The Inside Voice is Better.