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Vocal registers: what's with the break in my voice?

Jan. 17, 2013
Posted in: Singing
Your singing voice changes based on where in your body it comes from.



Many people who study voice, take voice lessons, or who have simply sung and paid attention, have noticed that they experience sensations in different parts of the body, depending on what range they sing in. This can be attributed to the presence of different vocal registers.

First off, what exactly is a vocal register? The term is used to describe the difference in tones produced by the human voice in varied ranges. The quality of sound and coordination of the muscles may change noticeably from one register to the next, especially in the untrained voice. These changes include vibration of vocal chords and position of your larynx (commonly known as the voicebox).

Each person’s body is unique, and this naturally translates to the singing voice. Depending on the person, the points of registration change can vary. For instance, a woman with a lower alto or mezzo-soprano voice will likely have a lower register break than a soprano. Check out this cool chart with a visual description of typical vocal register shifts (for our purposes, we will only need to deal with Schiller’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd registers).

Prominent voice scientist Stephen Austin describes the need for “development, purification, and gradual unification of the registers as a means of developing the functional basis of a sound technique.” Whew! That’s quite a big statement, but essentially what it means is that as singers, we want to smooth the transitions between our vocal registers to make one consistent sound from top to bottom. You want your voice to sound like you whether you are in the high or low range. We don’t want to sound as if we are singing with three different voices!

While there have been many advances in scientific research regarding vocal registers, the subject remains full of controversy and contrasting ideas. I will, for brevity’s sake, refer only to the traditional three-register vocal structure, consisting of chest voice, middle, and head voice.

The lower register of the voice, or chest voice, is where the majority of the speaking voice occurs (though some women may speak slightly higher than this). Many teachers describe this as the most “natural” register, for singing, as it is the most closely-related to the speaking voice. Singing in this register is usually accompanied by vibration in the chest, hence the name! In general, the tone in the chest voice is darker, and has a weightier, more powerful tone than the other registers. For this reason, it is often necessary to brighten some of the vowels in this range, to prevent superficial over-darkening of the sound.

The higher register in the voice is known as head voice, which consists of a bright tone that is focused on resonance in bones and cavities of your face and head. Since this register is rarely used in speech, it is often the most difficult for many beginning singers, and requires lots of work. When singing in head voice, there is need for modification of many vowels- mainly the narrowing of vowels to allow enough head resonance. For instance, I always stress to my students that above certain notes in head voice, the only vowel sung should be “Ah,” as that is the only vowel that allows enough space for proper head resonance. In classical singing, it is of utmost importance that the weight of the chest register is not dragged up into the higher resonance. I will address this issue in next week’s blog.

In between these two registers is what’s known as the middle or mixed register. This can often become one of the most difficult concepts for beginning singers, as it requires the mixing of chest and head voice. Depending on the singer’s physical makeup and the note(s) needing to be sung, the percentage of head and chest required can vary greatly.

One of my favorite terms used to describe singing is the chiaroscuro idea. Literally meaning “bright-dark,” chiaroscuro is the ideal combination of light and dark elements of vocal tone. Coinciding directly with smoothing the vocal registers for one unified sound, the presence of evenly balanced tone gives the voice a full and pleasing sound. Think of tuning your radio with too much treble, and then too much bass. Then, return it to a balanced setting, and your ears will thank you. Each singer must likewise adjust their own levels of bright and dark tones, through resonance and blending of the vocal registers.

The more in-tune with their own register breaks, the better able the singer is at anticipating the need for vowel modification and attention to resonance. Much of this knowledge is gained simply by trial and error, with the help of a teacher who understands different techniques to help ease these transitions.

Stay tuned for my next blog, when I will address the important aspects of the largest break in registers, known as the passaggio.

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