What are voice registers?

Talking about voice registers one can go crazy! The terminology often leads to confusion and misunderstanding, because different words describe the same things… With this article, I want to make clear what a voice register is, how it is determined and how you can get rid of the break between the registers.

But before we get to the essence, I want to define the term : 

📖 TERM. A Vocal Register is a group of notes in your voice, that is produced the same way. This definition comes from a physiological approach, in which we describe how vocal folds vibrate.

Talking about tonal quality, one can find many different vocal registers, but I want to concentrate on the two physiologically distinguished main registers: modal and falsetto. 

Chest voice, modal register (M1)

The modal register (M1) has a full tone, is located in a comfortable range, and is the voice we speak in. M1 is another way to name it according to the laryngeal vibratory mechanisms classification.

When you sing in your modal register, you will feel a vibration in your chest, especially when you sing low. Try it! Sing a relaxed, but low tone and put one hand onto your chest, to feel the vibration. The occurring vibration in your chest is the background of the name „chest voice“. Higher notes of this register don’t vibrate in your chest though, which is why the name „chest voice“ might be misleading! From now on I will call this voice register „modal register“. Things you can produce with the modal register are speaking, low tones, middle tones, and belting. 

📖 TERM. Belting is a singing technique that is created when singers carry their modal voice above the voice break (passagio). Belting is a matter of taste and should only be done with proper vocal technique, as it can damage your vocal folds tragically. 

Some examples of belting males:

And some belting females:

The sounds mentioned above are used by pop/jazz/soul/musical singers a lot. Most female pop/jazz singers can go up to G4-D5 if not higher! Males modal registers usually go up until around F4-G4  and lower males to D4. How high you can sing in this register, depends on the following parameters:

  • The way your larynx is built;
  • The vowel that is sung;
  • Voice color;
  • Volume;
  • Training;
  • Vocal Technique.

When you look at the modal register physiologically, your vocal folds are short and thickened. Furthermore, the vocal folds vibrate over their whole width – that’s also why there is a full tone to this register. The modal register just has more mass engaged with creating the sound compared to the falsetto register.

Head voice, falsetto register (M2) 

Just like the term „chest voice“ I think „head voice“ is also misleading. When you sing in head voice, your head doesn’t vibrate (at least not with everyone)… Some people can feel a soft vibration in the neck area, but for this register, I want to stick to the term „falsetto voice“. To find your falsetto voice you can imitate the sound of an owl, of a siren, or whoo as if you were on a rollercoaster or cheering at a concert or game.

This voice register has a light and high sound. It can be breathy when the voice is untrained.

Moreover, it is used to sing soft passages in the middle or low range. While falsetto can be very soft and airy, it can also have a significant color, dynamic, and stamina – that’s what opera singers use. In order to get to the more powerful falsetto sound, you need to use full abdominal support (breath support).

The falsetto voice produces fewer overtones, and overtones are, what shapes the timbre (color of your voice). If you want to know more about overtones and the timbre of a voice check out this previous blog post.  So what happens when we have fewer overtones and less timbre? The Voice sort of loses character which is why the sound of males singing falsetto has a female quality. 

Nevertheless, this register exists in all male and female voices, regardless of their range! 

This is how female falsetto sounds like:

And here are some male falsetto examples:

Physiologically speaking, falsetto voice is created differently than modal voice. In falsetto voice, the vocal folds are long and thin and only vibrate at the edges/ligaments. 

Whistle Register 

Not all! But some women are able to sing in this very thin and soft sounding register. It starts at around A5 and is quite difficult but not impossible to achieve. What is impossible is, singing understandable words at this height! 

Examples for whistle register singers:

The register Break or Passagio

The register break is the point where your voice abruptly switches from modal voice to falsetto voice. Both men and women have this break somewhere between A4 and D5 which means that for women the break is in the middle and for men, it is at the top part of their range.

Additionally one can say, that higher voices have higher voice breaks. The break isn’t always at the same spot per singer. Depending on the vowel, loudness, and intensity of sound you are creating, the break might move a bit. So by modifying your sound and volume, you can move the break to a spot where it fits better because it is less audible for example. On the other hand, the break can also be used as an artistic choice. Jodeling is a good example of this, the breaks are on purpose.

Here is an example video (Jodeling starts at 02:00):

Mixed voice 

Mixed voice is located around the voice break explained above. It is a voice register that needs practice and technique to be achieved correctly. The mixed voice moves in the heights of the falsetto voice but keeps the strength of the Modal voice, so allows us to sing high but powerful passages. 

Just to compare it:

  • High passages with modal voice = loud, strained
  • High passages with falsetto voice = either soft and airy or with stamina but sounding classically
  • High passages with mixed voice = less loud, blending modal and falsetto voice

To achieve an inaudible voice break you need to work on your blending/mixed voice!

In order to accomplish blending/mixed voice correctly, your voice needs to get flexible, you need to feel confident in both chest- and head voice!

Analyze your voice with the 3 steps underneath to find out what your voice needs:

Below the break: be sure that your modal voice doesn’t only sound heavy and low but can also create a lighter sound (light modal). With light sound I don’t mean going down to your lower range with your falsetto voice, it needs to keep the modal sound!

Above the break: do you have a thin and airy sound? Or is it quite powerful? 

What we need: In order to get to the mixed voice and to blend registers inaudibly, you need a light sound in your modal voice and a strong sound in your falsetto! When you get there, you can sing ascending and descending lines, staying in the same loudness when moving from your modal voice to your falsetto voice. 

Anatomically speaking the mixed voice is basically a combination of Modal and Falsetto voice. The vocal folds have to stretch and get thin, to get that pitch similar to falsetto, but in the process, they also thicken up a little bit and thus create a more powerful sound. This combination of thinness and thickness gives us the mixed voice.  

Literature references

Definition of passagio – Wikipedia

The 4 Vocal Registers Explained – Ged Richardson

Mixed voice – Ken Tamplin

Finding your mix voice – Spencer Welch

Head voice vs chest voice – Ronja Petersen 

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