There is probably no more confusing topic to singers than that of vocal registers: what they are, what they’re called and how to control them. It wouldn’t be so problematic if registers were not such an important part of being a good singer. Voice-breaking is a humiliating occurrence when playing live. I’m hoping to clear up the mystery on this topic right now.
Where does this weird word register originate? The term began with pipe organ construction in which hundreds of different pipe sizes allowed one instrument to make a multitude of different sounds. That led to the concept that a register (or organ stop) was a series of notes of similar timbre. Therefore when the human voice produced different vocal sounds with unique vocal cord characteristics, the phenomenon came to be called a vocal register.
Until recently there was no agreement about how many registers human voices have; some would say one, others up to five. Before we could look down throats and see what was going on, singers would rely on feelings of vibration to name the most common registers. Therefore, chest voice could be felt vibrating the chest and head voice could be felt somewhere floating around in the head. Then there came the term falsetto for men, a light, flutey sound which sadly implies that it’s a false sound, not a real sound. And then no one could agree on the difference between head voice and falsetto and here we still are, in a quagmire of semantics.
Currently four different registers are discussed. If we forget about vocal fry (the popcorn sound we can make on low notes) and whistle register which some sopranos have above high F# (and a very few males on the planet), then we can focus on the two main terms: chest voice and head voice or falsetto.
Here’s my take on the issue: registers are shapes of the vocal cords. These shapes are comprised of length, thickness and how much of the cord is vibrating. Different shapes, different sounds. So start to think of registers as vocal cord shapes which change with pitch. (This topic is way complicated but I’m trying to keep it simple.)
We have a lower register and an upper register, different muscle activities which change the shape of the fold. When we activiate the lower register, what we’re doing is shortening the vocal fold, what I call squooshing. When we squoosh the cord, the vibrating edge is thick and the muscle in the vocal fold is contracting. To feel this shape, say hey with a strong sound, very low in pitch. Notice how the sound is heavy, loud and full. If you put your hand on your upper chest and lower neck and say hey this way, can you feel the vibration?
The opposite configuration is upper register. To make this sound, try making a really high-pitched oo sound. Try to sound like a bird. Isolating your upper register like this results in vocal cords which are longer, thin at the edges and produce a lighter, sweeter, softer sound. OK, not so hard…so what’s the challenge? Well, one of the goals of technical mastery is to produce an even sound up and down your range, from your lowest note to your highest note and back down again. That implies that you’ve got to find a way to change the shape of your cord on every note to create the illusion of an even sound. You don’t want your low notes too heavy and your high notes too light with a break in the middle.
Through years of experimentation I’ve discovered that in the lowest 2-5 notes of the women’s range (4-9 notes for men) are pure lower register function and the highest 5-8 notes for women (7-11 notes for men) are pure upper register. That makes the bulk of your vocal range a BLEND of the two registers. Another way to put it is that for almost all the notes you sing, you’ll be singing in a blend. Every note you sing higher or lower has it’s own shape. This results in the illusion of an even sound.
What I love about this model, besides that singers get it, is that it bypasses the old chest voice/head voice/falsetto controversy and helps give singers a way to visualize and control the shape of their cords. So now you’ve got a mental model, but can you put it to practice?
How about feeling your registers? If you pay attention to the feelings in your voice-box area, you may be surprised to discover that you can actually feel your vocal folds. Try this: say hey on a low pitch and see if you can feel your cords squooshing. You should be able to feel something muscular happening in the front of your voice-box. I call this feeling front muscle; it’s just the name of the feeling of muscular activity in the front of your voice-box.
Let’s go back to the pure upper register feeling: say oo very high in pitch and softly. Feel something in the back of your larynx? Can you feel your folds stretching like rubber bands to get that high note? I call that feeling (you guessed it) back muscle for short; a sensation of muscular activity in the back of your voice-box for higher notes. Now for a real charge, compare the two pure feelings, a low hey for the front muscle feeling and a high oo for the back muscle feeling.
Pretty cool, eh?
Now for the blend: start singing on a low note on the vowel aa as in cat and as you go up in pitch add more back muscle feeling as you aim for the top of your range. You’ll be stretching and thinning your vocal folds gradually as you go to the top. Make sure to ADD support (upper belly firmed out below sternum) as you stretch and thin your folds. Ready to descend? Visualize that you’re shortening and thickening your folds more and more as you come down. If you practice this siren exercise at medium volume you should notice that there are fewer and fewer glitches, breaks, cracks and other uneven sounds from bottom to top and back down again.
This register model is based on feelings of where the action really is, in your vocal cords. Another plus is that the traditional model of chest voice, middle mix and head voice model is a vertical model and people tend get panicky as they go higher. Primal fear of heights thing maybe. In this new model of vocal registers, you think horizontally, stretching and thinning your cords as you sing higher and shortening and thickening your folds as you sing lower.
Finally, here’s the Rule of Registers:
Add more ‘back muscle’ feeling as you sing higher and
Add more ‘front muscle’ feeling as you sing lower.