Vocal Registers: What Is Falsetto?

Anatomy and Explanation of Falsetto

There are a lot of different theories about what falsetto is and where and how it occurs. Some say that falsetto is anything other than modal (chest voice). Some even say that it’s the mid-range in between chest and head voice. Falsetto, though, is the register (some don’t consider it an actual register, but it is at least a voicing and for sure a timbre) above both the chest and head voice and is the imitation of the female voice used for stylistic coloring or comic effects.

Okay, that’s what it is. Let’s talk a little bit about the pitch-changing mechanism to see what is really going on there and what the deal with falsetto is.

As you may know, as pitch rises the vocal folds (cords) become less thick and dense; they stretch and elongate. And resistance to airflow also increases with the rising pitch. While speaking and singing, the vocal folds remain in contact with each other and their vibration is what causes the sound in the phonation process. Well, as the pitch continues to ascend, higher and higher, the vocal folds reach a limit of how taut, how tight they can get, and it is at this point that falsetto occurs.

With falsetto, the vocal ligaments (the inner part of the vocal folds) separate and become slack. In this position, air escapes rather easily through the middle of the chords only catching the inner sides of the vocal folds, producing an airy high-pitched sound. This is a built-in defense mechanism that releases the tension from the vocal folds while still allowing the pitch to ascend. This is not too say that the vocal folds have two settings, open, during falsetto, and closed, during regular phonation, singing and speaking. The vocal folds have several degrees of closure.

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While it is possible to strengthen the falsetto timbre, it will never have the sound quality or power of the head voice. But every note that is voiced in falsetto can also, through work and practice, be sung in the head voice. And the head voice is designated by full vocal-fold closure, whereas the falsetto timbre is characterized by slacker vocal folds that are more open, creating an airy sound.

There is a little intro to the falsetto timbre. Hopefully that’s helpful. In the next post I’ll say more about falsetto and how it compares to head voice.


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