“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” – Voltaire
We have to get on the same page. There are far too many pages. There are far too many gimmicks, tricks, and tips spoken and written by people who do not share the same terminology. This makes for problems, misunderstandings and debates.
Turning to science, we can find ways of describing things so explicitly that guesses and opinions collapse under the weight of provable truths. From myths has come mayhem and may we make the distinction between reality and seek agreement as the truth sets us free from the past.
The Common Names of Vocal Registers:
Low Middle Voice
High Middle Voice
Super Head Voice
These are good things to initially know because between registers, is where your voice might crack or break. Part of learning how to not crack when you sing is knowing where the breaks or cracks will be, if you have any.
Chest Voice got its name as a result of singers feeling a sympathetic vibration in the chest as they sang in the lowest part of their voices. Chest voice is not actually a sound, per se, but is a register. The size of the sound waves is such, that in the lowest register, the chest vibrates.
Low Middle Voice is just above Chest Voice. It should blend with chest voice and may sound exactly the same, except it is on higher pitches, above actual chest voice.
High Middle Voice is below Head Voice, but is above Low Middle Voice. Some prominent vocal coaches don’t differentiate between low middle and high middle and call it all the same thing. Some prominent vocal coaches call middle voice Mix or Mix Voice or Mixed Voice.
This is misleading in that it sounds like a singer could or would mix two singing registers and that is not what is happening, as is easily demonstrated when you observe the vocal folds as a singer slides from chest to low middle to high middle to head voice.
You don’t have a magic blender or food processor in your neck which blends sounds in some imaginary way. The middle voice registers, low and high, are not a combination of head voice and chest voice. They are between those registers.
Head Voice got its name because singers noticed that they could feel vibrations in the head when they sang higher than where they typically speak.
Super Head Voice is above Head Voice. It also is called whistle register, but it is not a whistle. Some call super head voice flageolet, which is an actual “mechanical” whistle.
To recapitulate, vocal registers are the ranges of the voice, but they are not qualities of sound or tone. Some singers and vocal coaches do not know this and they speak of registers as if they are a specific tone quality or a timbre.
The top music schools, conservatories, and universities are precise and explicit and do not interchange or misuse terminology. This is a great time to all get on the same page. By doing this, we can gain a deeper understanding of the structure and function of singing. We may even be able to get along.
Sound, tone, and timbre
Sound travels at about 750 miles per hour. We do not have valves, as such, inside our heads, to enable us to direct the sound or to place the sound to any appreciable degree. We also do not have muscles which expand the pharyngeal cavity and therefor cannot actually “open our throats” or “keep our throats open”. Don’t blame me. I did not design or build the human body.
When the vocal folds are in close proximity, as air is expelled through them, we will have a sound which is called full voice.
Full voice is the sound we make in which we can “project” or have power or loudness. Many singers and some vocal coaches refer to full voice as chest voice but these terms are precise and are not interchangeable.
Chest voice is a register and full voice is a sound. A register will be exact notes in your own vocal production. You may notice that they slightly vary up or down on any given day, but not much. Don’t call full voice chest voice.
You can sing with full voice in every single register. When you do this, you are not stretching chest voice higher. That is a common fallacy. You can yell or scream and do a thing some call “pulling chest voice”, but it is yelling, not singing, and is potentially harmful to the vocal folds.
You cannot loudly sing with a breathy sound and you may even feel pain if you try doing that. Breathy tone production is achieved by the vocal folds not adducting enough to make the full voice sound. As a result, air escapes and we can hear that in combination with the tone of the vibrating vocal folds. A breathy tone could be called a sound characteristic, or timbre.
What are vocal chords? Vocal chords only exist when there are three singers singing together on three different pitches. Some vocal coaches have referred to vocal chords, but meaning to say vocal cords. Doctors normally do not say vocal cords, since they are not cords and definitely are not “chords”. They are called vocal folds.
Video stroboscopy has revealed that the vibrating action of the vocal folds is quite complex. Using a microphone which allows the measurement of the frequency vibration and combining that with a strobe light has enabled physicians and speech therapists to visually observe the actual function and structure of the voice as it is in action. Videos of this may be found online.
You can think of full voice as a solid sound and a breathy voice as having air in it.
Remember this: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” – Voltaire
So, hopefully there has been some clarification in the defining of terms, based on modern science, not on myths.
chuck stewart, vocal coach