Head and Chest voice explained

Head voice and chest voice explained

Do I have two voices?

No, but your voice can make sound in different ways.

The terms 'head voice' and 'chest voice' date back hundreds of years, to a time when there was very little understanding of how the voice worked. Without the benefit of scientific knowledge, descriptions of the voice relied heavily on the sounds and sensations that singers heard and felt when they sang.

The major problem with the use of the terms 'head' and 'chest' is that it suggests that the sound production mechanism changes position from somewhere in the chest to somewhere in the head - which it doesn't. Sound is always made by the vocal folds (cords) in the larynx (voice box) - which is in the throat.

These days, with modern scientific research, we have a much clearer idea of how we make sound, so we know that 'head voice' and 'chest voice' no longer accurately describe what's happening. As a result, these terms are gradually falling out of use by voice professionals.

But some teachers and singers still use the words 'head' and 'chest' to describe the voice. The terms have been around for many years and they probably won't go away any time soon. That's not a problem - so long as you understand that the voice is not being produced there.

When we sing, we feel vibration. The vibration of the vocal folds is transmitted via muscles to various fixed points in the body (including the chest and the head) and those areas vibrate in sympathy with the vocal folds. But that sympathetic vibration is an effect, not the cause. Unfortunately, singers (and some teachers) misunderstand the nature of the effect and try to 'place' the voice in order to feel those vibrations.

Perhaps the answer to this issue would be to refer to it as 'head-feeling' voice and 'chest-feeling' voice, which would clarify things a little.


What do 'head' and 'chest' mean?

The terms 'head' and 'chest' are an attempt to explain the various sensations we feel when we sing, but those terms are too simplistic to explain the complex nature of singing – clearly, we are able to make more than two basic types of sound.

This leads teachers and singers to talk about other 'voices' – Falsetto, Middle, Mix etc. The main problem with this (as I'm sure you'll realise from the wealth of 'information' on the internet ) is that there's no consensus - some say there are two distinct 'voices' (mainly Chest and Head, though some call them Chest and Falsetto), while others say three (Chest, Head and Middle) and some four (Chest, Middle, Head, Falsetto).

In all these cases, it's hard to pin down exactly what they're trying to describe – is it the tone, the pitch, the timbre, the volume, the sensation, the production?

To really understand the voice, we need a more detailed understanding of the physical mechanism involved.


What happens when we sing

When we sing, we produce a vibration at the vocal folds. This vibration happens because a pressurised stream of breath sucks the vocal folds together and blows them apart in a regular cycle. The way in which the vocal folds vibrate is known as the Vocal Mechanism. The number of vibrations per second is what we refer to as pitch.

This vibration is then amplified and shaped in the space above it – the throat and mouth space, referred to as the Vocal Tract.

This process involves many parts of the body, all of which are sending signals to the singer in terms of the amount of effort involved and the feeling of vibration.

Each of these sounds can be precisely defined in terms of how the vocal folds are vibrating (the vocal register), and how that sound is modified in the Vocal Tract, giving what we refer to as a Voice Quality.

Vocal Mechanism

'Register' is a term used to describe a sound or series of sounds that share similar acoustic and/or physical characteristics. I discuss the subject of vocal registers at length in the article at the top of this section, and I'd strongly urge you to read that before continuing.

But for the purposes of this page, it's enough to know that the vocal folds are able to vibrate in a number of ways. These different patterns of vibration are known as Laryngeal Mechanisms.

Laryngeal Mechanisms are numbered (from 0 to 3) avoiding the problems of naming them after body parts – it's easier then for singers to understand (and feel) that the vibrations are formed in the larynx, not the head or chest.

When we change pitch, the vocal folds stretch and relax – a higher pitch requires more stretch, a lower pitch less. Although flexible, the vocal folds still have physical limitations and will often slip from one mechanism to another at certain pitches.

In an untrained singer, these transitions will be heard as 'breaks', 'cracks' and 'yodels'. A trained singer recognises these 'transition points' and learns to disguise them.

Vocal Tract

The vocal tract is the main resonator of the voice, where the vibrations of the vocal folds are amplified.

The vocal tract includes the throat (pharynx) and mouth cavities and includes the tongue, lips and soft palate amongst other structures. It extends from the level of the vocal folds to the front of the lips.

As well as resonance and amplification, the vocal tract also shapes the voice into patterns we recognise as vowels, consonants and Voice Quality.

Voice Quality

Voice Quality is the term used to describe the sound that results from the interaction of the vocal fold vibration and the shape of the vocal tract.

Due to the number of structures involved in the vocal tract, we're capable of modifying the basic sound of the vocal fold vibration with great variety and subtlety, giving us many Voice Qualities - certainly more than just two!

In Estill Voice Training™, we define six arbitrary voice qualities - Speech, Falsetto, Sob, Twang, Opera and Belt – each of which lends itself more or less to a specific genre of music.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand Voice Quality is to think of the vocal tract structures and vocal register as ingredients and the Voice Qualities as 'recipes'.


Head and Chest revisited

So are 'head' and 'chest' describing Vocal Registers or Voice Qualities? The confusion is that the terms are used to describe both – you'll hear singers and teachers refer to 'head voice' AND 'head register' as if they're the same thing.

In reality, 'head' and 'chest' refer to different Laryngeal Mechanisms, and each of those can produce more than one Voice Quality.

Whilst the terms 'head' and 'chest' can still make sense to singers in terms of the sensations they feel, they're clearly too unsubtle to fully describe the variety of sounds that we can make. The terminology is simple for beginners to grasp, but it's too simplistic to be sufficient for an elite singer.

The goal of vocal training is to be able to control the sounds you make in very subtle ways, and this should be built not on vague, imprecise imagery, but on a thorough understanding of the laryngeal mechanisms, and how they can be manipulated. Having independent, isolated control over the vocal mechanism and vocal tract structures gives the singer the ability to blend and adapt the sound at will.

By understanding how the voice actually works, Estill Voice Training™ replaces the vague and inexact concepts of Head voice and Chest voice with a precise understanding of the vocal folds and how they vibrate, and how other structures can shape that sound - giving the singer complete control over their tone, range and dynamics.

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