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Falsetto ( /fɔːlˈsɛt,fɒlˈ-/ , Italian:  [falˈsetto] ; Italian diminutive of falso, "false") is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.


It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords, in whole or in part. Commonly cited in the context of singing, falsetto, a characteristic of phonation by both sexes, is also one of four main spoken vocal registers recognized by speech pathology.

The term falsetto is most often used in the context of singing to refer to a type of vocal phonation that enables the singer to sing notes beyond the vocal range of the normal or modal voice. [1] The typical tone of falsetto register or M2, usually has a characteristic breathy [2] [3] and flute-like sound relatively free of overtones [4] [5] —which is more limited than its modal counterpart in both dynamic variation and tone quality. [6] However, William Vennard points out that while most untrained people can sound comparatively "breathy" or "hooty" when using falsetto production, there are in rarer cases individuals who have developed a much stronger falsetto sound production which has more "ring" to it. [7]

Anatomical process

The modal voice, or modal register, and falsetto register differ primarily in the action of the vocal cords. Production of the normal voice involves vibration of the entire vocal chord, with the glottis opening first at the bottom and then at the top. Production of falsetto, on the other hand, vibrates only the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds while leaving each fold's body relatively relaxed. [8] Transition from modal voice to falsetto occurs when each vocal cord's main body, or vocalis muscle, relaxes, enabling the cricothyroid muscles to stretch the vocal ligaments. [6] William Vennard describes this process as follows:

With the vocalis muscles relaxed it is possible for the cricothyroids to place great longitudinal tension upon the vocal ligaments. The tension can be increased in order to raise the pitch even after the maximum length of the cords has been reached. This makes the vocal folds thin so that there is negligible vertical phase difference. The vocalis muscles fall to the sides of the larynx and the vibration take place almost entirely in the ligaments. [9]

In the modal register, the vocal folds (when viewed with a stroboscope) are seen to contact with each other completely during each vibration, closing the gap between them fully, if just for a very short time. This closure cuts off the escaping air. When the air pressure in the trachea rises as a result of this closure, the folds are blown apart, while the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages remain in apposition. This creates an oval gap between the folds and some air escapes, lowering the pressure inside the trachea. Rhythmic repetition of this movement creates the note. [1]

Vocal fold, scheme Vocal fold scheme.svg
Vocal fold, scheme
Glottal cycle, falsetto Vocal fold falsett animated.gif
Glottal cycle, falsetto

In falsetto, however, the vocal folds are seen to be blown apart and in untrained falsetto singers a permanent oval orifice is left in the middle between the edges of the two folds through which a certain volume of air escapes continuously as long as the register is engaged (the singer is singing using the voice). In skilled countertenors, however, the mucous membrane of the vocal folds contact with each other completely during each vibration cycle. The arytenoid cartilages are held in firm apposition in this voice register also. The length or size of the oval orifice or separation between the folds can vary, but it is known to get bigger as the pressure of air pushed out is increased. [1]

The folds are made up of elastic and fatty tissue. The folds are covered on the surface by laryngeal mucous membrane which is supported deeper down underneath by the innermost fibres of the thyroarytenoid muscle. In falsetto the extreme membranous edges, i.e. the edges furthest away from the middle of the gap between the folds, appear to be the only parts vibrating. The mass corresponding to the innermost part of the thyro-arytenoid muscle remains still and motionless. [1]

Some singers feel a sense of muscular relief when they change from the modal register to the falsetto register. [1]

Research has revealed that not all speakers and singers produce falsetto in exactly the same way. Some speakers and singers leave the cartilaginous portion of the glottis open (sometimes called 'mutational chink'), and only the front two-thirds of the vocal ligaments enter the vibration. The resulting sound, which is typical of many adolescents, may be pure and flutelike, but is usually soft and anemic in quality. In others, the full length of the glottis opens and closes in each cycle. In still others, a phenomenon known as damping appears, with the amount of glottal opening becoming less and less as the pitch rises, until only a tiny slit appears on the highest pitches. The mutational chink type of falsetto is considered inefficient and weak, but there is little information available about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the other two types. [6]

Female falsetto

Both sexes are physically capable of phonating in the falsetto register. Prior to research done by scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely believed that only men were able to produce falsetto. One possible explanation for this failure to recognize the female falsetto sooner is that when men phonate in the falsetto register there is a much more pronounced change in timbre and dynamic level between the modal and falsetto registers than there is in female voices. This is due in part to the difference in the length and mass of the vocal folds and to the difference in frequency ranges. [1] However, motion picture and video studies of laryngeal action prove that women can and do produce falsetto, and electromyographic studies by several leading speech pathologists and vocal pedagogists provide further confirmation. [1]

While scientific evidence has proven that women have a falsetto register, the issue of 'female falsetto' has been met with controversy among teachers of singing. [6] This controversy does not exist within the sciences and arguments against the existence of female falsetto do not align with current physiological evidence. Some pioneers in vocal pedagogy, like Margaret Green and William Vennard, were quick to adopt current scientific research in the 1950s, and pursued capturing the biological process of female falsetto on film. They went further to incorporate their research into their pedagogical method of teaching female singers. [10] Others refused to accept the idea, and opposition to the concept of female falsetto has continued among some teachers of singing long after scientific evidence had proven the existence of female falsetto. [6] Celebrated opera singer and voice teacher Richard Miller pointed out in his 1997 publication National Schools of Singing: English, French, German, and Italian that while the German school of voice teachers had largely embraced the idea of a female falsetto into pedagogical practice, there is division within the French and English schools and a complete rejection of the idea of female falsetto in the Italian school of singing. [11] In his 2004 book, Solutions for Singers: Tools For Performers and Teachers, Miller said, "It is illogical to speak of a female falsetto, because the female is incapable of producing a timbre in the upper range that is radically different from its mezza voce or voce piena in testa qualities". [12]

However, other writers of singing have warned about the dangers of failing to recognize that women have a falsetto register. McKinney, who expressed alarm that many books on the art of singing completely ignore or gloss over the issue of female falsetto or insist that women do not have falsetto, argues that many young female singers substitute falsetto for the upper portion of the modal voice. [6] He believes that this failure to recognize the female falsetto voice has led to the misidentification of young contraltos and mezzo-sopranos as sopranos, as it is easier for these lower voice types to sing in the soprano tessitura using their falsetto register. [6]

Musical history

Use of falsetto voice in western music is very old. Its origins are difficult to trace because of ambiguities in terminology. Possibly when 13th century writers distinguished between chest, throat and head registers (pectoris, guttoris, capitis) they meant capitis to refer to what would be later called falsetto. [13] By the 16th century the term falsetto was common in Italy. The physician, Giovanni Camillo Maffei, in his book Discorso della voce e del modo d'apparare di cantar di garganta in 1562, explained that when a bass singer sang in the soprano range, the voice was called "falsetto". [13] In a book by GB Mancini, called Pensieri e riflessioni written in 1774, falsetto is equated with "voce di testa" (translated as 'head voice'). [13]

The falsetto register is used by male countertenors to sing in the alto and occasionally the soprano range and was the standard before women sang in choirs. Falsetto is occasionally used by early music specialists today and regularly in British cathedral choirs by men who sing the alto line. [14]

There is a difference between the modern usage of the "head voice" term and its previous meaning in the renaissance as a type of falsetto, according to many singing professionals. These days, head voice is typically defined as a mix of chest and head voice, therefore created a stronger sound than falsetto. [15] The falsetto can be coloured or changed to sound different. It can be given classical styling to sound as male classical countertenors make it sound, or be sung in more contemporary musical styles. [16]

In opera, it is believed that the chest voice, middle voice and head voice occur in women. [17] The head voice of a man is, according to David A. Clippinger most likely equivalent to the middle voice of a woman. [18] This may mean the head voice of a woman is a man's falsetto equivalent. Although, in contemporary teaching, some teachers no longer talk of the middle voice, choosing to call it the head voice as with men. Falsetto is not generally counted by classical purists as a part of the vocal range of anyone except countertenors. There are exceptions, however, such as the baryton-Martin which uses falsetto (see baritone article). [19]

Smokey Robinson [20] used falsetto voice. One of the soulful falsettos is Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys sang falsetto on multiple Beach Boys tunes providing a dose of saccharine for the band's signature harmonies. The pop disco group Bee Gees had strong commercial success using Barry and Robin Gibb's falsetto in the 1970s, most notably within the disco genre. Frankie Valli usually sang in falsetto in the 1960s, as did many other singers in the doo-wop style, in the 1950s.

Falsetto has been used in Mexican songs for many generations. In Mexico, one of the famous singers of falsete was Miguel Aceves Mejía, a singer and actor in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, known as the "Rey de Falsete", or "Falsetto King". He sang over a thousand songs, such as "La Malagueña, El Jinete, La Noche y Tú" and "La Del Rebozo Blanco", many of which utilized falsetto. [21]

Many Hawaiian songs feature falsetto. In Hawaiian-style falsetto—called "ka leo ki'eki'e"—the singer, usually male, emphasizes the break between registers. Sometimes the singer exaggerates the break through repetition, as a yodel. As with other aspects of Hawaiian music, falsetto developed from a combination of sources, including pre-European Hawaiian chanting, early Christian hymn singing and the songs and yodeling of immigrant cowboys, called "paniolos" in the Hawaiian language, during the Kamehameha Reign in the 1800s when cowboys were brought from Mexico to teach Hawaiians how to care for cattle. [22]

Falsetto is also common in African folk music, especially the South African style called Mbube , traditionally performed by an all-male a cappella chorus. [23]

The United States release of Muse's Origin of Symmetry album was delayed for four years because Maverick Records wanted the group to rerecord the album with less falsetto. Muse refused, and left Maverick Records due to the incident. [24]

British millennial rock band The Darkness are renown for their distinctive falsetto vocals. Unusual in the genre.

Use in singing

Falsetto is more limited in dynamic variation and tone quality than the modal voice.[ citation needed ] Falsetto does not connect to modal voice except at very low volumes, leading to vocal breaks when transitioning from modal voice.[ citation needed ] In the absence of modern vocal training to hold back the volume of modal voice, in this overlapping area a given pitch in modal voice will be louder than the same pitch sung in falsetto. [25] The type of vocal cord vibration that produces the falsetto voice precludes loud singing except in the highest tones of that register; it also limits the available tone colors because of the simplicity of its waveform.[ citation needed ] Modal voice is capable of producing much more complex waveforms and infinite varieties of tone color.[ citation needed ] Falsetto, however, does involve less physical effort by the singer than the modal voice and, when properly used, can make possible some desirable tonal effects. [6]

The falsetto voice has a number of highly specialized uses within a musical context. The following list includes the most common ones: [6]

Use in speech

The ability to speak within the falsetto register is possible for almost all men and women. The use of falsetto is considered uncommon in normal Western speech and is most often employed within the context of humor. [27] However, the use of falsetto speech varies by culture and its use has been studied in African Americans [28] and gay men [29] in certain contexts. Its use has also been noted in the U.S. South. [30] Pitch changes ranging to falsetto are also characteristic of British English. [31]

Some people who speak frequently or entirely in the falsetto register are identified by speech pathologists as suffering from a functional dysphonia. [27] Falsetto also describes the momentary, but often repeated, fluctuations in pitch emitted by both sexes while undergoing voice change during adolescence. These changes, however, are more apparent and occur with greater frequency in boys than they do in girls. [32] Failure to undergo proper voice-change is called puberphonia.

See also

Related Research Articles

The term phonation has slightly different meanings depending on the subfield of phonetics. Among some phoneticians, phonation is the process by which the vocal folds produce certain sounds through quasi-periodic vibration. This is the definition used among those who study laryngeal anatomy and physiology and speech production in general. Phoneticians in other subfields, such as linguistic phonetics, call this process voicing, and use the term phonation to refer to any oscillatory state of any part of the larynx that modifies the airstream, of which voicing is just one example. Voiceless and supra-glottal phonations are included under this definition.

Human voice Sound made by a human being using the vocal tract

The human voice consists of sound made by a human being using the vocal tract, including talking, singing, laughing, crying, screaming, shouting, or yelling. The human voice frequency is specifically a part of human sound production in which the vocal folds are the primary sound source.

A countertenor (also contra tenor) is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types, generally extending from around G3 to D5 or E5, although a sopranist (a specific kind of countertenor) may match the soprano's range of around C4 to C6. Countertenors often are baritones or tenors at core, but only on rare occasions they use their lower vocal range, instead preferring their falsetto or high head voice.

Singing Act of producing musical sounds with the voice

Singing is the act of producing musical sounds with the voice. A person who sings is called a singer or vocalist. Singers perform music that can be sung with or without accompaniment by musical instruments. Singing is often done in an ensemble of musicians, such as a choir of singers or a band of instrumentalists. Singers may perform as soloists or accompanied by anything from a single instrument up to a symphony orchestra or big band. Different singing styles include art music such as opera and Chinese opera, Indian music and religious music styles such as gospel, traditional music styles, world music, jazz, blues, ghazal and popular music styles such as pop, rock and electronic dance music.

The whistle register is the highest register of the human voice, lying above the modal register and falsetto register. This register has a specific physiological production that is different from the other registers, and is so called because the timbre of the notes that are produced from this register is similar to that of a whistle.

A sopranist is a male singer who is able to sing in the vocal tessitura of a soprano usually through the use of falsetto or head voice vocal production. This voice type is a specific kind of countertenor. In rare cases an adult man may be able to sing in the soprano range using his normal or modal voice and not falsetto due to endocrinological reasons, like Radu Marian, or as a result of a larynx that has not completely developed as in the case of Michael Maniaci.

Head voice is a term used within vocal music. The use of this term varies widely within vocal pedagogical circles and there is currently no one consistent opinion among vocal music professionals in regard to this term. Head voice can be used in relation to the following:

Vocal range is the range of pitches that a human voice can phonate. Its most common application is within the context of singing, where it is used as a defining characteristic for classifying singing voices into voice types. It is also a topic of study within linguistics, phonetics, and speech-language pathology, particularly in relation to the study of tonal languages and certain types of vocal disorders, although it has little practical application in terms of speech.

A register is the "height" or range of a note, set of pitches or pitch classes, melody, part, instrument, or group of instruments. A higher register indicates higher pitch.

Passaggio is a term used in classical singing to describe the transition area between the vocal registers. The passaggi (plural) of the voice lie between the different vocal registers, such as the chest voice, where any singer can produce a powerful sound, the middle voice, and the head voice, where a powerful and resonant sound is accessible, but usually only through vocal training. The historic Italian school of singing describes a primo passaggio and a secondo passaggio connected through a zona di passaggio in the male voice and a primo passaggio and secondo passaggio in the female voice. A major goal of classical voice training in classical styles is to maintain an even timbre throughout the passaggio. Through proper training, it is possible to produce a resonant and powerful sound.

Vocal register Range of tones a certain voice type can reliably produce

A vocal register is a range of tones in the human voice produced by a particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds. These registers include modal voice, vocal fry, falsetto, and the whistle register. Registers originate in laryngeal function. They occur because the vocal folds are capable of producing several different vibratory patterns. Each of these vibratory patterns appears within a particular range of pitches and produces certain characteristic sounds.

Harsh voice, also called ventricular voice or pressed voice, is the production of speech sounds with a constricted laryngeal cavity, which generally involves epiglottal co-articulation. Harsh voice includes the use of the ventricular folds to damp the glottis in a way similar to what happens when a person talks while lifting a heavy load, or, if the sound is voiceless, like clearing one's throat. It contrasts with faucalized voice, which involves the expansion of the larynx.

Chest voice is a term used within vocal music. The use of this term varies widely within vocal pedagogical circles and there is currently no one consistent opinion among vocal music professionals in regard to this term. Chest voice can be used in relation to the following:

A voice type is a group of voices with similar vocal ranges, capable of singing in a similar tessitura, and with similar vocal transition points (passaggi). Voice classification is most strongly associated with European classical music, though it, and the terms it utilizes, are used in other styles of music as well.

Vocal pedagogy Study of the art and science of voice instruction

Vocal pedagogy is the study of the art and science of voice instruction. It is used in the teaching of singing and assists in defining what singing is, how singing works, and how proper singing technique is accomplished.

Jamestown C. McKinney, a renowned vocal pedagogue and longtime professor of voice at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's school of church music, defines vocal resonance as "the process by which the basic product of phonation is enhanced in timbre and/or intensity by the air-filled cavities through which it passes on its way to the outside air." Throughout the vocal literature, various terms related to resonation are used, including: amplification, filtering, enrichment, enlargement, improvement, intensification, and prolongation. Acoustic authorities would question many of these terms from a strictly scientific perspective. However, the main point to be drawn from these terms by a singer or speaker is that the result of resonation is to make a "better" sound, or at least suitable to a certain esthetical and practical domain.

The vocal fry register is the lowest vocal register and is produced through a loose glottal closure that permits air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency. During this phonation, the arytenoid cartilages in the larynx are drawn together, which causes the vocal folds to compress rather tightly and become relatively slack and compact. This process forms a large and irregularly vibrating mass within the vocal folds that produces the characteristic low popping or rattling sound when air passes through the glottal closure. The register can extend far below the modal voice register, in some cases up to 8 octaves lower, such as in the case of Tim Storms who holds the world record for lowest frequency note ever produced by a human, a G−7, which is only 0.189 Hz, inaudible to the human ear.

Modal voice is the vocal register used most frequently in speech and singing in most languages. It is also the term used in linguistics for the most common phonation of vowels. The term "modal" refers to the resonant mode of vocal folds; that is, the optimal combination of airflow and glottal tension that yields maximum vibration.

Falsettone is a term used in modern Italian musicology to describe a vocal technique used by male opera singers in the past, in which the fluty sounds typical of falsetto singing are amplified by using the same singing technique used in the modal voice register. The result is a bright, powerful tone, often very high-pitched, although the sound is still different from and more feminine than what is produced by the modal voice. The term falsettone is also used for the mixed vocal register that can be achieved using this technique.

A voice change or voice mutation, sometimes referred to as a voice break or voice crack, commonly refers to the deepening of the voice of people as they reach puberty. Before puberty, both sexes have roughly similar vocal pitch, but during puberty the male voice typically deepens an octave, while the female voice usually deepens only by a few tones.


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Further reading