In my studio, I spend a lot of time talking about head voice. Many new singers are reticent to use it due to the fact that it sounds and feels drastically different to their regular voice. I am sympathetic to this dilemma because I was just the same. I spent years singing in bars in Sydney, belting out songs and hitting a wall with my voice. I always assumed that when I had hit the strained part of my voice that that was as far as it would go. I frequented two of the best singing teachers in the city, and still didn’t “get it” (which was not their fault btw). I disliked the way my head voice sounded so I pretty much refused to use it. Luckily, I found my way.
To discuss this subject, I’ve consulted with rock star LA vocal coach Lis Lewis and respected voice therapist Joanna Cazden once again, to have a conversation based on our individual work with singers, to hopefully dispel a few myths about the head voice:
LIBBY: I often work with students who are reticent to explore their head voice, even if they have an existing range. I think for novice students, the sweet, light classical head voice, sounds so drastically different from the blended, belt sound that most of them seek. I remember feeling that way when as a teenager I first started taking lessons. Now I find that it is often the reason why singers hike the larynx, push chest too far, and strain their voices. I have to convince students that working on this part of their range is going to lead to something. Often, they say to me, “it just doesn’t sound like my voice, it’s not me, it’s weak…I’ll never use it”. Then there are the rare cases when new singers can’t even access it…that’s always a challenge.
JOANNA: The precise interactions between muscle groups that work from chest to head are still emerging. Definitely head voice involves a lighter contact between the cords, and a very different resonance spectrum. If person is frustrated & trying very hard, that will get in the way of finding head voice, relaxation is necessary. An ENT exam is always a good idea if there is loss of head voice, as it is a signal that something is unhealthy. On the other hand, some singers have such a smooth transition/blend that it’s hard to tell when they get to “pure” head voice, its just not distinct.
Lis with Nasri
LIS: Every student who comes into my studio for voice lessons works on chest voice, head voice and mix voice, men and women both. Most pop singers would love to only sing in chest voice but that limits their range too much. When you get to the top of chest it can feel like you’re hitting the ceiling. They listen to their favorite artists and think that they are singing only in chest except for an occasional jump up into a small sweet head voice. I have to convince them that they’re wrong, that almost all successful artists who have to use their voices everyday know that they can’t just push their chest voice up to cover all that range.
Because new singers don’t use their head voices very much it doesn’t have a lot of strength. It also doesn’t have the fullness or richness of chest voice. (and BTW it never will.) It can be very strong, vibrant and exciting but it will never be chest voice.
Most singers know, even beginning singers, that if they push their lower voice up, they will feel like they’re straining, and their voice will get tired quickly. What they need instead of full chest is a blend of the two voices, which will allow them to go higher than chest voice alone until there is nothing but head voice. Adding some head voice into your chest voice allows it to stretch. Adding some chest voice into head gives it more body. A blend doesn’t sound completely like chest voice but it doesn’t sound completely like head either. It’s a combination sound and it’s what you hear on recordings of most contemporary singers.
In order to blend or mix, your head voice needs to be strong because your chest voice won’t share the work with a voice that’s weak. It will try to do all the work itself. So an essential step to building a strong mix is to first have a strong head voice.
JOANNA: Head voice & chest voice BOTH develop most of their resonance in the first inch above vocal folds, the small “cavity” before throat opens into mouth ― which we don’t feel very well, but which we do constantly manipulate when shaping sound. It is absolutely correct that we EXPERIENCE resonance elsewhere ― head, chest, nose, spine ― but this is like seeing a movie projected on the “walls “ of those cavities, where the small throat cavity (“laryngeal vestibule” or “ary-epiglottic region”) is the actual projector.
Some say that the “the head is a smaller cavity”, but this is not a true mechanical explanation for why the head voice seems smaller. Head voice uses lighter contact between the cords, less of a fight between strongly – closed – cords and breath pressure ―so amplitude of vibration is smaller. And it has a simpler harmonic spectrum = fewer overtones = less overall energy (aggregate dB). Focusing the resonance (teeth, forehead, etc.) compensates somewhat. This is why the experience of resonance is a legitimate training modality.
To give examples: Aretha is a singer who sings with a seamless blend whereas Sarah McLaughlin is an example of someone who sounds like she hasn’t fully developed her blend, so there is an abrupt jump back & forth between two registers which has became part of her signature style.
I think people are also afraid to develop head voice because it might sound too classical, too “trained” therefore less “authentic.” Best to learn the rules before you break ‘em, you know, find out what’s fully authentic for you…THEN choose.
Kelli O’Hara (Broadway) sang on PBS 4th of July show, and showed off a knockout blend. To me this was absolutely splendid technique & balance-of-registers.
LIBBY: I think you nailed it Joanna, in terms of the technicalities versus the feeling. Sometimes if I get too technical with a new student, they’re not ready to hear it. I have to remember where they’re at, so like Lis, I keep it simple and relate it to feeling more than all the specifics and technicalities. I have to start with what they actually “can” feel before I move on to what I want them to feel.
But, I think it’s important to note that air moves faster as one goes higher in their range…which also adds to the fight you’re describing between breath pressure and chord contact.
I like your example of Kelli, but I don’t completely agree that this tapped into a true blend of chest and head, I hear this as mostly head voice leaning, with a very developed transition. This along with your other Aretha versus Sarah McLaughlin examples raise something for me that I have been working on a lot. I feel that the terms head voice and chest voice minimize what is actually going on, as it is far more complex to my ear.
For example, I think that Sarah has a blend, but it’s further back…more back nasal, but to my ear it moves out of a classical head voice sound into something else. When I hear this tone, I imagine the soft palette (or the Uvula) is flat against the pharynx (otherwise known as Uvular sounds). Whereas Aretha, has that more forward to mid palette blend that sounds more “chesty” and more realized and at times more frontal nasal (alveolar/palatal sounds). I see hers as more “pointed” and Sarah’s as more muffled…more closed. (See the below diagram for a visual of these placements.)
I usually work both of these placements in an isolated way with students who are ready, in addition to the pure head voice. I call it a triangle (or the “holy trinity” for comic relief); head front nasal (alveolar), head back nasal (uvular), head (velar) and chest, and that within these three placements, there is a middle ground, a “bermuda triangle” that each singer finds within their own capabilities (again, comic relief, but also because this sensation when found can be felt all over, but focused on the palate…it’s specific to each singers physical geography). This is more advanced but when we get there, I talk a lot about the tonal choices available here (in the mid range, transition or blend range) and describe that in many ways, the choices they make define their sound and their style. I demonstrate the differences too.
However, with all that said, I think the linguistics play into it too. If you’re singing an “oo” on a high note (i.e. soon) it’s easier to get it forward and/or lifted than a “u” (put)…or a diphthong “ay” (day)…even harder to move forward. I find that the ability to move these sounds out of their natural placement, depends on accent, language, muscle strength, and again, is unique to each person and sometimes these sounds can be moved or not. Aretha, more African-American English, somewhat southern accent that sits more in the mouth, probably makes it easier to create the style of blend with than a Canadian accent with more British heritage and accent, which, like me, sits further back. Sarah uses more breathy tones…Aretha more nasal…closed tones.
But you know what I’ve found also; men have a different experience with all of this than women. Is there some science to that Joanna? I believe that when their voices change their vocal chords get thicker, longer and vibrate at a lower frequency. Does this play a part in their adulthood?
JOANNA: To my best knowledge, yes, there are two different mechanisms IN MALE VOICES. One is a partial fixation/adduction, so that only part of the cord length vibrates; the other uses the full length of the folds but with a slight gap & lighter contact. Women’s voices only do the second one. But, with that said, I don’t believe that all men can do both maneuvers.
LIBBY: WOW! I have often wondered why guys find it harder to work this area than women. A lot of male students, at some point, bring in either a Steve Perry, Sting or Robert Plant song and want to interpret their range and their tone. It usually takes longer for them than the average female student to get to this.
JOANNA: Well, if a guy is aggressive toward life & therefore aggressive toward his voice, he’ll just get mad when it doesn’t “perform” in absolutely every way he can imagine, doesn’t sound like his idols! Underneath there is insecurity about whether his own ‘true” sound is good enough. I happen to think that voice training somehow requires us to come to terms with the conflicts between mind (ideal) and body (reality)— there’s a vulnerability in the process, a need for compassion towards body-self, which is hard for everyone but maybe especially hard for young men. “Why can’t you teach me to sound like _______” is like asking, “Why can’t you teach me to win the Olympics?” BECAUSE, dude, you’ve got different genes. Deal with it.
LIBBY: Well, thankfully I’ve only had one or two get aggressive when realizing I don’t possess the proverbial “magic wand”. Growing up with brothers has not gone astray in this business. No, usually, the males I work with are wonderful and very sweet and willing to give the techniques a try….but it’s good to know the specifics. Thanks!
Anyway, going back to the placements, here are some female examples.
I was trying to think of a good example of that nasal head voice break and I landed on Miss Paula Cole. Here’s her Lilith Fair hit “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?“.
Get to the second performance at around 1:52 and then at 5:40 “I am wearing my new dress tonight” you can hear that she goes
(I did not just say that…she goes, she goes, she just goes!), ehm, she moves from a one voice to another…it’s not a belt, it’s not a true blend but it’s kind of a back sound. I think it would be head voice if she backed off the volume and I’m sure most technicians would refer to this as head voice.
Compare that placement with a song using close to the same range, (
and staying firmly in 1990′s town) featuring my fellow country woman, and a proven workhorse of a singer, Tina Arena, “Heaven Help My Heart” at around 1:15…it’s bigger…more forward and yet open in the back. Her voice connects without any hint of a change.
LIS: This is strange. What I hear is that Cole is in head with a pretty clear shift to chest as she comes down the scale. I guess I don’t get the distinction you’re making about the back sound. The Tina Arena chorus sounds like a blend to me especially the top notes. It sounds free and open and full but not completely chest. I often will work on the mix as if it’s two voices instead of one: chest blend and head blend. The first being chest with head in it (which is what I think Arena is doing) and the second being head with chest in it. It’s a temporary construct until the blend gets stronger. Then it goes back to being just a mix.
LIBBY: Lis, I think it’s partly semantics and I don’t think you’re wrong. I believe most technicians would make that distinction, but I personally believe (and feel when I sing) that there is more to this than just three cut and clean areas….but those sub areas fall within the areas of Head, Chest and Blend. I think that both Paula and Tina are singing in their head voice but placing it differently, manipulating it differently and yes, mixing it with chest in varying degrees.
Joanna, I’m curious about one thing that you might be able to clear up. With the bigger, blended, belt sound, are you able to tell me why it gets bigger? I’ve never been clear on that. I feel more projection, sure. I feel more pressure….definitely. I also feel that the jaw comes into play to create this sound…and the way the mouth is opened (as in less round and less open than a pure head voice)… I also feel the amount of air is important too. I would like more information on this because once people get it, the work then becomes about how to control it, and of course, dynamics. It gets tricky and it has always felt like there is more to it than just breath management. I know it has a lot to do with the vestibule and the cavity, but I think the tongue muscles (there are eight right?) play a role in the malleability of this region? (actually, on second thoughts, don’t answer that, let’s do another post on it…it’s too “strong” of a topic…ha ha…get it?)
JOANNA: In every vocal cycle the vocal cords alternate between opening and closing. Video-strobe exams have allowed everyone to see this as-if in slow-motion.
Each vocal cycle has a tiny portion when the cords are completely closed (touching.) This is called the “closed phase.”
Whenever the cords completely touch, air pressure below them builds up. When that pressure is more than the cords can resist―at any particular tension, pitch, squeeze, emotion of the moment―the cords are blown apart. Thanks to physics, they get sucked back together again, and it all repeats for the next cycle. This alternating opening/closing happens as many times per second as the pitch/frequency (440 for concert A, 250-ish for middle C, etc).
In chest voice, compared to head/falsetto/whatever, the closed phase is longer. The singer increases internal muscle tension in the cords, in relation to airflow, so that the cords resist the air just a little more. So air pressure underneath them builds up longer & stronger, and the cords are blown apart with greater force, moving with bigger speed/amplitude. They get sucked back together with more force also. Bigger changes in pressure in the airstream = Sound wave is louder.
In normal speech these things are balanced at a moderate level of muscle effort. In louder belting there is even more throat-force, even longer closed phase, & even bigger amplitude of vibration = even bigger sound.
LIBBY: Yes, awesome…of course, but to fully bring the head voice back into the discussion, why does the head voice being stronger help with managing this pressure? Or doesn’t it?
LIS: The pathologist I worked with said that the vocal cords are shorter and thicker (and perhaps the vibration is also deeper) in chest voice. In head voice, the cords are longer and thinned out. That also explains why, when someone is sick, i.e. his or her vocal cords are thick or not coming together properly, the head voice is the first to go. They won’t thin out, or close so they don’t sound. Is that your thinking Joanna?
JOANNA: Yes that’s part of it. In any compromised state, head voice is the first to disappear. It seems to require the most healthy, “silky” cords. To be really precise, cords can be thick-healthy (smooth clean edges, well-developed vibrational-gel layer & genetically-robust, toned-trained muscle), or they can be thick-sick, such as swollen from illness or smoking, bruised from overuse, heavy with scar tissue, etc. With those latter problems you’re more likely to have an uneven edge, bits that don’t close perfectly. The heaviness (mass or weight of the cords) lowers pitch. The uneven edge is what makes sound “dirty.”
A laryngologist in Chicago, Robert Bastian, asks people to sing high & soft every day, to measure the health of the cords, calls this his “swelling test“. It works because whenever there is a change in the cords — temporary cold, or overuse, or whatever—high & soft production disappears first.
I think that the key in head voice is PLACEMENT (resonance) as you have both discussed; there is good evidence that fully developed resonance changes the shape of vocal folds & area above them, (it looks like a shallow bowl or “satellite dish” with rounded sides instead of a flat plate with sides often squeezed together.) Resonance also creates an “optimal” distance between the folds, and this might help smooth the adjustment between belt (longer closed phase) and head (shorter closed phase).
The other basic thing people work on in head voice is managing breath differently ― using less force especially at the low end of head voice (blending range). Learning how to back off breath-pressure as the cords provide less resistance ― keeping a balance ― prepares for the even smoother shifting of pressures during blended tone production.
LIS: Thank you for both answers. This puts a finer point on things I already thought and have experienced in my teaching.
Libby: Nice. Thank you ladies. Now, to close, I’d like to share a few visual examples of what exactly is going on in that throat cavity, here are two different ENT exams of a trans nasal stroboscopy. The first is of a non-singer who moves from high to low, low to high and you can see the pharyngeal cavity closing in on her as she gets higher in range: STOBOSCOPY taken at FAUQUIER ENT.
The second is a montage of four highly trained classical singers singing HEAR US AND HAVE MERCY all together, posted by Jordan Glynn. You can see that the walls of the throat cavity stay in place while they are singing and that they have more control of the walls.
Developing one’s head voice is essential to expanding vocal range, honing pitch, enhancing resonance, relieving throat tension and strengthening muscles. It is hard to understand how the voice uses it to the fullest, but in time the voice will reap the benefits. There are still many questions unanswered, and I have no doubt that this may need to be a two-part or even three-part discussion…but hopefully for now we’ve answered some questions and possibly created some new ones. I know I have more questions…it’s never ending. See you next time!
© Libby Lavella, conversation with Lis Lewis, Joanna Cazden.