What is Falsetto Voice? Defining Characteristics & Biology

What is Falsetto Voice? Defining Characteristics & Biology
Photo by Steven Erixon / Unsplash

The word falsetto was taken from the word 'false' because it was recognised as different to the normal singing voice. As a singer, it is important to understand the defining features of falsetto so that you can differentiate your falsetto from your normal vocal range. In this article, I will clearly define the falsetto voice.

Falsetto voice is one of four vocal registers and has a characteristic light and airy sound. When singing falsetto, the vocal cords no longer touch, allowing air to pass freely through the larynx. Singers can generally sing one octave higher in falsetto than in their normal modal voice register.

You can find a detailed look into falsetto voice, including what is happening in your larynx (voice box) and how to find your falsetto range. I will also explain why both males and females can sing in falsetto.

Falsetto Voice

Before defining falsetto using anatomy and physiology, you should have a basic understanding on the four vocal registers and how they relate to one another.

Vocal Registers

Below are the four vocal registers, in order of lowest to highest.

  • Vocal fry register: Lowest vocal register. Air bubbles through closed vocal cords.
  • Modal voice register: Normal vocal register. Air vibrates vocal cords together to produce pitch/sound.
  • Falsetto voice register: Above normal vocal register. Air passes freely through open but vibrating vocal cords to produce sound.
  • Whistle voice register: Highest vocal register. Air passes freely through a unique triangular opening in larynx to form a whistle.

Defining Falsetto Voice (Anatomy & Physiology)

Above was a very brief definition of the falsetto voice register, but now it's time to understand exactly what is going on in your larynx. For a detailed explaination of how your voice works, take a look at this article.

The two main muscles that move your vocal cords are listed below. These operate in different ways depending on which vocal register you are singing in.

  • Cricothyroid (CT) muscle: Lengthens and tenses the vocal cords (ie. increases pitch).
  • Thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle: Shortens and loosens the vocal cords (ie. decreases pitch). Importantly, some fibres also pull the vocal cords close together to prevent separation as they become loose.

In the modal voice register, both of these muscles are active. They both pull the vocal cords in opposite directions, holding them in place at any given length (which determines each pitch).

This is similar to how your biceps and triceps muscles work together to hold your forearm in any given position.

As you sing higher, the TA muscle becomes more and more loose, allowing your vocal cords to stretch longer and thinner. Once your TA muscle relaxes completely, you enter into the falsetto register.

In the falsetto register, the TA muscle is no longer active.

You would think that the CT muscle would be enough to keep the vocal cords together because it is pulling them tighter together. However, some of this is a result of that small bunch of fibres in the TA muscle.

Once the TA muscle relaxes, there is no longer a dedicated group of muscles fibres pulling the vocal cords together. They therefore snap open, even through they are still being pulled tight.

Falsetto Voice Range

It is possible to use falsetto to sing through your normal modal voice range because some singers are capable of controlling whether or not their vocal cords are open or closed.

However, for the sake of simplicity, I will define the falsetto range as the additional range given to a singer beyond their normal modal voice range (ie. notes they would not be able to reach without falsetto).

This range typically spans across one octave, starting at the upper limit of your normal vocal range. When entering falsetto, you should feel a 'flip' as your voice suddenly becomes more airy (keep in mind trained singers can hide this flip).

That being said, below is the typical falsetto range for each voice type.

  • Bass Falsetto Voice: approximately E4 - E5
  • Baritone Falsetto Voice: approximately A4 - A5
  • Tenor Falsetto Voice: approximately C5 - C6
  • Alto Falsetto Voice: approximately F5 - F6
  • Mezzo-soprano Falsetto Voice: approximately A5 - A6
  • Soprano Falsetto Voice: approximately C6 - C7

Every voice is different, so you will find that your falsetto range falls somewhere in-between these ranges.

Click on these links to see the typical vocal ranges for chest voice and head voice.

Characteristics of Falsetto

Below are some of the characteristics of the falsetto voice.

  • Light
  • Breathy
  • High-pitched
  • Less strain on your voice (compared to the modal voice register)

Some singers are able to reinforce their falsetto range to blend with their head voice (click here for more information on head voice). This gives their falsetto voice more of a ringing tone (compared to being breathy), making it hard to distinguish from the ring-like tone of head voice.

Others use the light breathy nature of their falsetto register as a stylistic addition to their singing. This is particularly common in men.

Finding your Falsetto Register

Finding your falsetto register is relatively easy. Simply start with a note that is comfortable and singer higher and higher until you feel the falsetto 'flip'.

At this flip, you will notice that there is suddenly less strain on your voice and you can continue singing much higher than the point of strain. You should also notice that your tone becomes more breathy and you start to lose air much quicker as you sing.

As a general rule, the average singer can sing around two octaves in their modal voice register, and another octave higher than that in their falsetto register. Therefore, if you know the highest comfortable note you can sing (before flipping), your falsetto register should be the octave above that.

Do Females have Falsetto Voice?

Females certainly do have a falsetto register. This has been confirmed with science as technology has become more advanced.

With the progression of medical technology, scientists were able to observe the vocal cords directly with a special camera that is fed into the throat (laryngoscope/endoscope). This procedure was performed on singers as they progressed through different voice registers to study how the vocal cords behaved.

Your vocal cords behave the same, regardless of whether you are male or female.

In regards to anatomy, males and females have the same components in their larynx. This anatomy is merely different in size and shape, giving males a typically deeper voice than females. However, the way sound is produced is exactly the same as you progress through different vocal registers.

As with males, a female's vocal cords will be forced apart as they enter into their falsetto register, giving their voice a lighter and more airy quality.

The main reason this has been disputed for so long is that this light airy sound is not as easily differentiated from a female's natural modal voice. In contrast, a male's modal voice is typically loud and booming, which is very different to the sound of the falsetto register.

Is it OK to Sing in Falsetto?

Singing in your falsetto register is safe, but should be done in balance. As less muscles are involved in producing a falsetto sound, this will put less strain on your voice.

However, because there is more air passing through your vocal cords, they can be more prone to becoming dry (and therefore at risk of damage). You will also lose more tone in the muscles that are not being used, making it harder to control your modal voice register.

Therefore, it is okay to sing in falsetto, as long as you balance this with also singing in your modal voice register. On occasion, falsetto can be very effective at adding a stylistic element to a song or helping you reach higher notes.

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