The age-old question every singing student asks is how to switch from chest voice to head voice. Making the transition smooth will help make your voice sound more balanced and skilful. Fortunately, this is something that anyone can learn with practice. This article will show you how.
The switch between chest and head voice is actually a break between your modal and falsetto voice registers. Exercises like vocal slides will strengthen the vocal muscles at this break, preventing your vocal cords from snapping open. This is what creates the crack into a soft and breathy sound.
I will guide you through this switch in more depth below, including some easy exercises you can do to smooth this break. It is also important to be able to identify the difference between chest voice, head voice and falsetto, which I will explain.
How to Switch from Chest Voice to Head Voice
Many people believe their head voice is that airy sound when they sing high. But head voice is often confused with falsetto, particularly in females.
Regardless of this, this article is about smoothing over the transition between the upper and lower limits of your range. If you sing from low to high, there is eventually a break in the sound (a discontinuity). This is where the switch occurs.
Before I dive into how you can perfect this switch, I want to clarify the difference between chest voice, head voice and falsetto.
Chest Voice vs Head Voice vs Falsetto
Chest voice and head voice are part of the same vocal register, known as the modal voice register. Falsetto, on the other hand is a different register altogether. There are actually four vocal registers in total: the vocal fry, modal, falsetto and whistle registers.
These registers are set apart by what your vocal cords are doing at the time. Below is a summary of these changes with each vocal register.
Vocal Fry Register: The vocal cords are touching. Very little air passes through, creating bubbles as it pushes its way past the vocal cords.
Modal Register: The vocal cords are barely touching as the air passes through, creating the clearest sound.
Falsetto Register: The vocal cords are no longer touching, but the air passing through still causes them to vibrate and create sound waves.
Whistle Register: The vocal cords are not touching and a secondary triangular passageway is formed by the formation of the muscles in the larynx. This small triangular passage creates a whistle as air passes through.
Chest voice and head voice both sit within the modal voice register. The modal voice register was only divided into these subgroups because the resonance (vibrations) can be felt in your chest with lower pitches and in your head with higher pitches. That is where the names come from.
Therefore the vocal cords produce sound in the same way for both chest voice and head voice. The sound is just resonating in a different area.
This makes the transition between chest voice and head voice barely noticeable when you sing. However, if you place your hand on your chest (just below your neck), you will feel the vibrations lessen as you sing higher. If you then place your hand on your head, you should feel vibrations the higher you sing (this is pretty subtle though).
The big change occurs when you enter the next vocal register: falsetto. Here is why.
Why Your Voice Breaks at the Transition
Your voice will naturally break or crack as you enter the falsetto register because the vocal cords transition from touching one another to snapping apart. The air can suddenly flow much more freely through the vocal cords, giving you a lighter, more breathy, sound.
Looking more technically, it is the action of the muscles that causes this change. There are two main muscles pulling on your vocal cords as you sing in chest voice and head voice. The falsetto register begins when one of these muscles stops pulling on the vocal cords, allowing them to separate.
You can read more about these muscles and the difference between the voice registers here.
Although this is a completely natural physiological process, humans have this wonderful ability to be able to train their muscles to work more effectively. In the case of the vocal cords, we can train this second muscle to relax gradually.
By smoothing out the muscle movement in around your vocal cords, you won't hear the change when they separate the vocal cords completely. Your vocal cords will peel apart instead of snapping open.
So the key to smoothing out the crack in your voice is to tone the muscles around your vocal cords. I will explain this in the next section.
Think of it like lifting weights. You need to strengthen and train your muscles to both lift and lower the weight without shaking or dropping it. A stronger and more toned muscle will be able to lower the weight onto the floor without making a sound.
How to Transition Smoothly
Everyone's switch will be different, depending on your own vocal range. In general, your vocal range will span across two octaves in the modal voice register, and then another octave above that in the falsetto register.
Therefore, the transition between your modal and falsetto register sits 2/3rds of the way up your vocal range. These notes, known as your 'break', are where you will need to focus your singing exercises for a smooth transition.
The best vocal slide that I would recommend for finding and smoothing out your break is the siren. This exercise involves starting at the bottom of your range (sing a low note to 'oo' or 'oh') and then sliding the pitch up to the top of your range. The key is to focus on keeping the sound smooth and continuous.
When you reach a point where your voice breaks or cracks, slide up and down around these notes. One thing you may need to do is strengthen your upper register with scales and a nasal tone.
Scales are a great way to strengthen your voice. The modal voice register (particularly chest voice) is always stronger than falsetto because we talk in our chest voice range. Therefore, if you dedicate time to singing in the upper limits of your register, you will strengthen your muscles to reach these notes more easily.
You can find a number of singing scales that you can use to strengthen your voice in this article. For best results, sing through your scales every day.
Add Nasal Tone to Your Voice
Using a nasal tone will bring clarity and strength to your head voice and falsetto register. There are certain sounds that do this naturally, such as 'ya' or 'ee'. As an example, try reaching a high note with 'ah', and then try reaching the same note pretending you are a cat ('meow'). You should notice it's much easier with 'meow'.
Once you have added some nasality to your voice and used scales to strengthen your vocal muscles (particularly in the upper register), the shift between chest voice, head voice and falsetto will be harder to hear. Then continue to use the vocal slides to sing over your break and you will be singing smoothly in no time.
How Do You Transition from Chest to Falsetto?
If you have been reading the article from the beginning, you will realise that the switch or transition you have been thinking about (the break) is not your transition from chest voice to head voice. It is actually your transition from the modal voice register (chest and head voice) to the falsetto register.
Therefore, you can use the exercises I have mentioned above to strengthen and tone the muscles around your vocal cords and get rid of that pesky break.
In saying that, it is also an art in itself to use your break when you sing. 'Flipping' from your modal register to your falsetto register is often used as a stylistic effect in songs. It has a very pretty sound that can add emotion to a sentimental piece.
You can hear a typical example of this in the chorus of Justin Bieber and Benny Bianco's song 'Lonely' (see below). Warning: this song contains profanity.
It is also used in yodelling, which I don't imagine is overly common in most vocal circles. But you can choose to use it or lose it, as long as you gain control of it.