What is Head Voice? A Common Misconception
The term head voice is commonly misused, often describing the falsetto voice register. However, with modern knowledge of anatomy and physiology, the distinction between head voice, chest voice and falsetto has been made more clear. In this article, I will clearly define head voice so that you no longer have to be confused or misled.
Head voice is the term given to a range of notes that cause more resonance to be felt in the head than in the chest. This range represents the upper portion of the modal voice register, sitting above the chest voice range. In an average singer, head voice is approximately one octave in range.
You can find more detail regarding head voice in the article below. I have also included a recording of head voice and the difference between head voice and falsetto.
What is Head Voice?
Head voice lies between chest voice and the falsetto voice register. As a broad definition, head voice is the range of notes within the modal voice register that produce more resonance (vibrations) in the head than in the chest.
It can also be characterised by the way sound is produced in this range (physiology), the way it feels and the way it sounds. I will explain each of these below, but you should first know more about vocal registers.
If you would like to learn about chest voice, take a look at this article as well.
Head voice is part of the modal voice register. This is the same for chest voice. Chest voice is roughly the lower half of this register, while head voice is roughly the upper half.
In total, there are four different voice registers known to the human voice. The modal register is the normal register used for talking and singing, and is therefore the strongest. Below are all four registers, from lowest to highest in pitch.
- Vocal fry register
- Modal voice register
- Falsetto voice register
- Whistle voice register
Sound is produced in different ways in each of these registers, which is why they are separated into different registers. Within the modal voice register, sound is produced in the same way, but the muscles involved are used slightly differently. This leads us into our definition of head voice using physiology.
Defining Head Voice with Physiology
As you may know, the larynx is responsible for producing sound when we talk and sing. This is located in your throat and is made up of different muscles and cartilage. The muscles bend and stretch the cartilage to directly affect the vocal cords, which are two membranes separated by a thin slit.
In the modal voice register, which is used to sing in chest voice and head voice, the main muscles involved are the cricothyroid (CT) muscle and the thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle. Below are their primary roles in the larynx.
- Cricothyroid (CT) muscle: Lengthens and tenses the vocal cords.
- Thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle: Shortens and loosens the vocal cords (some fibres also pull the vocal cords close together to prevent separation).
Both of these muscles are still engaged (tight), regardless of whether you are singing in chest voice or head voice. However, as you sing lower, the TA muscle is more engaged than the CT muscle. As you sing higher, the CT muscle is more engaged.
This means that head voice, which is the higher portion of the modal voice register, is defined by a more engaged CT muscle compared to the TA muscle. As you singing lower and more tension switches to the TA muscle, you enter back into chest voice.
Because we can't normally see what our vocal cords are doing when we sing and can't tell which muscle is more engaged, singers can use the resonance between their head and chest to define the two.
However, it is important to note that when these TA muscle is completely lax (as you sing higher), you are no longer singing in head voice, but within the falsetto register.
Interestingly, many people only associate head voice with female singers. This is incorrect, given the anatomy and physiology is essentially the same between males and females. It is simply because a male's head voice is generally lower that others do not recognise it as head voice. You can find out more about male head voice here.
Head Voice Range
The modal voice register usually ranges between two octaves in an average singer. This range differs with every singer, making it impossible to allocate a specific range to head voice.
However, for each singer, head voice is the upper half of this modal voice range, spanning across approximately one octave. Singers that have trained to expand their vocal range will find that their chest voice, head voice and falsetto ranges are all wider than this.
In order to find your head voice range, you need to find the upper and lower limits. I have explained this process in the section below ('Finding your Head Voice'). However, below are the typical ranges for each vocal range.
- Bass Head Voice: approximately E3 - E4
- Baritone Head Voice: approximately A3 - A4
- Tenor Head Voice: approximately C4 (middle C) - C5
- Alto Head Voice: approximately F4 - F5
- Mezzo-soprano Head Voice: approximately A4 - A5
- Soprano Head Voice: approximately C5 - C6
How Do I Know if I am in Head Voice?
Chest voice, head voice and falsetto all flow together as you sing from the lower limit of your vocal range to the upper limit. It is easier to distinguish falsetto from head voice than it is to distinguish chest voice from head voice, but it can be hard to pick one from the other.
Below are ways you can determine whether or not you are in head voice. You can use this to determine your own range for head voice.
Characteristics of Head Voice
The following are signs to look out for that indicate you are singing in head voice.
- Can feel more resonance in your head than in your chest
- Voice has a ringing tone/quality to it
- Voice is higher and lighter (compared to chest voice)
- Voice has not undergone a flip (as it would entering falsetto)
Finding your Head Voice
Head voice has a definable upper and lower limit. Finding these limits is relatively easy, assuming you play close attention to what your body is doing as you sing.
Finding the Lower Limit of Head Voice
The lower limit of head voice is the upper limit of your chest voice. This is where the resonance moves from your chest into your head. You can find this by placing a hand on your chest as you sing.
Start your lowest comfortable note and notice the vibrations in your chest as you do. This will be the lower limit of your chest voice. Sing higher and higher from here (chromatically for most accuracy) until the vibrations in your chest become weaker.
You should start to notice a subtle vibration in your head as you sing these higher notes. The point at which the vibrations in your head are more than those in your chest is the starting note for your head voice range.
You can use a piano to determine exactly what note this is. Here is the basics of playing piano if you need help.
Finding the Upper Limit of Head Voice
The upper limit of your head voice is the point where you enter into the falsetto voice register. Sound in the falsetto register is produced differently to that in the modal voice register.
In falsetto, the TA muscle is completely lax. This means that the fibres of the TA muscle that were helping to keep the vocal cords together let go completely. The vocal cords no longer touch one another and air passing freely through.
The point that this occurs can be heard in your voice, and is known as the 'flip'. As you enter falsetto, you should feel more air escaping as you hold each note and the sound of your voice becomes weaker and more airy.
The note this this flip occurs is the upper limit of your head voice. Keep in mind that you can strain your voice to stretch your head voice further. Your natural head voice range is the range that is comfortable to sing before entering falsetto.
What is an Example of Head Voice?
Below is a recording of head voice, ranging across an octave from E4 to E5. You may notice the ringing tone to the voice, but you won't hear a flip in the upper range.
Is Head Voice Falsetto?
As I mentioned earlier, head voice is different to falsetto. They are two different voice registers. However, many singers believe their falsetto voice register is their head voice, simply because it sounds the most airy and light (and therefore sound like singing 'in your head').
This is misleading and has led to the development of the 'middle voice' or 'mixed voice'. In reality, middle voice is simply head voice that has been reinforced (with these techniques) so that the range is higher. Falsetto is still different to head voice for the following reasons:
- The TA muscle is completely lax in falsetto (hence being a different voice register to head voice). It is still engaged in head voice.
- Air can pass freely through the vocal cords because they are no longer touching.
- Falsetto is naturally weaker and more airy than head voice.
- Falsetto requires more breath control (using the diaphragm) to prevent too much air escaping as you sing.
- Fasletto occurs after the 'flip' when the vocal cords suddenly snap open (although this can be hidden with training and control).