Updated: Jan 24, 2022
I can’t tell you that innumerable times I have heard a prospective student audition for my studio with severe vocal issues. The problem with learning to sing by copying a pop/country/hip-hop or rock artist is that the majority of students don’t know that they are singing in the wrong register and that can cause vocal damage. So how does a singer learn to sing correctly? Let’s first begin by explaining some vocal terminology:
Definition of vocal range:
Your vocal range is your lowest low pulsing sound (the vocal fry) to your highest note. However, you do not want to sing in either extreme for a prolonged period of time to protect you from vocal abuse. Also I have noted that most students have no clue that they can sing higher than they think; they get to a vocal register break and believe that is the top of their range. Actually, that is the top of their “chest register” and there are many more notes available to them. The singers just don’t understand how to access the upper register.
Definition of vocal registers:
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you sing you accidently yodel ? A yodel is a natural vocal register break. The vocal cords use three muscles to sing; they are the thyroid muscles, the cricoid muscles, and the arytenoid muscles. When you switch between the muscle groups the vocal cords change their length and thickness. Trained singers slide gently through these register breaks without yodeling for a seamless sound. Of course there will be times when we want to produce a yodel for a specific character or musical style. Once you learn where your registration breaks are you can access your entire range.
When you speak loudly can you feel vibration in your chest cavity? That is called the “chest voice.” The term “chest voice” was named centuries ago to explain how the larger bones would vibrate when people sang. When singing in ”chest” the major muscles involved are the thyroarytenoid (TA) muscles . Contrarily, the “head voice” – the high voice- is created primarily by the cricothyroid muscles (CT) muscles. The interchangeable term “mix-voice” or “middle voice” simply utilizes a predominance of the TA or CT muscles. I explain the vocal mix or middle voice as turning the hot/cold water faucets to create hot, warm, tepid, cool, and cold water. The more the TA muscles pull the heavier and lower the sound. Whereas, the more the CT muscles pull the higher and brighter the sound.
What is falsetto?
Now, this is opening a can of worms: Pop singers sometimes refer to the head registration as “falsetto,” however, falsetto is created by the vocal folds not completely adducting (coming together) to vibrate, creating a small opening (similar to a key hole) at the top of the vocal folds. This tiny “chink” allows air (breath) to escape when the rest of the vocal folds are closed. That is what creates that sound similar to Frankie Valli, Michael Jackson, Barry Gibb, Justin Timberlake, Smokey Robinson or Prince -that is high and breathy. This sound is heard in both transgender and cisgender male voices. To develop that registration requires a great deal of practice. Female singers do have a falsetto but it is not as apparent as in the male voice because soprano and alto sing an octave above tenor and bass. It has been demonstrated in video-stroboscopic studies that women do have a falsetto however one cannot hear the production as such in the female voice, cis or trans.
Every voice has its limitation to how high and low it can sing. This is determined by the size of one’s vocal cords. Most female vocal cords are ¼ or ½ inch long while male vocal cords can be ¾ of an inch to over an inch in length. Just as guitar strings or piano strings, the longer and thicker the vocal folds the lower the pitch. The higher the voice the shorter and thinner the folds. Using a rubber band as the a visual for the vocal cords you realize that they can just increase size only so much before the rubber band will break. Human vocal folds don’t usually break as rubber bands do but singers have done a lot of damage to the vocal instrument singing incorrectly.
What is a whistle register?
Throughout my many years of teaching voice I have only had the pleasure of working with two students with demonstrative “whistle registers.” A whistle register is beyond the soprano’s head register and can extend upwards to C7. This extremely rare vocal range sounds like the soprano is whistling with her mouth open. Coloratura sopranos use whistle registration at times. This register is created by the vocal folds adducted (closed) and a very tiny opening in the anterior of the closed vocal cords is open. Besides operatic coloratura sopranos a few well known popular singers who use a whistle register are Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.
How do I find my vocal range?
Voice ranges overlap and it takes a professional voice teacher to make that determination. A voice teacher will need to hear you sing a few scales and listen to a few bars of a song. By contrast, young singers should not be categorized as their voices mature and change. As you physically grow your vocal mechanism will also including the size of the larynx and the vocal folds.
It is always recommended to hire a voice teacher to help you develop your voice. Remember that you only have one set of vocal cords and if you damage them you don’t get a second set. Repairing voices is my job as a vocologist but I don’t want you to need my help. I want you to protect that voice, sing in good health, stay hydrated , and set a regular sleep pattern. Your voice is only as good as your body and mind. When you would like help please feel free to reach out to me.