Two of the most commonly used term in singing circles are “Chest Voice” and “Head Voice”. If you’ve always wondered what this actually means, read on….
In the “chest voice” – the voice most people use to speak with – people generally feel the resonance of pitches in that area vibrating in their chest. Put your hand on your chest and say the vowel “a” as in “cat” nice and strong – feel how that seems to resonate between your throat and chest? That’s your chest voice. Then cheer saying, “Woo-hoo!” – feel how the sound seems to have moved into your head? That’s your head voice.
Now for a more technical explanation: How do the vocal folds work? If you’ve ever seen a picture of the vocal folds in action you’ll see that they are attached at one end in a “V” shape and vibrate together – while resisting the air coming from the lungs – along their length to create pitch. (See link below to view video of vocal cords in action). At the pitch “A 440” (the pitch orchestras tune to) the vocal folds are coming together 440 times/second to create that pitch (the note you hear). Lower pitches have a lower number and pitches up in a singer’s “whistle-tone” register (think Mariah Carey) are vibrating in the 3000’s. When a singer is vocalizing in their chest voice the vocal cords are using their thickest width to create the pitches in that register.
Then, at a certain point, the vocal cords have to make a physical shift to reducing the vibrating mass and thickness to create higher pitches. What that means is that the vibrating portion of the vocal folds that is involved in creating the pitch must thin out as the pitches get higher. Think about how you change pitch with a rubber band. The lower the desired note, the thicker the vibrating mass of the band will be; the higher the desire pitch, the more you will stretch the band. Similarly, the voice needs to make a shift to a thinner coordination in the vocal folds as the pitch ascends. When it comes to bridging from chest to head voice think of the same rubber band experiment: except that you can only stretch the rubber band so far before you hit a ceiling or break the band (top of your chest voice). Now stretch the rubber band, but this time, place one finger in the middle of the stretched portion and play the pitch. Now you’ve “bridged” the band and suddenly have many more higher pitches available without over-straining the vibrating mass. Do this earlier and you eliminate the chances of breaking the rubber band – or straining your voice.
The first transition or bridge (also known as passagio), between chest and head voice, generally happens around an E-F# above middle C4 for men and around an Aflat-Bflat above middle C for women. Every singer I’ve ever encountered in my studio struggles at the beginning with either their first or their second bridge, though the first bridge transition is the most common struggle. (Every 4th or augmented 4th interval contains another of these transition points.)
Classical and choral singers tend to sing mostly in their Head Voice. Rock/pop and Musical Theater singers tend to sing in their chest voice without transitioning to a thinner cord, though some can sing in “Mix”, sounding like they are effortlessly taking their chest voice higher in their range. When a singer connects seamlessly between chest voice and head voice, maintaining a consistent tonal quality throughout this transition, this is referred to as “Mix” – which is just that: a comfortable mix of the elements of chest voice and head voice. To learn more about Mix Voice, check my blog entitled, “BELT vs MIX”.
Here is a link to see the vocal folds in action if you’re curious: Keep in mind that the physician is using a strobe light so that we can see the action of the vocal folds “slowed down” in a sense – otherwise they are moving too fast for our eye to see.