Chest, Falsetto, and Head Voice

“I have already said that there is a good deal of confusion existing as to the use of the terms “chest,” “falsetto,” and “head voice.” And this is scarcely to be wondered at, seeing that nobody has yet decided how the three qualities of sound are produced, while everybody knows that the names are so far misleading, in that no sound whatever is really made in the chest or in the head, but that all are due to the passage of air through the larynx, in which are placed the vocal cords upon which the air plays. The changes of sound which are spoken of as “chest,” “falsetto,” and “head” voices are due to changes in the position of the larynx and its surroundings, and in the action of the vocal folds. What those changes are, and how or why they cause the results which we hear, has yet to be discovered: there are several theories, but no one has yet ventured to claim the certainty of truth for any one of them. There is an excellent article on “The Larynx” in Stainer and Barrett’s “Dictionary of Musical Terms,” to which I would refer those who wish to understand these various theories. For my present purpose it is sufficient to point out that each of the names is an utter misnomer. The “chest” voice is probably so called because the vibrations of the notes in that register may be distinctly felt in the chest; and because the breath passes directly from the chest, as it seems, without any opposition in the throat, producing the sound on its way. The “falsetto” or range of notes above the chest, is so called (and rightly so) because in that register of voice the tone feigns, or imitates, the tone of the “chest” notes below, although it is certain that the sounds are not produced in the same way, for the position of the vocal cords and their attendant parts is different, and changes suddenly on the passage of the voice from the chest to the upper register. A falsetto, rightly trained and used, is one, therefore, which is true to its name, and so well imitates the “chest,” that the hearer cannot distinguish the “false” from the real “chest tone.” The “head voice,” which many people persist in confusing with the falsetto, is so called because to the singer it feels as though the notes so produced come from the head. This is due to the larynx itself rising up in the throat and approaching the back of the head. It comprises, in reality, all that part of the voice which lies above the “chest” register, all the lower part of it being shared by the “falsetto,” exactly as the falsetto shares the greater part of the chest register. The falsetto, therefore, belongs to both, and its use is to carry, by its power of imitation, the tone of the lower or chest register into the upper or head register, so combining them that no audible change of quality, or “break,” is perceptible.”


Anonymous. Advice to singers, by a singer. 1882.


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