The Pesky Blissful Ignorance of those Old Masters

The old Italian masters, who lived in blissful ignorance of the laryngoscope, recognised only two registers of the human voice, the “chest” and the falsetto or “head,” the two latter terms being exactly synonymous. They of course spoke from what doctors call the purely clinical point of view, i.e. from the observation of voices in actual use, without troubling themselves much as to how the difference was brought about. Johannes Müller, from the opposite standpoint of pure experiment on the larynx removed from the body, was also led to define two registers, the “chest” and “head.”

The immediate effect of the invention of the laryngoscope was to throw the whole subject into almost hopeless confusion by the introduction of all sorts of errors of observation, each claiming to be founded on ocular proof, and believed in with corresponding obstinacy.

Garcia divided the voice into ” chest,” ” falsetto,” and “head,” all three being common to both sexes, but females having a greater range of “head,” and men of “chest” notes. In each the chest and head registers were further subdivided into two parts, “upper” and “lower.” Taking this view in connection with Garcia’s own definition of a “register” as a “series of consecutive homogeneous sounds going from low to high, produced by the action of a certain mechanism,” it is evident that he looks upon the singing voice as produced by five distinct mechanisms. Madame Seiler followed Garcia in his arrangement of the registers, though differing from him as to certain details. Mr. Emil Behnke taking his classification from Madame Seiler and his nomenclature from Mr. Curwen prefers to parcel out the voice into a thick (chest), a thin (falsetto), and a small (head) register, the thick and the thin being each again subdivided into upper and lower, as in the Garcia-Seiler scheme. Mr. Behnke has been able to indoctrinate with this view his collaborateur Mr. Lennox Browne, whose own formerly expressed opinions on the question, though somewhat hazy, showed a leaning towards the more simple division into two registers. Dr. Wesley Mills inclines to Madame Seller’s arrangement of the registers, but pleads for a terminology that shall involve no theory as to production, but merely indicate relative pitch, e.g. lower, middle, and upper. Mandl, who recognises only two registers, had already employed this system of nomenclature, calling the “chest” and “head” divisions “lower” and ” upper ” respectively. Battaille, Koch, Vacher, Martels, together with Gouguenheim and Lermoyez, also adhere to the two-register system.

Mackenzie, MorellThe hygiene of the vocal organs. Macmillan, 1886.


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