More on the Pharyngeal Voice

I thought I’d throw in a couple of historical connections regarding the pharyngeal voice.

The first person to coin the actual word in print was Edgar Herbert-Caesari, but he also acknowledged in May 1950 in the Musical Times that there was no such thing as a pharyngeal voice. (Semantics, semantics!)

Herbert-Caesari asserted the idea came from the Italian term voce faringea and was taught to him by Riccardo Daviesi. According to Herbert-Caesari,

The discovery of the pharyngeal dates back about three hundred years (c. 1650) and was employed by church tenors all over Italy. Subsequently, it was taught by all exponents of the old Italian school. Riccardo Daviesi, my singing teacher in Rome, was the greatest Sistine Chapel ‘contralto’ of the nineteenth century.
Herbert-Caesari goes on,
When properly developed, either as a natural gift or as a result of considerable exercise, the pharyngeal mechanism dovetails perfectly into the basic or chest mechanism-just like gears and can be engaged in exact percentages at the will of the singer; at the same time he can also introduce small percentages of falsetto if he so wishes. The quality of such mixed tones is remarkable. The falsetto by itself is a windy, anaemic, stupid tone; mixed, however, with goodly percentages of pharyngeal it becomes a living entity. In tenors (not in female voices) the pharyngeal is inclined to be ‘ steely’ in timbre; but when it is mixed with a small percentage of falsetto we get a highly attractive tone-a glowing centre with a softened rim, and of great carrying power. The so-called chest voice, when mixed with well-balanced percentages (according to the pitch) of pharyngeal, acquires brilliance, quality, and carrying power.
Rather tellingly, Herbert-Caesari credits the neglect of the pharyngeal voice to Gilbert Louis-Duprez. Duprez is considered (perhaps apocryphally) to have sung the first do di petto, or high C from the chest in Rossini’s opera William Tell.
The breakaway from the aforesaid tenore di grazia tradition was initiated by the French tenor Duprez; credited with being the first tenor to sing all head notes up to C with unmixed chest, his ‘ Do de poitrine ‘ (high C in chest voice) became famous; but his success was short-lived. Rossini shed tears when he heard him in 1837 in ‘William Tell’ because ‘ poor Duprez won’t last long’. Duprez gave up singing when he was about forty. Panofka, celebrated teacher of singing in that period, wrote of ‘ Duprez’s brute force in singing ‘ and said that in imitating Duprez and his new method tenors ‘engaged in an athletic contest with their voices, and subsequently sopranos, to compete with these new tenori di forza, were obliged to force their voices beyond the normal’. That was one hundred years ago. Today, the universal wobble is a symptom of forced and bad production everywhere.
Herbert-Caesari’s pronouncements are worth lengthy consideration by voice teachers, as they do suggest a pedagogical historical “bifurcation” in training the upper voice. But that’s a post for another time.

Continuing on, we might ask if there are earlier connections to this pharyngeal voice in historical writings?

I believe there are, and I’d like to dive back into the past and see if we can find some answers.

In his book Misurgia Vocalis (1836) Isaac Nathan describes a particular quality of voice that he calls voce di finte, or feigned voice. It is very important to know that the term existed PRIOR to Nathan but he clarified his definition,

I am aware that the falsetto is considered a feigned voice – but the quality of the sound to which I allude is not that which is produced in the throat, and already distinguished under the name falsetto; nor is it the voce di testa.
Nathan asserted that the two registers of the voice had to be joined through ‘il ponticello’ or the little bridge, and that this joining of the registers
cannot be accomplished without the aid of the feigned voice, which may be justly considered the only medium or vehicle by which the falsetto can be carried into the Voce di petto.
So, if we can understand Nathan’s particular definition, we may have a technique of voice training that connects to the Old Italian School of Singing. For that, I looked at the writings of one of the earliest Italian Masters, Pierfrancesco Tosi. His definition of the voce di finte mirrors the wording of Isaac Nathan 93 three years before:
Whoever would be curious to discover the feigned Voice of one who has the Art to disguise it, let him take Notice, that the Artist sounds the Vowel i, or e, with more Strength and less Fatigue than the vowel a, on the high Notes.
The selection of these vowels [i] and [e] is telling, because they are the same vowels that were advocated by Nathan as well as Herbert-Caesari.

In our modern times, pedagogue Cornelius Reid in his Dictionary of Vocal Terminology (1983) defined the term as follows:

The term “Pharyngeal Voice” was coined by the twentieth century Englishman E. Herbert-Caesari to describe the tonal quality that results when the falsetto is in the process of being transformed into the head voice. Herbert-Caesari accurately believed the so-called “pharyngeal voice” to be the combined product of a special type of vocal fold formation and a “tuned” oropharyngeal resonance adjustment.
Reid connected the dots between Tosi, Nathan, and Herbert-Caesari:
The concept of the pharyngeal voice as formulated by Herbert-Caesari would seem to be identical with the ‘feigned voice’ described by Isaac Nathan in his Misurgia Vocalis, and is quite clearly a device for combining the two register mechanisms, the chest register and the falsetto. Pedagogically, the development of the coordinated falsetto or “pharyngeal voice” is most desirable, since the combined activity of the register mechanisms significantly reduces the amount of energy needed to produce the upper tones, greatly enhances vocal flexibility, and ultimately leads to upper tones of rare freedom and beauty.
Today, we know the pharyngeal voice mainly through the teaching of Los Angeles pedagogue Seth Riggs, who worked with Tito Schipa, Helge Rosvaenge, John Charles Thomas, and Robert Weede. Through his work teaching, pharyngeal voice training has gone into studios throughout the country and has been especially adapted for training in popular music styles.

In his book Singing for the Stars (1985), Riggs doesn’t use the term pharyngeal voice but does describe the sound as a “high larynx exercise”. He asserts that the sound is aimed at coordination of the air and muscle at the level of the vocal cords, in order to connect the chest and head voices together as a functioning unit.

It’s important to note that Riggs used pharyngeal voice training in conjunction with low larynx exercise as well. His cyclical approach to high and low larynx mirrors an approach advocated by Frederick Husler and Yvonne Rodd-Marling in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). Husler and Rodd-Marling were some of the first writers in voice pedagogy to explain the importance of vertical laryngeal height through discussion of the suspensory mechanism or ‘elastic scaffolding’ – the extrinsic muscles of the larynx that inspan the larynx.  For them, the larynx had to be exercised both in high and low positions, but only as way to innervate and strengthen musculature of the singing voice, not as an end result.

One of Riggs’s pupils, Randy Buescher, a Chicago-based voice teacher, has written on the pharyngeal voice in the training of the female pop singer. His article, written with Steven Sims, is entitled “The Female Pharyngeal Voice and Theories of Low Vocal Fold Damping” and was published in the September/October 2011 Journal of Singing. Buescher conclusions were that:

Because all three singers had received extensive training in the pharyngeal voice, it is reasonable to conclude that the common behavior pattern observed was a result of the training. It was also evident that the use of pharyngeal constrictors helps create a longer closed phase, increasing subglottal pressure, which would be in line with Smith’s observations. This accounts for the edgy quality necessary for singing certain styles without resorting to pressed phonation. Because of the ability to create a longer closed phase, the pharyngeal voice would also be useful in situations where improper closure is an issue, such as vocal fold bowing, paresis, muscle tension dysphonia, and postoperative posture/gap memory. The study also shows that the pharyngeal voice is truly pharyngeal in nature, in that the trained use of the pharynx helps create the sound and keeps it present even when twanging was not observed.
Speaking as a voice teacher and singer, I have found an enormous benefit in using the pharyngeal voice. I agree with Herbert-Caesari, Reid, Nathan, Tosi, and Riggs in its usefulness. It has helped my students find a connected sound from chest to head and vice versa. I have also found it helpful in eliminating weight out of a too-robust chest voice. It can be sung at various dynamics, and this also helps the singer to understand the connection of the registers.

Finally, Herbert-Caesari’s description of its usefulness as an exercise sum it up nicely:

1. The full messa di voce in its purest form (on the tenor’s high notes), starting from a pinpoint pianissimo and developing with perfect graduation through crescendo to forte, and back again with graduated decrescendo to pianissimo.

2. The half messa di voce, i.e. (a) a graduated CRESCENDO from piano to forte, or (b) a graduatedDECRESCENDO from forte to piano.

3. Greatly facilitating the production of, and strengthening the tenor’s high notes.

4. Creating perfect attacks, particularly of the tenor’s high notes.

5. Revitalizing the vocal cords (of all voices possessing the mechanism).

6. Correcting the tremolo or wobble, in tenors, sopranos, mezzos, and contraltos.

7. Rehearsing, as it saves the wear and tear of constant repetition of high notes that is so fatiguing to the tenor’s normal or basic voice.

The Interrelationship of Function Through Registration

Understanding the unique role of registration to the suspensory mechanism (or ‘elastic scaffolding’ of the larynx) is an important part of voice building and training.

If you are in, say, the lower register and push the voice up in pitch, at a certain point you will not be able to go any further in chest voice but must all of a sudden shift, not only to a different vocal cord thickness but, in keeping with what we’ve said, to a new arrangement of tensions to create this shift. The vocalis muscle abruptly lets go while other muscles are forced to compensate by tightening; the result of this sudden shift is an abrupt change in the vibratory pattern, often with a kind of momentary stoppage of vibration, both of which we hear as a break in the voice. When we yodel, we are deliberately causing the voice to violently shift from chest to falsetto so that we hear the break, and the transition from one extreme to the other, as a kind of gymnastic vocal display.

Learning to overcome this break in the voice by producing a more balanced and coordinated use of the larynx and throat muscles is one of the central problems in vocal training. We saw earlier that the larynx is supported within a network of extrinsic muscles that form its elastic scaffolding and assist in supporting and stretching the vocal folds. In the average untrained singer, this elastic scaffolding is inactive in chest voice, forcing the singer to shift between one register and another by abruptly altering the arrangement of muscular tensions in the larynx. If, in contrast, the larynx is antagonistically supported within this suspensory musculature, this brings an overall improved support for the larynx so that both the lower and upper register operate within the context of a supportive network that makes the shift from one to the other not just imperceptible but also functionally continuous.

To use an analogy, imagine if, when sitting, you are rather lazy and collapsed, which is how most of us use our voices when speaking. You decide to get up, coming forward in the chair rather heavily until, at the last moment, you grip and tighten your leg muscles in order to heave yourself out of the chair. This is precisely what happens with the voice. We ascend in pitch in a heavy, unsupported chest until, when this arrangement no longer serves our needs, we are forced to make a sudden and abrupt shift into an equally unsupported falsetto. As in sitting, we need more overall support in the system, so that we have more activity in rest and more rest in activity – a kind of vocal poise that makes it possible to use each register in the context of a larger supportive network.

When the vocal organ is supported in this way, the chest voice is lighter and less collapsed, and the elements of suspension tend to be present even before going into falsetto range, make the shift from chest to falsetto much less abrupt. The falsetto, in turn, is supported so that the shift from chest to falsetto is less noticeable. This produces a balanced working of the larynx – a kind of increased antagonistic activity that makes for healthy, integrated functioning of the different vocal registers. When these conditions are present, the falsetto can then develop into the full-fledged “head” voice, which is the higher register sung with more “chest” voice activity, volume, and fullness of tone.

In order to avoid the break between registers, some singers try to blend the two registers – that is, to bridge the passage between the two registers so that there is no obvious shift in tone. Many teachers go even further and deny the existence of registers, shunning any use of the falsetto voice in men and arguing that it is simply necessary to sing low and high notes cleanly. But the real problem isn’t to produce a smooth transition from low to high notes or even within a single register, but to achieve a functional integration of the voice in which the voice is actively supported, whatever register is being used, producing a balanced working of the whole. Underneath the problem of blending registers, then, is a functional issue: how to support the larynx so that its functions are balanced, based on the antagonistic action of the supporting musculature. When this system is working properly, each register operates as part of a functionally integrated whole. This not only represents a more complete command of the vocal instrument but also protects the voice, keeps it toned and healthy, and maintains its flexibility and balance.

Because a normal, thin falsetto cannot be altered or developed in any way, the falsetto is sometimes shunned by singing teachers, who regard it as a sort of breathy, collapsed, and inflexible use of the voice that has no place in vocal training. This kind of vocal usage is indeed questionable because, as we just saw, it can eventually lead to a divergence of registers in which some functions become overused and others become atrophied. A supported falsetto, however, is a different matter entirely. This type of falsetto serves as a crucial foundation for developing a fully integrated voice in which there is no register divergence but one coordinated usage in which registers virtually disappear. This is one reason why the oldest traditions in singing, from bel canto to the present, emphasize the importance of the falsetto register as a crucial element in vocal training; in fact, a voice that lacks the falsetto register is a ruined instrument that can never be fully developed. The functioning of separate registers, then, far from being harmful or unimportant, is a crucial element in vocal training and represents a basic function out of which a full voice can be developed.

Dimon, Theodore. Your Body, Your Voice: The Key to Natural Singing and Speaking. North Atlantic Books, 2011.

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.


A Letter to the Editor on “Falsetto”

The following letter to the Editor was featured in Etude Magazine in July of 1897. I’ve underlined particular points of interest, and comments that I sometimes make in my own studio with male singers.


Editor of the Vocal Department:—

Dear Sir.—It is with much interest and pleasure that I have read the article in the May Etude regarding development of the so-called ”falsetto ” voice, and heartily agree with every point excepting the statement that by this means the so-called “chest” voice is done away with.

This has not been the case in my experience, but the result has been that the so-called “falsetto” voice (a term which should not be used, as it is misleading) has been so developed and strengthened that it has merged into the chest voice, thus bridging over the break; and in singing I have no consciousness in my throat of any change, and neither can any change be heard. To give a full history of the way in which I have come to this conclusion would exceed in length the proper limit of an article for publication, but I will endeavor to give a few suggestions which may throw light on the subject. In the effort to overcome the break I endeavored to carry the “head” voice (I prefer this term to “falsetto”) down the scale as far as possible. At first I used the syllable “loo.” By experimenting it will be found that this syllable can be sung lower down the scale in head voice than any other. I was careful to sing it far forward on my lips, having them rounded and elongated in a whistling position. At first the tones will be weak and breathy, but the more the student gets away from all self-consciousness at the throat and the more he concentrates his attention at the lips, trying to get a clear enunciation of this vowel in the front of the mouth, the better will be the quality, and the strength will come gradually. In my experience I found that the vowels, as regards difficulty, succeed each other in the following order (Italian pronunciation) u—i—o—e—a.

After a boy’s voice has changed, and he attempts to sing in his new or man’s voice, he finds that he has some upper tones which feel and sound to him just as his old boyish voice used to feel and sound, and he takes it for granted that this is a weak, effeminate voice, which must never be used (perhaps, as in my own case, he will be taught that this is true), so he endeavors to force his chest tones as high as possible and then discovers that by adopting the so-called “closed” tone he can go higher. But in changing to this “closed” tone, he changes the shape of his throat and position of his larynx, by depressing the base of the tongue, and thus the tone is focussed against his soft palate. He may, indeed, hear a mighty roar inside his own head, but what his audience hears is rather difficult to describe.

In all his talking he uses his throat naturally,—that is, as his voice rises and falls in the inflection of speech, according to the intensity of the thought, his vocal chords adjust themselves, naturally, involuntarily, and automatically, just as the muscles of his eye form themselves to different distances without causing him any sensation. In fact, by any exercise of his will power he can not cause those muscles to move, and can have no control over them only as he looks at objects at different distances, when they will adjust themselves. Neither by taking thought of the muscles themselves can he cause the vocal chords to contract or expand, but let him think a tone and endeavor to sing it naturally and they will immediately adjust themselves.

Singing should require no more conscious throat effort than speaking or looking. But when the young man begins to sing, he finds that up to a certain limit he can make more or less tone, this limit being largely governed by the pitch of his talking voice. He will find that at the upper end of his voice the tones are weak and of an effeminate quality—certainly, why should they not be so, as he has never used these muscles in the manner necessary to form these upper tones, and they are therefore weak and flabby.

Now, instead of clutching his throat by use of the voluntary muscles, thus causing a stiff and rigid tongue- base and larynx and producing a harsh and forced vibration of the vocal chords, he should take the bull by the horns and go to the extremity of effeminacy in tone quality, allowing only a very gentle pressure of air against these muscles, and sing that small effeminate quality in the front of his mouth on all vowels all the way down the scale. At first he will be likely to make a throat effort in the neighborhood of from C-sharp down to G sharp (it varies somewhat in different voices) because he will notice that, especially in this neighborhood, if he actually lets go of his throat and gets away from all self-consciousness there, then concentrating all his attention at the lips, that at first these tones will seem to have lost all their virility, but if he will persevere there will gradually appear a sweet, pure tone which will slowly develop (through what I call mixed voice), so that finally, from top to bottom of his compass, he will have only one quality without a break. It is at this point that the head voice changes to chest voice through the use of these mixed tones, the exact pitch being varied by the circumstances of the case—the quality of vowel and force used.

This development can not be done quickly. It requires long, careful and intelligent practice. The difficulty is that at first the beginner is likely to have some ideal quality of tone in mind which he endeavors to imitate, rather than to develop his natural voice. And allow me to say in passing, that I think one of the most serious mistakes made by students is in their endeavor to imitate some ideal quality of tone produced by some artist. Certainly we should hear all the good singing possible and endeavor to imitate the method by means of which the artist has achieved success. But this is vastly different from imitating the voice of the artist. By this last means the student loses all individuality. If a girl of plain features wishes to make herself attractive, she will find that any attempt to imitate the features or expression of anyone else—no matter how beautiful—will only make her appear ridiculous, and her only hope lies in good manners, pleasant disposition, bright thoughts, and winning ways. And with the voice our only hope is to take what has been given us and develop it naturally, without any forcing or straining or attempt to imitate any one else.

If we enter a gymnasium to become athletes, we know we must go through a long course of training. Every time we strain a muscle we weaken it; every time we gently exercise it we strengthen it. If we strain an arm or leg, we can help it by massage; but a strained throat must be let alone until it recovers.

Singing is not a lost art; but the trouble to-day is that we all want to become great vocal athletes, without the necessary training, which in the olden days was considered essential. My belief is, that the main reason to-day why there are so few good tenors is that many men are judging their voices from a wrong standpoint and calling themselves baritones because they do not know how to use their upper voice.

This is too broad a subject to attempt to cover in one short article, but possibly some of the suggestions here may cause others to investigate for themselves.

Horace P. Dibble.