From Two Registers to Three…(Registrational Mitosis?)

We now come to 1840—a year made noteworthy in the life of Garcia by another important advance in his career.

Since his appointment to a professorship at the Paris Conservatoire, his reputation had continued to be steadily consolidated, and his clientèle included, besides those who were being trained for the musical profession, a great number of amateur pupils, among whom were to be found not only some of the most distinguished names in Paris, but many members of the royal family itself. Throughout this period he had been steadily working to increase his knowledge relative to the mechanism of the voice, and at last, in 1840, he found that his investigations had reached a point at which they might be found of interest to others.

Accordingly, in this year he set down the result of his studies in the classical paper which he submitted to the Académie des Sciences de France under the title, “Mémoire sur la voix humaine,” to which was added the rather odd-sounding subtitle, “Description des produits du phonateur humain.” In it he embodied the various discoveries which he had made relating to the larynx.

Among the principal points to which he drew attention were the following:—

(1) The head voice does not necessarily begin where the chest voice ends, and a certain number of notes can be produced in either register.

(2) The chest voice and the head voice are produced by a special and spontaneous modification of the vocal organs, and the exhaustion of the air contained in the chest is more rapid in the proportion of four to three in the production of a head than a chest note.

(3) The voice can produce the same sounds in two different timbres—the clear or open, and the sombre or closed.

The memoir on the human voice was duly reported on by Majendie, Savart, and Dutrochet at a public meeting which was held on April 12, 1841, the result being that this resolution was passed: “The thanks of the Academy are due to Professor Garcia for the skilful use which he has made of his opportunities as a teacher of singing to arrive at a satisfactory physical theory of the human voice.” The circumstance gave occasion for a somewhat acrimonious discussion concerning certain points of priority as between Garcia and MM. Diday and Pétrequin, two French scientists.

This was followed up by the publication of the ‘Method of Teaching Singing,’ in which Garcia cleared up the confusion which had hitherto existed between “timbre” and “register.”

He defined the expression “register” as being a series of consecutive homogeneous sounds produced by one mechanism, differing essentially from another series of sounds equally homogeneous produced by another mechanism, whatever modifications of “timbre” and of strength they may offer. “Each of the registers,” he added, “has its own extent and sonority, which varies according to the sex of the individual and the nature of the organ.”

At this time he stated that there were two registers; but in later years, with the invention of the laryngoscope and the examination of the vocal cords which resulted from it, he altered the original division from two to three*—chest, medium, and head-voice,—and this is accepted by all as scientifically correct according to the definition of “register” laid down by him.

Mackinlay, Malcolm Sterling. Garcia the Centenarian and His Times: Being a Memoir of Manuel Garcia’s Life and Labours for the Advancement of Music and Science. W. Blackwood and sons, 1908.


*A salient point to remember is that Garcia Jr. laid out his first treatise as a representation of his father’s (and therefore the Old Italian School’s) work and pedagogical system. In his own words from the preface, “C’est sa méthode que j’ai voulu réproduire, en essayant seulement de la ramener à une forme plus théorique et de rattacher les résultats aux causes.” [It’s HIS method that I wanted to reproduce, trying only to bring in a more theoretical form and attach results to causes.]

Up to this time (c. 1840), Garcia Jr believed in a two-register theory of the voice. It wasn’t until he could SEE the voice in a laryngeal mirror in 1854 that he changed his mind. So, we have, in effect, a direct shift of primacy in voice training from  ‘listening’ to the voice to ‘seeing’ it. Many historians and writers attribute this discovery to a confusion and debate that would rage to the present day.

It is my personal belief that Garcia’s definition of register still holds up to the present day. However, as ‘a mechanism’, the human voice has only two anatomical muscular structures by which sound can be produced (the arytenoid and the cricothyroid muscle systems). Unless a ‘third mechanism’ and its accompanying nerve centers could be proven to exist, there is no way a third register could be operational in the human larynx.

Garcia Jr’s tribute to his father in the preface of his Traité is conclusive proof that Garcia’s father sang and taught a two-register theory of the voice. Manuel Jr was most assuredly trained by his father, and observed him teaching a two-register approach for all his students, both male and female. This ‘mitosis’ of registers by Garcia Jr in 1854 is a watershed moment in the history of voice pedagogy.


Exercising the Registers of the Voice

Another ‘superstition’ that should be mentioned concerns the current belief that ‘registers’ should never be practised separately because it leads to a so-called ‘register divergency’, i.e. ‘an unhealthy separation of the registers’ which will eventually prevent them from blending.

A reminder: the optimal, the physiologically correct tone, is produced by the mutual, unified functioning of a whole series of musculatures.  But how can several functions be practice simultaneously when possibly each one is working badly, i.e., because the lack of freedom of one musculature is constantly hampering the others? Here we have no choice. Muscles have to be practised separately until each one is able to function cleanly, when nothing will obstruct their joint action, nothing prevent them from ‘blending’. (Manuel Garcia clearly expresses his opinion on this subject: “To overcome the material difficulties of his art, the singer must be able to control every part of the mechanism to such a degree that he can use the functions separately or together as required.’) It must be stressed that, at first, this procedure is not entirely without danger.  One has to be certain not to provoke any chronic over-accentuation of one function, of one ‘register’ (we shall be referring to this in a moment) which would lead eventually to an unhealthy splitting of the voice and the serious consequences involved.

Individual functions in the vocal organ as needed in singing have to be roused by being exercised alternately. Practising one function too long easily leads to over-training and generates trouble of a different kind. Immoderate use of one function reduces the activity of others with which they should co-operate. This, in turn, disturbs the functional equilibrium of the forces at work. Muscles that are chronically over-emphasized eventually lose the capacity to amalgamate. Such a disruption of the functional unity is present in every normal vocal organ, and to a lesser degree (though they may sing quite well in spite of it), in that of every professional singer.

We see therefore that functions must be practised alternately, but that the time spend in exercising each one must be scrupulously apportioned. (Careful dosage has nothing to do with ‘sparing’ the voice; it means how long each function is exercised.).

Husler, Frederick, and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. Singing: The physical nature of the vocal organ: A guide to the unlocking of the singing voice. Hutchinson, 1976.

Proper Distinction in Registers

Tell your liver what to do right now. Say, “Liver, do your job!”.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.


Much like other parts of the body, the voice is best trained in a way that is INDIRECT rather than direct. What this means is that methods of singing that attempt to MAKE the voice DO something will generally fail of purpose because the voice is an INVOLUNTARY system. Barry Wyke, the noted neurologist, noted that if one member of a complex muscular system is involuntary, all members of the system must be treated as if they, too, were involuntary. Additionally, Wyke asserts that If an organic system is to be used for a SECONDARY, or overlaid function, it must not during the adaptive process be made to violate those laws pertaining to its PRIMARY function.

What this means is that 1. we should deal with the voice INDIRECTLY, and that 2. we can’t violate the PRIMARY FUNCTIONAL purposes of the system.  In this case, a system that’s primary function is RESPIRATION and SWALLOWING.

So, what are the INDIRECT ways of working with a voice?

VOWELS (and to a lesser degree consonants)

VOLUME (intensities of tone; loud has one effect, soft another)

PITCH (the selection of notes that elicit a particular muscular action of the laryngeal muscles)

From an article in Etude Magazine by Ebenezer Cook in August of 1916:

No, the muscles act mainly in an involuntary manner, and to make them work properly we must approach the matter in quite a different manner. The natural voice does not show breaks at all. The child sings from one extreme to the other without any pronounced change of registers unless the voice has been forced at school, or else the habit has been acquired by imitating someone else who does show them. All teachers know that it is much easier to deal with an untrained voice than with one which has had faulty schooling. The pupil cannot see the vocal organs in action as the piano pupil can see the hand, and so the pupil must be made to do things which he can do, but which cause, in a secondary manner, the vocal action desired. When wrong habits have not been acquired the way is easy, but habits are strong, and when bad habits have once been acquired it is a delicate matter to correct them.