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.

Herbert-Caesari on Chest Voice

But first, an aural example:


The “rumble” in the region immediately below the larynx detected in every voice by the investigators [the Old Masters], and of course in their own voices too, they promptly called voce di petto, chest voice. (This is readily noticed when holding a low note, produced naturally without overloading, and lightly tapping the bone structure just below the larynx with the tips of two or three fingers.) It is present on the low notes of all voices, male and female, and the series of notes concerned are the so-called chest tones because of their characteristic timbre. As the pitch rises so the laryngeal rumble gradually tends to fade away completely – because the mass of the cords gradually lessens. On the medium and high notes there is no rumble; tapping of the chest brings no response. Little or nothing escaped the ardent attention of our investigators. They concluded (rightly) from the above phenomenon that for the lowest notes, all voices, the whole of the vocal cords was engaged in length and depth, and the considerable fundamental vibrations communicated themselves to the bone structure near at hand with a resonance, or resounding, effect. N.B. It is incredible how the most unreasonable ideas about vocal technique and tonal colouring are spawned! For instance, certain teachers specialize in never allowing their female pupils  to produce the lowest notes – from E, first line, downwards, with the so-called “chest” quality, and instead get them to drag down the relatively poorer medium voice to overlap the “chest” (Puritanical modesty?). And to produce what? Just a miserable, weak, colourless hybrid sound. Thus ignorance abolishes one of the richest of natural tonal colours in the female voice. “It’s vulgar,” they say. Admittedly, but only if overdone. (So is lipstick and make-up, if slapped on.) Why not abolish the “chest” tones also of baritones and basses, and get rid of the lowest string of violins and ‘cellos. The whole idea is too stupid for words! For purposes of expression the greatest composers have always included certain low notes in songs and arias to be sung with this “chest” quality.

Who is right?

Herbert-Caesari, Edgar F. Tradition and Gigli: 1600-1955: a panegyric. R. Hale, 1963.

Registrational Denial While Driving Stick-Shift

To test the hypothesis of those who deny registration, one need only apply their reasoning to a similar mechanical principle, a principle which has been worked out by engineers and is demonstrably true. A familiar example is the transmission system of the automobile.


In earlier days driving an automobile was a trifle more complicated than it is at present. Pulling power was controlled by a gearing system ordinarily made up of three forward speeds and reverse. Gear positions had to be operated manually, and before a gear could be engaged or changed the driver had to go into ‘neutral.’ Having to pass through neutral when shifting gears was not only tedious from the standpoint of physical convenience, but it interfered with the smoothness of the ride. Regardless of the driver’s skill, there was always a break in the steady pull of the motor and, consequently, in the forward movement of the vehicle every time the gears had to be shifted. In short, there were transition points at which mechanical changes were made.

Most automobiles today have an automatic transmission. All the driver need do is start the motor, put the gear shaft in the position marked ‘drive,’ release the brake, and then press down on the accelerator. With late model cars there will be absolute smoothness of movement from inertia to the highest possible speeds. But is this to deny the validity of the mechanical principle of gear ratios? Of course not. The gearing principle is still operative, but the various means developed for synchronizing them have merely eliminated the manually operated gearshift and replaced it with an automatic control devices.


To bring this analogy closer to the human voice, we can observe how this principle works with musical instruments. Examination of the interior of the piano immediately discloses that two different kinds of stringing have been used. For tones extending from the lower middle to the top the strings are made of thin steel, for the lowest two octaves, steel strings are wrapped in heavy copper wire. Thus, bass notes on the piano are not only larger, but thicker and of different metal. Regardless of this difference, the piano has a smoothly graduated tonal scale with no point of mechanical transition detectable to the ear. A major transition is made, but the gradation is engineered so as to pass unobserved.


Another analogy may be drawn by giving attention to the mechanics of the violin. Here, too, a smoothly graduated scale is the object of study. But can it be said that four separate strings of different thickness are not being used because the listener is unable to hear transitional points as the player moves from one to the other? Yet this is exactly the position of the voice teacher who denies the reality of the vocal registers. When the voice is being correctly used, and a state of perfect equilibrium attained, the singer can negotiate the transitional areas so that neither the listener, nor he himself, will necessarily be aware of the underlying mechanics. From this it cannot be logically contended, however, that the vocal registers are nonexistent. It simply means that when the conditions are right the interplay between them is not always easy to hear, at least not for the unpracticed or biased ear. The teacher who ignores the mechanics of registration is misrepresenting his professional qualifications. He is not training the voice, he is tampering with it.


Reid, Cornelius L. The free voice: a guide to natural singing. Joseph Patelson Music House, 1978.


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.