In my way of looking at the voice, influenced by the work of Cornelius Reid, a register is the sound quality produced by the action of one of the two opposing groups of vocal muscles in the larynx. The cricothyroid muscles et al. generate the falsetto register, while the cricoarytenoid muscles et al. generate the chest register. (Some theorists posit the existence of more than two registers, but since here we are defining a register as being produced by a particular group of muscles, and since there are only two such groups in the larynx, only two registers can be said to exist. Other so-called registers are in reality sounds produced by differently coordinated interactions between the falsetto and chest registers.)
In their pure forms, the falsetto and chest registers encompass only a minimal range of notes each and exhibit unsubtle vocal qualities of limited use in legitimate singing. When you learn to combine them efficiently however, their complementary qualities enhance and support each other, making available to you sounds in a wider range of at least two octaves, loud or soft on any pitch, and with a large palette of tonal colors.
In order to get the two registers working together well, it is often first necessary to separate them out and independently refine the action of each. We do this by taking advantage of certain combinations of pitch, loudness, and vowel to elicit a particular register or registrational mixture. This posting will demonstrate and describe the characteristics of the falsetto, the chest register, and the integrated working of them both together.
The “pure” falsetto, with no participation from the chest register, is a breathy sound that ranges in volume from very soft at its lowest pitches around the A below middle C to a bit louder at its highest pitches an octave higher. (Breathy, because without the action of the chest register muscles, the vocal cords do not approximate (=touch) completely. A falsetto that is more “singy,” i.e. with tonal clarity, or one that extends higher than the A above middle C, requires some participation from the chest register.) The pitch range of the pure falsetto is identical for men and women. In combined registrations, the falsetto determines the tautness of the vocal cords and thus the pitch and contributes beneficial qualities such as warmth of tone and flexibility. Some types of throat constriction can be “blasted” open using this useful, if unaesthetic sound.
We can best elicit a pure falsetto using the vowel [oo] anywhere in the appropriate octave, although it’s often easier to avoid bringing in the chest register if we choose a pitch high enough to make chest register participation unlikely. I often start at around the E above middle C to get the pure falsetto established before taking it lower.
Here’s a clip of a baritone singing single tones in pure falsetto from F above middle C to the A below. Notice how the volume decreases as he descends, in accordance with the characteristics of this register.
If you attempt to take the falsetto lower than its natural range, your voice will either diminish into soundlessness or take on some chest register to continue lower. In the following sound clip, listen as the singer descends on an arpeggio on the vowel [oh] from the F above middle C to the octave below. When he reaches the bottom note, outside the range of falsetto, you will hear his falsetto “break over” into a mixed registration involving some chest voice.
When uncoordinated, i.e., unaccompanied by any falsetto participation, the chest register is a crude, somewhat aggressive sound that ranges from the lowest notes one can sing up to around the E above middle C. It’s loud throughout this range, getting even louder and harsher as it ascends. As is the case for the falsetto, the range of this register is the same for men and women, although, since men sing about an octave lower than women, most of their range lies within the confines of the chest register, while only the lowest notes of women’s voices do. The action of the chest register is what maintains the openness of the throat, which of course is desirable even for the highest soprano pitches. In combined registrations, the chest register permits excursion into the lower tonal ranges and contributes power, clarity, and focus to the tone. It is easy to misuse this register, however; most forms of throat constriction are the result of an over-aggressive or otherwise poorly coordinated chest register.
We can easily elicit the chest register by singing loudly on a lowish note on the vowel [ah]. (Men have a wide range of options here; women are limited to the lowest 5th or so of their range.)
In the next clip you can hear the unmistakable differences between the falsetto and the chest register. The baritone sings twice a descending arpeggio from the D above middle C to the D below, first in falsetto (nearly inaudible by the bottom note) and then again in chest voice.
If the singer attempts to take the chest voice too high, the tone will become louder and more and more spread until the muscles can no longer endure the excessive strain this imposes on them, breaking into a falsetto at this point. In the following sound clip, you can hear the dramatic change in quality when this break occurs. This is the famous break which all singers, particularly men, must find a way to bridge so as to avoid the comic, yodel-like effect of abrupt changes from one register into another and back.
In this next sound clip, the singer repeats the same sequence of notes, but allows his registers to coordinate. As they work together, they smooth out the transitions from a coordinated chest register into a coordinated falsetto, also known as head voice, and back again.
Voice lessons provide a pathway for register development. In an untrained or incorrectly trained voice, the registers may each be poorly developed and they will not be able to cooperate efficiently with each other. During lessons like mine, the falsetto and chest registers will be trained in two ways: 1) independently, to strengthen them and correct any faults present, and 2) in coordinated combination with each other, to refine their ability to work together.
Well-coordinated registers make singing feel easy and give you increased range and agility, as well as the ability to sing on any pitch at any volume and with a whole range of tonal colors.