falsetto [Ital.,=diminutive of false], high-pitched, unnatural tones above the normal register of the male voice, produced, according to some theories, by the vibration of only the edges of the larynx. Some male altos are tenors skilled in the use of falsetto. Falsetto tone is usually thin and expressionless, but can be used with good effect.
The term falsetto (Italian diminutive of falso, false) refers to the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave. It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords, in whole or in part. Though frequently used in reference to a particular type of vocal production in singing, falsetto vocal production also occurs within speech and is one of the four main vocal registers identified within speech pathology. The characteristic sound of falsetto is inherently breathy and flute-like, with few overtones present. The falsetto voice is more limited in dynamic variation and tone quality than the modal voice in both speaking and singing. Both men and women can phonate in the falsetto register. The term falsetto is most often used in the context of singing to refer to a vocal technique that enables the singer to sing notes beyond the vocal range of the normal or modal voice.

Physiological process of the falsetto register

The essential difference between the modal register or normal voice and falsetto register lies in the amount and type of vocal cord involvement: in falsetto, only the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds enter into vibration, while the main body of each fold is more or less relaxed; in modal voice, the wavelike motion involves the whole vocal cord, with the glottis opening at the bottom first and then at the top. When the transition from modal voice to falsetto takes place, the main body of each vocal cord or the vocalis muscle relaxes its resistance to the pull of the cricothyroid muscles enough for the vocal ligaments to be stretched still further. Vennard describes this process as follows:

“With the vocalis muscles relaxed it is possible for the cricothyroids to place great longitudinal tension upon the vocal ligaments. The tension can be increased in order to raise the pitch even after the maximum length of the cords has been reached. This makes the vocal fold thin so that there is negligible vertical phase difference. The vocalis muscles fall to the sides of the larynx and the vibration take place almost entirely in the ligaments.”

In the modal register, the vocal folds (when viewed with a stroboscope) are seen to contact with each other completely during each vibration, closing the gap between them fully, if just for a very short time. This closure cuts off the escaping air. When the air pressure in the trachea rises as a result of this closure, the folds are blown apart, while the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages remain in apposition. This creates an oval shaped gap between the folds and some air escapes, lowering the pressure inside the trachea. Rhythmic repetition of this movement, a certain number of times a second, creates a pitched note.

In falsetto, however, the vocal folds are seen to be blown apart and in untrained falsetto singers a permanent oval orifice is left in the middle between the edges of the two folds through which a certain volume of air escapes continuously as long as the register is engaged (the singer is singing using the voice). In skilled countertenors, however, the mucous membrane of the vocal folds contact with each other completely during each vibration cycle. The arytenoid cartilages are held in firm apposition in this voice register also. The length or size of the oval orifice or separation between the folds can vary, but it is known to get bigger in size as the pressure of air pushed out is increased.

The folds are made up of elastic and fatty tissue. The folds are covered on the surface by laryngeal mucous membrane which is supported deeper down underneath by the innermost fibres of the thyro-arytenoid muscle. In falsetto the extreme membranous edges, i.e. the edges furthest away from the middle of the gap between the folds, appear to be the only parts vibrating. The mass corresponding to the innermost part of the thyro-arytenoid musscle remains still and motionless.

Some singers feel a sense of muscular relief when they change from the modal register to the falsetto register.

Research has revealed that not all speakers and singers produce falsetto in exactly the same way. Some speakers and singers leave the cartilaginous portion of the glottis open (sometimes called mutational chink), and only the front two-thirds of the vocal ligaments enter the vibration. The resulting sound, which is typical of many adolescents, may be pure and flutelike, but is usually soft and anemic in quality. In others, the full length of the glottis opens and closes in each cycle. In still others, a phenomenon known as damping appears, with the amount of glottal opening becoming less and less as the pitch rises, until only a tiny slit appears on the highest pitches. The mutational chink type of falsetto is considered inefficient and weak, but there is little information available about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the other two types.

The falsetto register in women

The issue of the female falsetto voice has been met with some controversy, especially among vocal pedagogists. Many books on the art of singing completely ignore this issue, simply gloss over it, or insist that women do not have falsetto. This controversy, however, does not exist within the speech pathology community and arguments against the existence of female falsetto do not align with current physiological evidence. Motion picture and video studies of laryngeal action reveal that women can and do produce falsetto, and electromyographic studies by several leading speech pathologists and vocal pedagogists provide further confirmation.

One possible explanation for this failure to recognize the female falsetto is the fact that the difference in timbre and dynamic level between the modal and falsetto registers often is not as pronounced in female voices as it is in male voices. This is due in part to the difference in the length and mass of the vocal folds and to the difference in frequency ranges. It is an established fact that women have a falsetto register and that many young female singers substitute falsetto for the upper portion of the modal voice. Some vocal pedagogists believe that this failure to recognize the female falsetto voice has led to the misidentification of young contraltos and mezzo-sopranos as sopranos, as it is easier for these lower voice types to sing in the soprano tessitura using their falsetto register.

Musical history

Use of falsetto voice in western music is very old. Its origins are difficult to trace because of ambiguities in terminology. In a book by GB Mancini, called Pensieri e riflessioni written in 1774, falsetto is equated with 'voce di testa' (translated as 'head voice'). Possibly when 13th century writers distinguished between chest, throat and head registers (pectoris, guttoris, capitis) they meant capitis to refer to what would be later called falsetto.

By the 16th century the term falsetto was common in Italy. The physician Giovanni Camillo Maffei in his book Discorso della voce e del modo d'apparare di cantar di garganta in 1562 explained that when a bass singer sang in the soprano range, the voice was called 'falsetto'.

The falsetto register is used by male countertenors to sing in the alto and occasionally the soprano range, and was before women sang in choirs. Falsetto is occasionally used by early music specialists today, and regularly in British cathedral choirs by men who sing the alto line.

In Opera it is believed that the chest voice, middle voice and head voice occur in women. The head voice of a man is, according to David A. Clippinger most likely equivalent to the middle voice of a woman. This may mean the head voice of a woman is a man's falsetto equivalent. Although, in contemporary teaching, some teachers no longer talk of the middle voice, choosing to call it the head voice as with men. Falsetto is not generally counted by classical purists as a part of the vocal range of anyone except countertenors. There are exceptions, however, such as the Bariton-Martin which uses falsetto (see baritone article).

In Hawai'i, many Hawaiian songs feature falsetto, called "leo ki'eki'e", a term coined in Hawaiian in 1973. Falsetto singing, most often used by men, extends the singer's range to notes above their ordinary vocal range. The voice makes a characteristic break during the transition from the ordinary vocal register to the falsetto register. In Western falsetto singing, the singer tries to make the transition between registers as smooth as possible. In Hawaiian-style falsetto, the singer emphasizes the break between registers. Sometimes the singer exaggerates the break through repetition, as a yodel. As with other aspects of Hawaiian music, falsetto developed from a combination of sources, including pre-European Hawaiian chanting, early Christian hymn singing and the songs and yodeling of immigrant cowboys during the Kamehameha Reign in the 1800s when cowboys were brought from Mexico to teach Hawaiians how to care for cattle. Falsetto may have been a natural and comfortable vocal technique for early Hawaiians, since a similar break between registers called "ha'iha'i", is used as an ornament in some traditional chanting styles.

There is a difference between the modern usage of the "head voice" term and its previous meaning in the renaissance as a type of falsetto, according to many singing professionals. The falsetto can be coloured or changed to sound different. It can be given classical styling to sound as male classical countertenors make it sound, or more contemporary as is the case in modern R&B music(Ronald Isley for example). It can be made in different tonalities as is often the case of its use in progressive rock (for example, Roger Taylor of Queen, Matt Bellamy of the band Muse and Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead), heavy metal (for example, King Diamond of Mercyful Fate), Penny Torture of Psychotherapy and especially power metal (for example, Michael Kiske(debated) of Helloween).

The falsetto voice in singing

Falsetto is more limited in dynamic variation and tone quality than the modal voice. Most trained singers have at least an octave of range that they can sing in either modal voice or falsetto. In this overlapping area a given pitch in modal voice will always be louder than the same pitch sung in falsetto. The type of vocal cord vibration that produces the falsetto voice precludes loud singing except in the highest tones of that register; it also limits the available tone colors because of the simplicity of its waveform. Modal voice is capable of producing much more complex waveforms and infinite varieties of tone color. Falsetto, however, does involve less physical effort by the singer than the modal voice and, when properly used, can make possible some lovely tonal effects.

That being said, the falsetto voice has a number of highly specialized uses within a musical context. The following list includes the most common ones:

* in male choirs, to enable the first tenors to maintain the very demanding tessitura.
* in yodeling
* for comic effect in both operas and musicals
* by some lyric (Irish) tenors, folk singers, and so forth
* by falsettists or countertenors
* for pitches which are above the range of the modal register
* for pianissimo tones that would be difficult to execute in the modal register
* for vocal development

Falsetto voice in speech

The ability to speak within the falsetto register is possible for almost all men and women. The use of such speech, however, is uncommon, and is usually employed within the context of humor, as in the Saturday Night Live sketch "Barry Gibb Talk Show". One notable exception, however, concerns those cultures in which falsetto is consciously or unconsciously maintained as a form of social distinction amongst women, notably in the bourgeois French speech patterns of the beaux-quartiers of Paris and provincial cities of central France. Some people, however, speak frequently or entirely in the falsetto register. This behavior is identified by speech pathologists as a type of functional dysphonia. The term is also used to describe a slightly artificially-raised sounding pitch that often occurs momentarily, if repeatedly, in boys during puberty as their voice changes.


Further reading

  • Appell, Thomas (1993). Can You Sing a HIGH C Without Straining?. VDP.

See also

External links

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