Head Voice vs Falsetto: What's the Difference?

Head Voice vs Falsetto

For centuries, there has been confusion about the terms head voice and falsetto. And it’s for good reason: these words are very confusing and lead singers to believe things are happening outside of their voice.

With the help of modern science, we know that in head voice, the voice is not really coming from the top of the head. And falsetto is not actually false; it’s actually a very real and useful sound.

So let’s talk about the difference between the falsetto and head voice and more importantly, learn how to use them in singing.

Head Voice vs Falsetto: What’s the Difference?

I’m fond of saying that for every voice teacher, there is a different vocal technique. And when we’re talking about how to sing using falsetto, different vocal techniques label things differently.

This creates confusion in the student and they begin to mislabel what’s really happening in the voice.

Such differences in definitions of the falsetto voice and head voice are bound to become a stumbling block for a beginning singer. So here’s the clearest explanation of the difference between head voice and falsetto that I have found.

Falsetto Voice Definition

Falsetto is a mode of singing that’s characterized by a breathy, flutey and hollow sounding tone. It’s usually found in the upper registers of male and female singers.

falsetto

We’ve all heard someone sing in falsetto voice at some point in our lives. Some of the time, the breathy quality of falsetto is used for effect to sound otherworldly and beautiful or young.

Some of my favorite singers have used falsetto for effect.

Falsetto Voice Examples:

Father John Misty (on “Me”)

John Legend (on “All”)

Adele (on “Tell”)

Other times, falsetto is the result of the voice breaking that is completely undesired.

We’ve all heard this too. The voice cracks as it is rising and a breathy, flutey quality is all we hear, usually with a drop in volume.

But in order to completely understand how the voice disconnects falsetto, we need to talk about what’s happening in falsetto voice in the vocal mechanism.

The Mechanics of Falsetto Voice

When we sing, the vocal folds (or cords) are coming together to vibrate. This vibration is caused by resistance to the air coming from your lungs. This vibration is rich in harmonic frequencies and creates the raw material of singing.

falsetto

There are 3 modes in which the vocal folds can resist air from the lungs and they result in 3 different sounds.

  1. Pressed Phonation – Pressed phonation is when there is an excessive amount of resistance to air at the vocal fold level. Since the cords are pushing hard against the air from your lungs, the resulting sound is “pressed” with a bright metallic tone.
  2. Breathy Phonation – Breathy phonation is a mode where there is a lack of resistance to air flow at the vocal folds. Since the vocal cords aren’t pushing to resist the air, breath escapes and the sound is “breathy” with a flute-like tone.
  3. Flow Phonation – Flow phonation is the perfect balance of air and muscle at the vocal folds. The vocal cords are neither pushing nor giving too much so the sound is neither too pressed or breathy. But it’s still strong and resonant.

Which Vocal Mode is Falsetto?

If you’re still awake, you may be able to take a good guess which of these modes falsetto voice falls under.

Falsetto voice is nothing more than a breathy phonation in the higher register of your voice. It’s caused by a lack of resistance to air by the vocal folds and it causes a flutey, breathy tone.

So how does this happen?

Often when a singer is straining and too pressed in their singing, the muscles in the vocal folds can simply “give up” and disconnect. So rather than having an even, balanced tone at the top, the voice goes from pressed to too breathy.

falsetto

Alternatively, a voice that starts breathy isn’t resisting the air from your lungs well to begin with so they will lose even more resistance in the higher register. This can also result in falsetto.

Head Voice in Singing

So, if Falsetto is a breathy mode of singing at the top part of the voice, what is head voice in singing?

Head voice is simply a balanced or “flow phonation” at the top part of the voice, or head voice range.

This means that Falsetto and Head Voice are simply two different ways of approaching the same note. One breathy (falsetto) and one with a balanced tone (head voice).

falsettoYou can hear the difference. Check out these examples of head voice for men:

Sam Smith (on “Money on my”)

Freddie Mercury (on “to”)

Paul McCartney (on the 2nd “be”)

In these examples, you can tell that the singer has chosen a more balanced tone for the top of their voice than the breathy falsetto. There’s a lot more power and there’s no breathiness in the tone!

Sounds great, right?!

So let’s talk about how to get that sound.

How to Sing in Head Voice

As we discussed earlier, falsetto is simply a lack of resistance at the vocal folds to air from the lungs. Sometimes, it can be caused by a breathy voice on the bottom. It can also be caused by too much strain and pressure at the cords that results in the vocal folds simply “giving up”. In either case falsetto is the result.

No matter which situation you find yourself in, the name of the game is finding a balanced resistance at the vocal folds. And that means finding anything thicker than falsetto on those top notes.

In the case of the breathy voice coming from the bottom, the first thing we would need to learn to do is help them find a bit more resistance to the air from the lungs. Then we could take this sound upwards.

I like to use a bratty “Nae” (as in “Nasty”) on a shorter scale to accomplish this. Then we can start to bring the scale up to the falsetto register. This can result in finding a balanced head voice at the top.

In the case of the heavy voice that breaks, the first thing we need to do is help them get rid of the excess weight and resistance in the vocal folds. Then we could begin to take this sound upwards.

I like to use a bratty “Nay” (as in “Neighbor”) on a long scale to accomplish this. This will naturally reduce the weight that was causing the falsetto. Reducing the weight and resistance even a little can result in finding a balanced head voice at the top.

A Few things to Note About Falsetto

I think it’s important to remember that falsetto is a perfectly legitimate sound. Just because it is associated with voice “breaks” or “cracks” does not mean that it is bad or must be avoided completely.

As we’ve seen, there are many successful artists that use it for effect. However, in the end, we want to ensure that we are capable of both a “balanced” head voice and “breathy” falsetto at the top part of our voice. It’s important that we are not just defaulting to falsetto because we can’t find head voice.

If you feel that you’ve been doing the exercises in this article correctly and are still struggling to find your head voice technique, consider booking a trial free lesson. We will make sure to do some great head voice warm ups so that you can find balance.

2 Comments

  • by Oblomov Posted September 8, 2017 9:14 pm

    Hi, I’m curious, can we belt with the head voice? I mean if it’s complete with a balanced twang, effective vowel modification toward open sounds and strong adductions. I found indeed many rounded belting in the Bb4 D5 range roughly or higher, sometimes to F5 or even G5, sung by men or women with low voices, which resemble very closely the belting of women soul singer with higher voice, or in general the fullness and roundness more typical of women belting. But it’s clear that, rightly so they changed register with respect of what they do with say their E4 and F4 belting zone. They use less vocal mass and that’s good and healthy, but keep the compression. While women with higher voices, of course, likely can get to such notes with their full folded mix. No one is worse or better for that, a higher voice simply sheds mass higher and even for them good results are not granted easily. Also I think that at F5 and above even most female belting is adducted and twanged light mass phonation like men’s (which of course further thins out proportionately).
    Bottom line is, can you sing very high belts in head voice, without distortion? Thank you very much.

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted September 14, 2017 10:56 am

      Great question!
      From a laryngeal and acoustic perspective, belting is “yelling skillfully” which is not technically a head voice registration.
      While singers are usually belting in the head voice area, they’re using the larger vocal fold configuration found in chest voice. It’s just that you’re able to thin the folds enough (through twang and vowel) in order to achieve the correct pitch.

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