An Introduction to Understanding Head Voice and Chest Voice

This past week, I was poking around the internet, searching for ideas for thoughtful and helpful content to give you, my wonderful reader (yes, you!), and I happened upon this tweet.

That’ll work.

After I got over my initial singer/teacher rage over the problematic nature of this tweet from a pedagogical standpoint, I decided the best course of action was to make this week’s post a calm and rational discussion of the larger issue packed within these 140 characters.

I want to make my intentions clear and what I think of this tweet. I don’t think he’s wrong. I think he’s misleading. I also happen to believe that this is intentional so that people will follow him, and it’s probably working. But the semantics of his statement is problematic on a pedagogical level. So in this post, I plan to explain the nature of head voice and chest voice, why his statement is problematic, and offer an alternative statement to captivate without misleading.

 

Understanding head voice and chest voice in singing can be difficult. This post will help you understand better!

 

Before I begin my explanation of head voice and chest voice, I have to give him credit on two counts. First, it’s true that there is not literally a head voice and a chest voice. Second, we do literally only have one voice contained within the larynx. But let’s consider the larynx itself some more, shall we?

 

First of all, the larynx is the house of the vocal folds (also known as vocal cords), made up of cartilage and various muscles. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll talk only about the two primary muscles involved in “head voice” and “chest voice”: The thyroarytenoid muscle and the cricothyroid muscle. The next image will give you a view of the inside, from the top looking down, to discuss the first muscle.

Courtesy of imgarcade.com

From imgarcade.com

Here is the inside of the larynx, where we find the vocal folds and the first muscle we’ll discuss: the thyroarytenoid muscle. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this the TA muscle. As you can see by the arrows, this muscle contracts inwards, resulting in thicker vocal folds and lower pitches. Now, let me explain the other muscle.

 

Courtesy of imgarcade.com

From imgarcade.com

 

 

This muscle is called the cricothyroid muscle, shown through a side view of the larynx. Let’s call this one the CT muscle. As you can see through these arrows and the dotted line, when the muscle contracts, it pulls the vocal folds forward, resulting in thinner folds and higher pitches.

 

 

The resulting sounds are much like the sounds a rubber band makes when it is pulled tighter or looser. The tighter and thinner a rubber band becomes, the higher the pitch goes. The thicker a rubber band becomes, the lower the pitch goes.

 

What does all of this have to do with our head and our chest? Well, these terms came about because when we sing higher pitches, we tend to feel vibrations in our head, and when we sing lower pitches, we feel vibrations in our chest. Talking about head and chest voice is a way to describe the result of healthy muscular action. Furthermore, mixed voice is when these two muscles are working at the same time, which often results in feeling resonance primarily in our face (or the “mask” in singing terms).

 

So perhaps what this tweet was trying to say was that we do not create a head voice and a chest voice. These terms are a result of good vocal technique. And I would agree on that front. However, if he wanted to say that, this would have made a better tweet:

We do not create head and chest voice. These sensations are a result of good technique. #singing Click To Tweet

 

He sort of eludes to that by tagging on “together with a resonating system” at the end, but the result of the tweet is most likely a belief that head and chest voice don’t exist at all, rather than they exist differently than a new student might initially believe. Furthermore, each student will respond differently to various teaching methods, including metaphors. The terms “head voice” and “chest voice” will work much better for some than others. Some may get stuck in the literal-ness of it, deeming the terms unhelpful, while others will instantly relate the sensations and find a balanced sound in no time.

 

If I am right in believing he is creating shock value and simplicity in order to draw attention to his work, he’s picked an irresponsible way to do so. He has over 600 followers, and there are many misguided people out there who look to the internet for vocal training. To declare a statement such as this one as absolute truth does no service to his followers. Many of them may wind up taking lessons someday and find themselves unable to learn healthy, balanced registration and resonance because they were mislead by a tweet.

 

With all of that said, what do you think about the terms “head voice” and “chest voice”? How do you explain these issues to your students? How do you think of them yourself? This is certainly a complicated issue within vocal technique, and I hope this post helped to start the discussion and learning process for your students.

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  • Jennifer McCutchen Rose

    Hi – I just came across your article and suggest to you that you might be interested in reading some of the research done on children’s voices by Valerie Trollinger. She is where I have heard the suggestion that there is no head voice and chest voice. I thought you might be interested.

    • Angela Davis

      where does one read this research? I’m interested

    • Hi Jennifer – thank you so much for your message! I look forward to reading this research, and I thank you for sharing a link to where we can find it.

      I would like to clarify that this post is geared towards adult voices as a prepubescent child’s voice has not developed to the point of discussing registration in these terms. I address this indirectly in Operaversity’s post, “Teaching Voice Lessons for Young Kids,” which you can find here: http://operaversity.com/teaching/voice-lessons-for-young-kids

  • Jennifer McCutchen Rose

    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/10483713070200030105

    Hopefully this link will help you get started.