Chest Voice, Head Voice & Mix Voice - Oh My!
The different “voices” and what they really mean.
Okay, for the record, you only have one voice. Head voice, chest voice, mix, falsetto, whistle, and belt… they’re all terms for sounds that correspond to different coordinations in your vocal tract and at the vocal cord level.
Chest voice is what more people use when speaking. It is most often used in the low to mid part of our range, and is created when using a thicker or heavier coordination in the vocal cords. Cord closure in chest voice is deeper. This will make more sense in a moment.
Head voice is often used in the higher part of your singing range. It’s often described as a “thinner” or “smaller” cord closure, though you CAN get a lot of fullness in your head voice if you use it the right way.
The Anatomical Difference
As we sing higher, the vocal cords get thinner. When we return to lower notes, they get thicker. (Think about stretching a rubber band. It’s not an exact parallel but it provides a good visual.)
Your vocal cords need to do this because as we sing higher, our vocal cords vibrate faster. On a middle C, your vocal cords are vibrating about 260 times per second. A soprano high C means that the vocal cords are vibrating around 1100 times per second.
Let’s get rid of a zero and create an analogy we can actually wrap our heads around: Clap 26 times in 15 seconds. Totally do-able. Now try to clap 110 times in that 15 seconds. Not so easy.
Now, touch the fingertips of one hand to the fingertips of your other hand. You might be able to do this 110 times in that 15 seconds, or at least get way more reps in than clapping. (I totally tried but my fingertips were moving faster than I could count, haha!)
So head voice sounds thinner because your vocal cords ARE actually thinner. *Mindblown*
For lots more on head voice and delightful GIFs of Ken’s hands doing the fingertip thing, visit Ken’s article here.
Mixed voice is what you mostly hear on the radio and in contemporary musical theater. It’s how singers can sound big and full on high notes. They sound so full on those high notes we think they’re singing in chest voice. But they’re not. They’re mixing.
How do we know that? Remember the clapping we did just a moment ago? There comes a point when singing in chest voice no longer provides a… pleasing… sound and may make our voices tired. We should try mixing instead!
Mix is, appropriately, a mix of head voice and chest voice. If head voice is red and chest voice is blue, mix is purple.
So in order to build a strong mix, you need to build your chest voice AND your head voice. (You can’t get purple if you only have blue, right?) If you’re a contemporary singer who’s neglected their head voice, time to focus on that. Similarly, if you’re a classical singer who’s only worked in head voice, give chest voice a try!
And yes, everyone can mix, even if you have a big “voice break.” See mythbusting in an upcoming section!
Belt, or “Belting”
Y’all, it’s just a strong Mix.
Musical Theatre disclaimer: Directors will expect two different sounds from “mix” and “belt.” It’s basically all mixing. But to directors, a mix is more of a princess-y type sound: clear but strong, leaning toward head voice (using the color analogy above, more of a reddish-purple). A belt is more, well, belty (a bluish-purple, if you will).
If you’re in an audition and they ask you to belt, do not try to push/pull/strain chest voice higher. Do a strong mix. They will likely hear a belt and be happy.
If they’re not happy and specifically ask for chest voice and more of a yell-y sound… we recommend against it, or to only do so sparingly. It may be attainable for some, but not sustainable.
99.7% of the time, when someone asks you to sing “in falsetto,” they mean head voice. That said, different people use these terms in different ways.
To us, falsetto means a lack of cord closure (a little more of a breathy sound), whereas head voice implies cord closure. Head voice can be connected smoothly to chest voice, whereas transitioning to/from falsetto will involve a “flip” or “break.”
I can’t stress enough, though, that most people use the terms falsetto and head voice interchangeably.
For examples of falsetto vs. head voice, visit Ken’s head voice article.
Whistle Voice/Whistle Tones
These are the crazy crazy high notes that Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande are famous for. They sound like whistles.
Here’s what’s really crazy though. We don’t anatomically know how they do it. Using vocal scopes, we know for sure how the vocal cords work to produce different pitches and change from chest voice to head voice… but once we move from head voice to whistle, there’s no discernible scientific difference.
That said, whistle voice isn’t available to everybody, and we only have limited experience exploring it. THAT said, the higher you sing, the faster the cords are vibrating. This increase in speed can tire the voice more quickly. If you are looking to explore this part of your voice further, find a qualified coach who can help you!
This is when the edges of the vocal cords come together lightly to create a “groggy” sound. This can be a useful tool in getting cord closure as long as you stay relaxed while trying it. If you’re “forcing” vocal fry, you’re doing it wrong.