What Are Vocal Registers?

What Are Vocal Registers?

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Registers are different ways of producing sound. There are higher and lower registers, and they all have various tone qualities. The vocal folds look and vibrate differently in the registers, which helps to determine what is being used. Since the way we use our vocal cords drastically changes between registers, shifting from one to the other without mixing tone qualities can cause uncomfortable transitions in your voice.


Chest Voice

The chest voice is the lower, heavier, and more powerful register. The name comes from the sensations you feel in your chest. Most people use it in everyday speech and especially when yelling. Physically, the vocal cords are thick and wedge-like. Aileen Quinn’s exclusive use of the chest voice when she sings “Tomorrow” in the movie musical “Annie” gives the impression she is just barely able to reach her top notes even though they are relatively low.

Head Voice

The head voice is the higher, lighter, and sweeter register. Sensations are felt in the head. Physically, the vocal folds lengthen and become tauter as the pitch rises, and the vocal cords vibrate faster. Choral singers tend to use more head voice than chest voice. The boy soprano, Peter Auty, uses head voice in his beautiful rendition of "Walking in the Air" for the animated short "The Snowman."


Though the "false voice" can be used by females, it is primarily associated with the very top register of the male voice. The vocal cords come together on the very edge, which makes it difficult to switch to another register without a large break or vocal shift. Countertenors are men who sing entirely in falsetto and typically sing in the same range as an alto. Their falsetto is stronger, more dynamic, and sometimes has even developed vibrato. You can hear several countertenors in the all-male group Chanticleer.

Whistle Register

The whistle, bell, or flute register is the highest register in the female voice and is rarely found in the male voice. Physically, the whistle register is the least understood. It is impossible to video record what happens, since the epiglottis closes over the larynx and blocks our view of the vocal cords. What we do know is only the smallest amounts of the vocal cords are used. These high pitches sound squeaky or bird-like. Sopranos hoping to sing above a high E or E6 should carefully develop the whistle register. Pop star Minnie Ripperton is known for introducing whistle register to popular music, while opera stars have used it for years to sing the highest notes of the famous "Queen of the Night Aria" from "Die Zauberflöte" or "The Magic Flute."

Vocal Fry

The vocal fry is the lowest register most commonly used by basses in chorus works that require very low notes. To produce the sound, the vocal cords relax and lengthen. The opening between the cords is small and loose. It is similar to the glottal attack, but air flows continuously through the cords and they "pop" or "fry" in a growling fashion.

The method is typically seen as unhealthy by speech pathologists. When used infrequently over a short time span, it can be a reliable method of extending the lower register up to an entire octave, though more commonly less than four whole notes. It has been said that the pop icons the Kardashians started a trend using vocal fry in speech.

Mixed or Modal Voice

When both the head and chest registers are used simultaneously, it is referred to as mixed voice. Great singers mix chest and head voice to create an unbroken transition between the two. Mixing registers also helps unify sound quality, so the entire range of the voice sounds similar. Physically, the vocal folds are constantly fluctuating. Singer Beyoncé is an example of someone who mixes her chest and head voice effectively.