At MusicalExpert, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Falsetto, often translated as a "false voice," is a vocal technique that allows male singers to perform notes ordinarily out of their natural range. Essentially, it pulls the male singer's voice out of the chest and into the head, which is traditionally what helps female sopranos hit their highest notes. Some male singers only use falsetto to reach a few high notes before returning to their natural chest and throat voices, but a few can actually sing entire songs using this controlled technique.
The use of falsetto has been traced back to at least the Middle Ages, although early music theorists used the term almost interchangeably with "head voice." Both men and women working in the field of opera were trained to use falsetto, although it was more common to hear trained male countertenors use it whenever female sopranos were either not available or else not permitted to perform. Male bass singers also used the technique sparingly when asked to perform notes in the high tenor range.
In modern music, the use of falsetto became very prominent during the 1950s, as a form of a capella music called "doo wop" became popular among the younger generation. Doo wop groups were almost entirely composed of a bass, baritone, lead tenor and first tenor, much like Southern gospel quartets of the time. The first tenor of a typical doo wop group often learned how to sing entirely in falsetto, which served as a melodic counterpoint to the lead tenor's straightforward delivery. While the first tenor would sing extremely high notes, the bass would counter with deep runs of his own.
A song by the Tokens, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," featured a straight falsetto performance from beginning to end. Singer Frankie Valli spent most of his singing career using an unusually powerful falsetto, as witnessed in the song "Walk Like a Man." Other singers such as Roy Orbison would use this technique in combination with an impressive natural chest voice. Generating power and maintaining tone in the head voice is notoriously difficult, but trained rock vocalists often learn how to switch into it just before hitting the highest notes of their songs.
It is important to note that head voice and falsetto, although often used interchangeably, are two different methods of vocal production that involve totally different laryngeal articulations. Falsetto resembles chest voice articulation, using the entire length of the vocal fold (minus the glottis), except in falsetto the vocal folds do not fully come together when producing sound, allowing a greater amount of airflow, which gives the voice a breathy quality. Head voice involves "zipping up" the vocal folds part of the length to give a sort of shorter, tighter arrangement. This looks (from view of a laryngoscope) completely different from falsetto, and although some operatic schools interchange head voice and falsetto, it is a merely an old falsehood that wasn't scientifically debunked until laryngoscopes came into play.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is falsetto and how does it differ from a regular singing voice?
Falsetto is a vocal register that occupies the frequency range just above the modal voice register (the regular speaking or singing voice) and overlaps with the lower part of the whistle register. It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords, in whole or in part, and typically results in a higher pitch and a lighter, airy tone. Unlike the modal voice, which uses the full vocal fold, falsetto's sound is created with a much thinner airstream and less vocal fold mass, giving it a distinct timbre and allowing singers to reach notes beyond their normal range.
Can both men and women sing in falsetto, and is there a difference in their falsetto range?
Yes, both men and women can sing in falsetto, although it is more commonly associated with male singers due to the stark contrast it creates with their typically lower modal voices. Women's falsetto is often referred to as "head voice," although there are some technical differences between the two. The falsetto range for men and women can vary widely among individuals, but men typically use falsetto to reach the higher notes that are above their modal voice range, while women might use it to achieve a certain timbre or vocal effect.
How can someone learn to sing in falsetto?
To learn to sing in falsetto, one should start by practicing gentle scales or sirens to find the falsetto 'break' in their voice. This is the point where the voice shifts from modal to falsetto register. Vocal exercises that focus on breath control and gradual pitch ascension can help. It's also beneficial to work with a vocal coach who can provide personalized guidance. Consistent practice is key, as is ensuring that the voice is not strained during the process. Vocal health should always be a priority.
What are some common uses of falsetto in music?
Falsetto is widely used across various music genres for its distinctive sound. In classical music, countertenors frequently employ falsetto to sing parts traditionally performed by castrati. In contemporary music, falsetto is often used in pop, R&B, and rock to add expressiveness and texture to songs. It can convey vulnerability or emotion, create a sense of ethereal or otherworldly atmosphere, and is also used to hit high notes that are not achievable in the modal voice for many singers.
Are there any risks associated with singing in falsetto?
Singing in falsetto is generally considered safe, but like any vocal technique, improper use can lead to strain or injury. Singers should avoid pushing too hard or using excessive tension, as this can cause vocal fatigue or damage. It's important to warm up the voice properly before singing in falsetto and to practice good vocal hygiene, such as staying hydrated and resting the voice when needed. If a singer experiences persistent discomfort or hoarseness, they should consult a vocal health professional.