HOW THE VOICE WORKS:
From the Vocal Release Singing Manual
by Eric Frey
© 2002 Eric Frey. Printed with permission. All Rights Reserved.
Click here for more information on Eric's Vocal Release program.
If you've never sung before or even if you have but never knew the physical mechanics behind singing, it is fundamental that you know exactly what is happening. If you're just starting out, you should be reading this first. When I took vocal lessons, it always baffled me as to why, on my first lesson, my vocal coach did not make it a point to make sure I understood what was happening in my throat. This in itself would have saved me time and aggravation. After all, you can't be asked to try to accomplish something if you don't know what it is you're trying to accomplish. If you chose to take vocal lessons, be very dubious of a coach who cannot tell you what makes the voice work correctly. Just because someone can sing well doesn't mean they can teach you to do the same. With that said, on to the mechanics of it.
In an ideal circumstance, a voice has no registers. It is one smoothed out instrument from lowest pitch to highest pitch. The singer moves without flipping or breaking, without noticeable shifts to the listener. But most people do not have a smoothed out voice without breaks. The terminology of breaks and registers was brought about to describe singers who's voices had gaps in between the different tonal parts of their voice. So, as this is an accepted terminology, I'll describe the different registers for you from lowest to highest.
There is some argument among instructors as to whether or not this is an actual register as it can be used to add a raspy sound to other registers. It is commonly accepted that it is the lowest, so we'll just start here. Vocal fry is more of a style thing. By putting less amount of air on the cords than is needed for a clear tone of the pitch you are going for, the tone breaks up and becomes a rasp. Used on lower pitches, which it usually is, you can end up sounding like the cartoon character, Elmer Fudd. Stylistically, it is often used to slide into a phrase or trail off. To do the vocal fry, put very little air over your cords - just enough to make the slightest sound without going into a whisper or becoming airy. It kind of sounds like the sound most people make when they are sleeping and someone nudges them to get up when they don't want to. You put just barely enough air over the cords to make them move. When you master this, you can add it to your regular range for a great raspy sound without hurting your voice. This is great for rock and roll. But be warned - once you start down this road, it may be hard to get a clear tone if you practice like this all the time. Everyone comes down to muscle memory. Vocal fry is the only way to add a screaming sound to singing without hurting your voice and limiting your range. What someone usually does when they want to scream in a song is clench their throat and force out the broken up tone. This practice is very damaging to a singing voice. Vocal fry, used well, has a smoother sound than this, but still lends itself well to a raspy or rock and roll sound.
This is usually the voice most people talk in. When you sing in your chest voice, the cords are all the way apart. Air flows over the whole length of them. As the name would imply, this is a deep, full sound. Generally in church or choir singing, men sing in chest voice. Most of the resonance is felt below the cords in the upper chest and comes straight out of the mouth without stopping at the back of the pallet or the mask. Once you reach a point in your chest voice that you can no longer go any higher without forcing it, you should be shifting to middle voice. Although after you train your voice and learn to control resonance, you can produce a chest voice that has resonant qualities similar to middle and head voice. That is, resonance sounding up through the back palate or mask.
This is also known as a mixed voice. If cord adducting is done correctly, once you reach the limit of your chest voice, you shift to middle voice. Some coaches don't believe in a middle voice. These teachers generally teach choirs or church singing. Most of the ones I've run into taught that lower range notes should be sung in chest and higher ranges in head voice. While this is just fine for church or choir, if you try to join a group or become a diva type of singer, you will be laughed at. Middle voice is the commercial voice that performers are going for whether they know it or not. It has the best qualities of both chest and head voice. A very strong middle voice will resonate not only below the cords in the upper chest, but also above them into the back palate and the mask. It is very resonant and has a high output. When you watch singers and they are hitting high, full notes with apparently little strain, it is because they have smoothed out their range and when they go up, they switch to middle voice.
Once middle has reached its limit, the cords are zipped up further and the voice reaches head. As the name implies, most of the resonance is felt in the head with little felt in the chest and hardly any in the back of the pallet. Most of it comes up through the mouth into the middle of the pallet and through the mask (the mask being the feeling of pressure behind the nose and the eyes). This is usually the voice you will break into while trying to smooth out your bridges. It is the voice a lot of women sing in within church choirs. It sounds light and a bit hollow, like a flute. If you really feel the need to sing this high, it is possible to develop a mixed head voice.
Again, this voice is more of a style thing. It sounds just like a shrill whistle. It is the voice Mariah Carey uses when she hits the top of her range. To accomplish this, your vocal cords have to be very flexible and you have to be great at zipping up your cords. The cords are zipped up almost all the way, yet still open just enough to let the whistle out. Again, less air is used as you go up, making this register even harder to coordinate. Not only do you have to adduct, but you also have to find the right amount of air pressure to perform the whistle while not forcing apart your cords with air. If you are determined to get this voice, do not force it. Just keep zipping up as far as you can and use very little air. Eventually you'll be able to keep your cords together and put enough air over them to produce the sound. Keep in mind that some people are very annoyed by this voice. Most people prefer to hear middle voice. So if you can do it, don't OVER do it. A little goes a long way. To sing higher, you must always relax, release, and cut down on pressure. This is because the cords are shortening. Less cord takes less air to sound them. It's sort of a riddle. If singing is done correctly, as you go higher in pitch and get more resonant, little physical effort is exerted even though it may look as though it takes more. Many good singers act a little when they sing, making facial expressions that give the impression of a great effort or the classic raising of the hand for the high note. When trying for pitches at the extreme top end of your range, do not force them. When you start, make the feeling in your cords very small. Back it off to the point where you are making almost no sound at all, but still hitting a high pitch. This will allow your cords to move into an extremely shortened position. Then gradually add more air and resonance and try to keep the cord position without breaking into falsetto or going whispery.
This is also known as "false voice". If you've ever been in a car singing or listened to someone sitting next to you singing along to the radio hitting the pitch but not with any power or resonance, they are usually singing in falsetto or false voice. This is the voice most people break into when they don't know how to go up in pitch with their voice and are just singing along. Falsetto is not really a register, but again, a style thing. It uses the outer edges of the vocal cords producing a light tone. Falsetto is often used in R&B at the end of phrases. It has very little resonance and often times is whispery. A good or bad example of falsetto, depending upon your taste, is the Bee Gees. Falsetto is often used by backup singers as it does sound good behind a real voice.
Eric Frey has spent fifteen years coming up with the Vocal Release system, a program specifically designed to help those who want to sing in the rock and pop style, sing better and with less wear and tear on their voices. He started singing when he was fifteen, having the usual adolescent dreams of becoming a rock star overnight. After about two years of thrashing his voice with poor vocal technique, he decided to take singing seriously. He started taking lesson with every coach he could find and bought every program and book on singing he could get his hands on. Far too many of them insisted that the classical approach was the only proper way to learn good technique and proper control. Fortunately, he had sense enough not to try and apply operatic style singing to the rock bands he was in. But he did learn every exercise that was useful. He kept those and threw out all the outdated exercises. His approach has been streamlined into his program. For more information on his unique approach to vocal training,visit the Vocal Release website.