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  • Writer's pictureKaren Kitterman

DID YOU KNOW?? Some of our vocal terms are over 500 years old.


Navigating Vocal Terms

Before we begin, I have a rule. General rules apply of course (read all my words, laugh at all my jokes…don’t skip ahead), but this additional rule of conduct is of utmost importance.

Be careful with name-calling

What you call something can be very limiting. It can limit the way you see it and understand it. It can also limit what you feel you can do with it. As you continue your journey into the singing world, you will see many different names for different types of voices. Why so many names, you ask? Throughout history, as pedagogues started to dissect the voice, they noticed more subtle facets, and one name suddenly becomes insufficient to describe what is heard— it becomes too limiting. Let me give you an example of this:

If I tell you you are a tenor, you will spend the rest of your life believing it so, never daring to take on a baritone role, because that is not allowed, because you are a tenor.

In actuality, you just so happened to be using a tenory-ish sort of vocal configuration. We all have a default. That does not for a second mean we can’t move out of it. Why do you think they have come up with terms like lyric tenor, lyric baritone, bari-tenor? Voices started sneaking out of the bounds that defined them! So what did we do? We created more boxes. With names. Name-calling boxes.

A term needs to describe what is occurring without limiting future outcomes. It is a tricky business writing terms, but if we can all collectively agree to watch for boxes and vague associations, we will be the better for it in the end.


Head and Chest:

These terms are used most generally to describe high and low tones. High tones are created with the head voice, low tones are created with the chest voice. (This definition most closely describes navigating the male vocal fach). These terms can also be used to describe a quality of sound. When singing in “head voice,” tones will sound light and thin, and low pitches will be weak. When singing in “chest voice,” low notes will be strong and rich; high notes may be strained; belting is possible in this configuration. (This definition most closely describes navigating the female vocal fach).

These definitions are by no means complete, nor are they necessarily scientific. I simply ask mobs of people how they understand head and chest voice, then I compile lists and lists of answers, and find these general statements to be the most common.

I have nothing but appreciation for how far these terms have taken us, but perhaps the time has come to update our records. These terms are, after all, over 500 years old. (This is not to say these early pedagogues truly believed you could actually produce sound in your chest or head, but science in those days was not at its most sound. )


— Science in the 1500 and 1600s was dominated by the church. Famous physician John Ardeme, who serviced royalty, treated kidney stones by smearing honey and pigeon feathers on the patient’s stomach. For general illness, it was commonly recommended to show your love to God and drink holy water. —


The terms “head” and “chest” truly are that old. In 1592, Lodovico Zacconi, a singing maestro, wrote about two different types of voices he noticed in singers. He describes them as separate and disconnected as if originating from two entirely different places. In his treatise, Prattica di musica, he refers to the two types of voices as voce di petto (chest voice) and voce di testa (head voice). (Zacconi, 1952, 56.)

Note that the origin of the terms head voice and chest voice were in the context of an all-male choir. If we were to make a general statement about this, we could say: most men have strong, full voices in low range, and have a difficult time reaching high notes. These notes can come out breathy and strained; they may even sound false.

Falsetto, like head and chest voice, has many associations, but most generally speaking, it is used to describe male high notes that do not sound balanced. If we look at its origins, we will see this is precisely how it was first used.

In 1602, Giulio Caccini, wrote of falsetto in his singing manifesto Le nuove musiche. He also agreed with the concept of two registers (voices): voce piena e naturale (full and natural voice) and voce finta (feigned voice or falsetto). Caccini went on to describe the voce finta as breathy and lacking nobility. (Caccini 1970, 56)

Caccini used these terms as a replacement for head and chest—not to describe yet another type of voice. Male head voice and falsetto are synonymous. We now tend to use the term falsetto to differentiate between male high notes that are breathy, and male high notes that are strong. Consider a voice like Sam Smith or Bruno Mars— both have very rich sounding high notes—they don’t sound strained or false.

Voix Mixte (Mixed voice)

Initially used to describe a tenor’s upper notes that did not seem to be as breathy as falsetto, this term was later used to describe a thicker quality that female voices seemed to be able to achieve. (Note: a tenor’s high notes are a female singer’s middle-low notes.) Though there were female singers in and around the stage, they were far outnumbered by men and castrati. It was not until around 1830 that the female voice figures very strongly into any singing treatises.

The terms head and chest voice were applied to women, however, it was considered extremely dangerous for sopranos to use chest voice. (Zucker, 1998). The fear was, if you managed to make the “switch” into chest, you would never return.

The Switch

Perhaps you too have observed a switch that occurs in your singing. We are all equipped with a default laryngeal position, or speech setting. Navigating away from this “default” setting can be likened to a marathon runner handing off a baton, or a car changing gears—unless you are very skilled with the clutch, there is going to be a hitch when you change over.

This hitch is what our “head/chest” terminology was attempting to explain. Voice jargon additionally uses terms like passaggio and register break to try to further explain this feeling of going to a different place, or accessing a different voice.

TA/CT Dominance

One of the recent additions science has given singing is the concept of TA and CT dominance. The TA (the thyroarytenoid muscle) and the CT (the cricothryoid muscle) are responsible for pulling the vocal folds into different lengths and thicknesses to create different pitches and vocal qualities. The place at which the muscles have to hand off dominance to one another is the hitch we sense in our singing. Additionally, the TA and the CT are innervated from two completely different sources. This is likely why we have the concept of two completely different voices.

FAQ: Is TA dominance chest voice and CT dominance head voice? Not quite. Their functions are a little more complex than that. It is safe to say that scientists and pedagogues collectively do not agree on a theory for what TA and CT dominance actually mean. A study in 2008 determined that CT muscle activity and TA muscle activity are not consistent with head/chest register production. Many of the mid-range pitches can be sung in either setting. The important distinction is that we are referring to the source of the sound, rather than the space in which it resonates. It would be inaccurate to think that by “moving sound” from your chest to your head that you could significantly change it. (Jennings, 2008)

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