You’ve heard the phrases, “chest voice” and “head voice”. They get thrown around in singing lessons and choirs quite a lot. But if we are not careful, they can be overused terms which are never properly explained. So, what do they mean?
Chest voice is that full, low sound that you belt out when you sing rock songs in the shower. It is not quiet or polite. It is a loud, bombastic sound that, when used properly, makes your chest reverberate. It’s the bit of your voice that you use when you sing the bit of McCartney’s “The Frog Chorus” that goes “Bom, bom, bom” (incidentally, the Head Voice is the bit that you go, “Aye-i-aye” with at the end of the “Bom, bom, bom” bit…). It is powerful, low and often easier to control. If you are a bloke, then a huge amount of what you sing will be in chest voice. It is also known as your “heavy register”, which I think is very descriptive – the voice does, indeed, sound and feel much heavier. When you sing like this, your vocal folds (the muscles that control the sound you make – pictured in the animation in this post) are quite relaxed and thick – the whole of the vocal muscle is involved in this register.
Head voice is lighter and higher, and often referred to as “falsetto”. If you are unused to singing in this voice it will feel odd, and possibly as though you are pretending to sing opera, rather than singing in your “natural voice”. It is important to understand that it is your natural voice as well – I often use the trick of getting an entire choir to “put on a silly operatic voice” and then asking them to sing. The result is *always* excellent. Once a singer is over the idea of “the real voice” and “the fake voice”, it opens up possibilities of using both, even dramatically swooping between the two (listen to Dolores O’Riordan for an excellent example of this). When you sing in your falsetto voice, your vocal folds are stretched thinner and tighter, and only the edges of them vibrate. This makes a higher/lighter sound (the tighter the folds, the higher the note), but is generally quieter, with less volume variation than the heavy register.
In normal repertoire, female singers are expected to use both chest and head voices, whilst men are routinely expected to only use their lower, heavy, chest register. There is no reason why men should not use their higher register, and indeed Counter-Tenors use it to great effect.
To hear the difference between your registers, try singing a note which should appear in both – something around middle C will work for many people. Try belting it out in your lower voice, and then add a little breath and try it in your “fake opera” voice, smoothing out any vibrato/wobble as best you can.
Pay attention to how it feels, and how it sounds. Does it sound different to your ear?
Now try singing a song which extends above the range that you normally feel comfortable in. When you feel you’ve run out of voice and can’t go any higher, try swapping to the “fake opera” voice, smoothing out the worst of the wobble and see what happens. Any extra notes there that you hadn’t suspected?