Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What is the fundamental difference between head voice and falsetto in male singers? I think I know the answer, but I cannot be sure in its credibility, since all my self-researched knowledge comes from YouTube video lessons, internet articles, and the like. I also heard some very strange views on falsetto from people who have been supposedly studying music, that's why I would like to get a clear answer.

As far as I am concerned, the difference is in cord closure: that is, in head register the vocal cords are zipped up, leaving a narrow opening to vibrate, whereas in falsetto the vocal cords burst open. That's why we can hear a "flip" when a singer accidentally drifts into falsetto, because of this sharp change in chord coordination. Sound-wise, falsetto has an "airy" sound, and it usually starts with some "-h-h-h-" hiss before you can produce the actual note. Head voice, in contrast, has a clear ringing tone, it can also be produced at higher volume than falsetto. Even with my very limited vocal range, I can sing a light "-i-i-i-" with cords connected and easily start adding more volume, whereas when I sing it in falsetto, it's very quiet and "hissy" (although I can "hiss" higher notes in this register).

Please correct me if I got something wrong. As a case study, may I suggest "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, which, apparently, everyone considers to be sung in falsetto, but I have my own doubts, as it sounds rather "connected" at times (you can listen to the song here). Any other (better) examples would be fine too.

I decided to add some references to online resources where I picked up the notion described above:

  • Here is a link to a video lesson
  • And here is a link to an article by a different author
share|improve this question
Just checked the spelling of vocal 'chords', before someone else picks up on it, and , whilst it's not often used, it's not wrong... – Tim Jan 17 '14 at 15:57
That is never falsetto.Not that version.It's hardy a very high head voice. – Tim Jan 17 '14 at 16:16
@Tim, Oh... I never noticed that it's spelled as "cord" most of the time. Wiktionary says that it's a common misspelling, so I corrected it. Thanks. As to the song, I think it's not about how high it is on a chromatic scale, I think it's about how high it is relative to the singer's modal register. And a few notes in the song seem to be close to the higher end of his vocal range, so I was wondering whether they are sung in falsetto or head voice. E.g., I can sing D4 in falsetto, but it doesn't mean that D4 is a high note for other people. – Th334 Jan 20 '14 at 1:18
In contrast to the longer explanatory answers you're getting I think they are more-or-less the same and so the answer is just one word: training – dumbledad Jan 20 '14 at 7:41
Interestingly the Wikipedia article on the countertenor voice notes that: "it is generally acknowledged that a majority of countertenors sing with a falsetto vocal production for at least the upper half of this range, although most use some form of 'chest voice'" but goes on to note "In response to the (in his view) pejorative connotation of the term falsetto, Giles refuses to use it, calling the upper register 'head voice.'". I would love to see a detailed answer comparing 'head voice' and falsetto. – dumbledad Dec 14 '14 at 12:04
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Falsetto and chest voice are different mechanisms. Basically, falsetto stretches the vocal folds by lengthening the distance between their fixtures (the larynx mechanism is a rather complex contraption with various muscle groups changing the overall geometry). Chest voice, however, also involves tightening the muscles at the base of the vocal folds themselves, so it changes the consistency of the folds, not "just" their length. That makes it comparatively easy to achieve good closure but produces a number of harmonics. The pure falsetto action, in contrast, leaves the muscles in the folds alone, leading to a rather pure tone (bad for distinguishing vowels, actually). With practice, one can achieve good closure and a rich tone even with falsetto. As this requires the "falsetto configuration" of the larynx to be close to complete, good closure works best in the high range. Which means that the use of the full falsetto (rather than a more mixed head voice) works better for natural baritones or basses rather than the rare true tenor.

The larger larynx and larger involved forces make it advisable not to start too early with heavy training: the cartiledge forming the respective mechanism takes decades to fully harden (ossify) after mutation.

share|improve this answer
I'm sorry to tell you this, but I think you didn't read the question carefully (or didn't try to answer it). Compare the title of the question and your first sentence. It still has some useful information, so thanks anyway. Questions: 1) so do the vocal cords actually close in falsetto register? I thought they don't, as described in my question. 2) I didn't quite get your advice regarding training falsetto (last paragraph), but I'm almost certain that you didn't mean mutation by saying "mutation". Mutation is a change in DNA, and I don't think it can be caused by vocal training. – Th334 Jan 20 '14 at 1:22
1) the falsetto configuration of the larynx makes it harder to achieve vocal closure particularly in the lower range but that's not what is defining falsetto and may be overcome with training. 2) mutation, see – User8773 Jan 27 '14 at 12:36
I see. Technically, the usage of the word "mutation" is still incorrect as far as biology is concerned, but if it's a common thing to say among musicians, I have nothing against it :) – Th334 Feb 26 '14 at 23:42
I tried to correct 'cartiledge' to 'cartilage' but wasn't allowed to make such a small edit. – user12205 Jul 13 '15 at 11:39
@Th334 it's not a musical term; it's an anatomical term. Check out; only a few results are explicitly musical, and the first one is even a discussion of the genetics of laryngeal mutation. – phoog Dec 22 '15 at 19:39

I've never sang in a choir, but I have a friend in choir who told me that "falsetto" is the male equivalent of the female "head voice" (and that the male "full voice" is what "chest voice" is for females).

share|improve this answer
This kind of statements is exactly the reason I asked this question. To see references to the description I provided check my updated post, maybe they will make you question your friend's expertise :-) – Th334 Jan 17 '14 at 3:49

There's a lot of debate around the topic, I've heard that males have falsetto and head voice whereas women only have head voice; and I think in academic terms this is actually determined this way.

In the male situation, you are right, in falsetto the vocal chords are open and in head voice they are closed. I understand from dealing with lots of hardrock singers that head voice is an extension of the chest voice. I mean, both are your natural sounding voice, the only difference is that higher notes resonate in higher parts of the body (the head), while falsetto is a whole different thing.

In practical terms you should stick to results in the sound. Head voice sounds louder and stronger, and it's suitable for musical genres that demand the higher notes to be in louder dynamics. On the other hand, falsetto is more adequate when high notes are required to be executed in softer dynamics.

share|improve this answer

Basically it depends on what definition you are using. Most people nowadays when they talk about headvoice are really just talking about a non-breathy falsetto.

The old term headvoice though, meant what people are calling mixed voice now - staying in your chest or real voice but the resonance shifts to the head or "mixes".

I've made a detailed video about the differences between falsetto and headvoice, check it out here:

share|improve this answer

There are significant differences between falsetto and full that no one has discussed yet. 1 upper limit of range - most baritones find falsetto range extends much higher than their full voice. This is because of 2. To achieve the same pitch, the full voice needs twice as much tension in the larinx as falsetto. In the lower part of the falsetto range there is so little tension it is difficult to control. Crossing this break between full and falsetto without adjusting the tension (much) gives the yodelling technique. In my case, and I guess for a good yodeller, the flip in pitch is almost an exact octave with the same tension. To the instrument engineer in me, the octave is significant. Wind, brass or string instruments all show a similar octave flip for a given geometry. So if as a baritone I'm trying to sing a tenor line, my full voice is stretched to its limit at a top F but I can extend this by nearly another octave in falsetto. The problem for me is when the tune needs me to sing (nicely) through that break where the step change in tension is required. Some guys - Cliff Richard, Sam Smith can manage the break almost seamlessly. Are they so good because they've worked hard on it for so long or have they got a subtly different larynx demanding less of a jump in tension? The female voice also has this break, but the lower and upper ranges are usually referred to as chest and head. Falsetto is not used. Many women will use both ranges all the time both singing and in normal speech and are hardly aware of the small (I think) jump in tension, some yodel uncontrollably in normal speech but by much less than an octave, and then there are artists like Adele or Whitney Houston who can deliberately and subtly change the tone and character of their voice by using either the softer head voice or the harder chest voice over a large part of their range. Fascinating

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.