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

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

4 Answers 4

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. – Wanky McSpanky Jul 13 at 11:39

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

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.