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I'm really confused about the concept of a falsetto voice. As I understand it, past a point when I'm singing / talking, something in my vocal chords changes, I lose the "basey" sound of my voice, and with little to no effort, I can produce ridiculously high pitches. I can use this voice to match pitches the Soprano range, and when not singing, it's wonderfully amusing for all manner of squeaks and silly noises.

When should I be utilizing this voice? Usually I sing in the Baritone / Bass range with what I think is my chest voice. I'm not really sure what's happening with my throat that makes the change happen. Is there a way to shape my throat so that the falsetto sounds more like the chest voice, or to hide the transition between the two?

I should point out that I have no formal training, so all of this terminology is very new to me. I'm an intelligent sort though, so feel free to throw science at me. Some of it will stick. :D

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I added "when" to the question since it's entirely up to you whether you "should", but in addition to your question about its sound others may have useful advice about its application. –  Matthew Read Oct 17 '11 at 17:07
    
I don't understand the question. If it sounds good, use it. If it sounds bad, don't use it. Examples of falsetto in recordings abound - example, Stayin' Alive by the Bee Gees. –  slim Oct 18 '11 at 13:18
    
youtube.com/watch?v=42IL0O6pPqQ –  enthdegree Jan 17 '12 at 16:58

4 Answers 4

I'll answer the "When should I" of your question simply, and from the experience of someone with a music ed degree, but no formal voice training. I do know the basics of vocal training and education, and have had a little myself. I won't delve into the different physiological differences with the falsetto voice, since that's been awhile… :)

For most male singers, with enough training, they find they have a chest voice, a head voice, and a falsetto. I'm simplifying, but most discover these three ranges. The chest voice is the one you describe, it has a deeper resonance, and you feel many of the vibrations as they are happening. The head voice is a lighter sound and feel… it's tough to describe, but in my opinion it sounds a little closer to the resonance of the falsetto, and the singer's feel of their own vibrations decreases slightly HOWEVER they can feel a difference between that and falsetto.

Most singers will train all three parts of their voice extensively, and extend the ranges of all three, so that they can overlap and make seamless transitions. Falsetto, once strengthened, can be used to extend the range of the head voice when singing lighter repertoire. I've also noticed that strengthening the falsetto improves the chest and head voice. For example I've worked on falsetto enough that I can impersonate an operatic soprano. Not perfectly, by any means, but I can approximate the resonance and tonal qualities of, well, probably more like a mezzo-soprano. By doing this, I improved the resonance and consistency of the lower parts of my voice.

I'm not sure how much you know of the history of western (classical) music, but there used to be men called castrati, who were… modified… before they reached puberty, and so retained the high voices of boys, but the size and breathing capacity of full-grown men. After this process was finally abolished, some men became falsettists, or countertenors, often singing roles created for castrati. These men are just like you and I, except they choose to work and strengthen their falsetto rather than their chest and head voice. The point I'm trying to make is that these men are usually baritones, as something with the baritone voice usually results in a higher, richer falsetto.

So, depending on what your goals as a singer are… strengthen and work on your falsetto, if not to use it, at least to improve the lower ranges of your voice. I would NOT "shape" your throat in any abnormal way to modify the tone of your falsetto. Consult a voice teacher, at least for a lesson a month to keep you on track, and be up front with them about what you want to accomplish. The goal as a singer is to be stress-free; singing should be as effortless as talking.

However, for now, you can use the falsetto as an embellishment in songs you sing, use it to more easily reach higher pitches you can't sing in your chest voice, or just sing with the sopranos all the time. :)

If you listen to any musical theater music, there are good examples of use of falsetto. It's often used to dramatize a single outlier note, or even during a soft passage, to further soften the tone.

If you listen to folk music, it pops up now and then in there, sort of as an extension of the voice, but sparingly used to change the character.

However you'll most likely find that you will be unsure of what's falsetto and what's head voice when you listen to a softer song, especially in the musical theatre or classical realms. THIS is good falsetto.

Some people overlook it, and see it as a guy's circus sideshow… but all it really is is another portion of your voice that can be trained and improved just like any other.

Sorry for the overly long and rambling answer; you said you're an intelligent sort, so I threw you everything but the science, which percusse already gave you.

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Adding to your [second to] last paragraph, Matt Bellamy from Muse uses it often (at least 5 songs) –  Cole Johnson Jul 28 at 17:42

Suppose an engineer is trying to express his understanding and please let me know if this is sheer nonsense. I tried to gather some info and the following is my take on the falsetto.

Let me use no terminology and try to give a visual answer such that there is no confusion about the terms and you can fill in the technical details (which I should also do later). It involves the natural frequency shift of the vibrating flaps (vocal folds) in your throat.

Roughly speaking, it is a matter of vibrational analysis. Hence here is the classical example from engineering class. Take a ruler and put it against the table as shown here. Now by contracting and releasing your muscles you change the vibration frequency of the ruler which symbolizes your flaps. The longer the ruler the lower the frequency. Well, kinda obvious anyway.

Now let's take this example a little further. (Actually since sound mechanism is unbelievably more complicated, I am committing some crime here) Imagine two rulers are end-by-end attached and the one that is on the free-end side is quite shorter than the clamped one. This means that overtones will be produced since their natural frequencies are different. You can still control the length of the clamped ruler and change the dominating low frequency.

Now what would happen when you start shortening the sticking out part of the ruler ? The frequency would get higher (still with overtones) but unfortunately there will be a point where the clamped ruler won't budge anymore since it would require tremendous strength to vibrate in visible frequencies. This does not bother the second one and it will be dominating the produced vibration at the tip. (Glottal cycle) Here is a more visual example of this. If you skip to 1:55 you will see the falsetto in action. Also later it shows what might happen if you push it too much :)

As far as I know, individuals have no control on their second ruler simply because it is not a muscular extension. (Please start to fill in the science from this point) What you are left with is the free part of your vocal folds and they tend to like a particular frequency.

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Uh, that's really rather wrong. Both voice types operate through the same vocal folds. The principal muscle action for controlling chest voice pitch is curdling/stiffening muscles that are sort of the base of the vocal folds. The principal falsetto action is stretching the vocal folds from their ends. They are attached to cartiledge from some moving mechanisms moved my muscles. As the cartiledge hardens with age, it is a bad idea to start powerful singing too early. At any rate, the different mechanisms are interfering, so using both at once requires a lot of coordination and balance. –  User8773 Jan 9 at 13:07
    
@David I think you misunderstood my example. I don't claim that there are two different types of vocal folds. While the mechanism is simplified a lot the vibrational effect is the same. It doesn't matter from which side it is actuated. It is the moving part that matters and can be superimposed to model the same behavior. –  percusse Jan 9 at 13:52

Simple and straight answer: When you should use regular voice versus falsetto depends on the style of music you are singing. It's appropriate for certain kinds of music, and not for others. Considering that "theory follows practice", listen to some recordings of different kinds of vocal music. Some use falsetto, most don't.

There is a classical music tradition, especially in England, of adult males singing soprano or alto in falsetto. This is called "counter-tenor". Look for recordings by the King's Singers and Chanticleer. These are all-male a capella vocal groups who use men that sing alto and soprano.

In barbershop quartet music, sung by four men, often the first tenor is required to go into the falsetto range to sing the highest harmonies.

Brian Johnson of the hard rock band AC/DC is a natural bass singer, but with AC/DC he only sings falsetto. He never uses his natural range at all.

Lots of rock and pop music uses backing vocals sung by men in falsetto. It's used less often for lead vocals. Most of the vocals you hear in songs by the hard rock band Def Leppard are in falsetto.

The great R&B singer Smokey Robinson is a tenor adept at using head voice and falsetto interchangeably and going from one to the other smoothly so you don't notice the difference. The same might be said for the rock singer Sting, and Robin and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, all tenors, although each of these singers has a different style.

Now here's a point: If you take beginning traditional singing lessons, without exception, nobody will teach you to develop your falsetto range. Your lessons will consist of learning to sing in your normal head voice. That's just the way it's done. From the standpoint of teaching and learning, everybody seems to agree that it's best to learn and study singing in your regular range. Falsetto is extra-curricular.

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If you normally prefer to sing in the bass-baritone range, and primarily sing parts written in that range, you will ordinarily need to use falsetto only very rarely. Perhaps there will be a passage written in a very high register (well above the bass clef) where the composer intends for it to be sung softly (piano or softer). Or it may be used to achieve a "sweeter" tone quality, when the song calls for it.

However, the challenge with the falsetto voice is that it is very hard to make it as "vibrant" as the main chest voice, so you'll need to be careful when it gets used. If you're singing in a band or in a large ensemble, a falsetto tone isn't going to be as audible as if you're with just a guitar or piano.

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"Reinforced falsetto" can be rather powerful. While there <em>is</em> a reduced dynamic range, with practice comes good vocal closure, and the range reduction is more at the lower volumes, making it hard for male altos to work well in a standard choir setting. It's easier to go soloist. I had to swap my main self-accompanying instrument from finger-style guitar to accordion when switching my show voice from baritone to alto.<p/>Unpractised falsetto tends to have bad vocal closure and a breathy/wheezy and weak quality. Reinforced falsetto is quite stronger and gets raspy in the low range. –  User8773 Jan 9 at 13:13

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