I attended a music class several years ago and somewhat learned the keys to proper singing. The teacher said to sing "with your head voice." What does this mean exactly? I have been asked several times as to how to sing properly and frankly, I have no idea!
"Head voice", as explained in Wikipedia, has at least two different meanings, relating to vocal "register" and to vocal "resonance".
In relation with vocal register it means simply "high register". A good example of the confusing (although in this case consecrated by tradition) language referred to by Todd.
The vocal resonance usage of the term deserves a more detailed attempt at explanation.
The whole of the head and of the thoracic cavity contribute with specific resonance components to the way the human voice sounds. One theory defines five main resonance points or areas: head, nose, mouth (or teeth), nape of the neck and chest (other models exist that give different names and subtract or add one component, but the essentials don't differ too much).
Depending on the person and the sounds being produced (be it spoken or sung) each of these resonance components appears with greater or lesser strength. One possible way of exploring these components is to understand how they relate predominantly (not exclusively!) to different consonant types:
- head - S, T, D, L, Sh, R (as in English "run")
- nose - N, M
- teeth - B, P, F
- nape - G, K, R (as in French "rien")
- chest - V, Z, J (as in French "jour", i.e. without the English initial "d" sound)
By uttering syllables with these consonants and several vocals, and focusing one's attention in our bodily sensations, one can start to develop a sensibility to how these different resonance components make up our voice, some more obviously than others.
For example place the palm of your hand on your chest when saying "ZZZAAAH" repeatedly, or lightly pause the tip of your fingers on the curved spot at the top of your head while saying "DAAAH". The vibrations should be clearly felt.
By learning to identify these sensations, one can also learn to modulate our voice at will to predominantly use a specific resonance point or to compensate for a naturally weak one. And by learning to identify and control these components in our own voice we can also start to identify them in other people's voices.
Depending of course on the individual, and their gender and culture, a "good" voice has a somewhat balanced composition of these five elements, and many times we find a voice weird or disagreeable because one of these components is too prominent at the expense of the others.
This is true for the spoken voice as well as for singing. The purpose of the singer should be to maintain, as much as possible, an even balance of all resonance components, throughout their full vocal register.
But it's necessary to take into consideration that (due to the physics of sound), chest and, to some extent, nape, are more important resonance components in the lower registers; mouth and nose (also sometimes called "mask") and head (proper) are more important in the high registers. So the singer should manage a smooth transition of the prominence of these components along the vocal range (up to the point where, with the male falsetto and the very high register of the female voice, the chest component may be negligible).
So if a male singer has a predominantly chest resonance (common situation) he may be told to "use his head voice", specially when trying to reach a high register, without having any idea of what that means.
The first explanation was very deep and fabulous. I'll give my own simple explanation as I'm a operatic baritone.
We sing with the body, literally. The sound resonances in several parts of the body and it will change depending of your own anatomy and singing range.
When you sing low notes, the sound resonances in the chest. When you sing high notes, the sound goes straight to the head. If there's something in between (not to low and not too high), both places will resonance.
Of course, you need some techniques in order to get a proper rich and vibrant sound in every part of your body. Head resonance is specially difficult for most men (specially low-voiced males) to achieve. There's where teachers tend to use abstract descriptions, like a voice spin, as my own teacher says.
Girls are the other way around. They find more difficult to use their chest voice (specially high-pitched singers), because girl's voice resonate in the head. They need it to stretch their vocal range and in case of low-voices girls (like altos or contraltos), to give really powerful and harmonically beautiful low notes.
It's the sound that you make when you sing goo (pronounce gu as in glue, but without the l) into a higher note. When most males do this exercise they tend to break into falsetto easily. Males don't usually use their head voice, so it is important to practice accessing the head voice for males to get control of a good mixed voice (head and chest). This month my voice lessons really focus on accessing head voice and have seen great changes in how I hit higher notes now, but depends on warmup, hydration, rest, exercise levels.
Terms such as head voice, falsetto, and chest voice are subjective terms that have little to do with what is actually happening in the throat.
When someone asks you to sing with head voice, they are really saying that they would like to see use less volume. If you follow their advice, what happens in the throat is that the vocal folds will thin slightly. Singers cannot see what is happening in their throats, so they can only go by feeling and sound.....and when you sing more softy, you may feel that sound having a more "heady" quality...you may also be modifying the vowel slightly to match your mentor's example, which may also support this mental concept of "head" voice.
When you sing any note there are regions in your throat where much of the sound from your cords is coming in contact and resonating. Let's call that a resonance point. When you sing very low notes, the resonant point is usually low, like towards the chest. That would be a chest voice. Generally, when you sing high, the resonant point goes up, towards the nasal cavity. The higher the resonant point goes up, the more "head voice" you hear. You could say that someone that sings very nasally has too much head voice because this point at it's very highest is right inside the nasal cavity.