Episode 103 – What is Falsetto?

Falsetto is an often misunderstood part of the voice.

Do women have falsetto? What is happening in the voice? How do I find falsetto? Are there different kinds?

In this episode, John answers these questions as well as some tips on how to get effective falsetto in your own singing.

Episode Transcript

Episode 103 – What is Falsetto

Hey there, this is John Henny welcome back to another episode of the intelligent vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Alright, Falsetto. This is one of those topics again as is true with man singing terms it’s a word in search of a definition. A falsetto can cover a little bit bigger umbrella than people think in that there’s just not one type of falsetto. However, Falsettos tend to share some things in common and  there are the what’s going on physically and then there’s what’s going on acoustically and in the voice. If you’ve been listening to this podcast, you would be aware there are things that happen at the physical level and the acoustic level and we can talk about them separately, but they’re never truly separate. They’re always connected. You can’t create sound without it passing through your vocal tract, on its way out to the world.

And as it passes through your vocal tract, it is affected by acoustic properties of the track, which then send energies back to the vocal folds and change or affect the nature of your phonation or your making of sound. So they’re always going hand in hand together. But for the purposes of discussion, I will talk about what’s going on with each separately. The physical aspect of falsetto is that the vocal folds are not making a lot of contact that the surfaces of the vocal folds are just touching at the very edges. Think about it and I’m doing this to a podcast audience so nobody could see it, but I’m holding both of my hands and my palms are facing the floor and I’m bringing my hands together. So just my pointing fingers are touching. All right!

That would be my vocal folds in falsetto. Now if I then turn my hands to face each other, so all the fingers are touching each other. So now both my hands are like a prayer position that would be your vocal folds in chest voice or what is now starting to be called mode one. When you just have the two pointing fingers touching, then it is a mode two as they call it, there’s less vocal fold contact but that doesn’t totally describe a falsetto. The other part of falsetto that goes in with that is the acoustic part and it doesn’t have a lot of high frequencies in general. Now there are types of falsetto that do start to dial in more high frequencies and I think people would still call those falsetto. So I want to go through and kind of break down what each of those different falsettos, what’s going on and what they sound like and how you can utilize them and practice to get it.

Now, it has been argued that women don’t have falsetto. I’m not making a counter argument. It’s just not something that’s not how I explain things. The female voice can go from mode one to mode two. Alright, you can go from a more vocal fold contact to less vocal fold contact. The muscles within the vocal folds. We’ve talked about this before. You have muscles that make up part of the vocal cords themselves, called the TA muscles and they make the chords fatter and they’re more engaged in the lower notes and the more robust notes and Then you have these muscles, that Poland stretches the vocal folds and these are the CT muscles. And in falsetto in mode two, those are engaged much more. There’s very little TA involvement or the muscles within the vocal folds when you’re belting, when you’re singing a higher note very, very strongly there’s more engagement of the TA muscle to thicken them up and to get more vocal fold contact.

So you’re going to have less vocal fold contact. Now in the female voice, this idea falsetto, that is usually called their fights. Falsettos usually referred to more like a classical female head voice but women, you can call that falsetto as well. It’s just that in a man, when we go to that sound, it’s more of an abrupt change. And so it sounds more affected and therefore it becomes this completely different sound. But women in my mind do have falsetto. You do have these lighter places that you can control. There’s less vocal fold contact. You also have less fold closure. All right So when you are phonating, when you are making a sound, your vocal cords are opening and closing a certain number of times per second. And that corresponds to the pitch that you are singing. So if the pitch that you are singing is the A above middle C or that tuning A, that A four 40, well it’s called four 40 because it vibrates 440 times a second.

You know, it’s funny, there’s actually a movement, to change a four 40 to four 30. Is it two, I dunno, someone who’s into this, it will probably write me and correct me, but they feel that four 40 because, and it’s true. If you go back to Mozart’s time or before, that tuning was a little bit lower and so they feel that the A vibrating at 432 times a second is more soothing than at four 40. That actually causes more stress. I don’t know if I should buy into that, but that’s where the four 40 comes from. So 440 times a second, that means your vocal folds, folds in order to make that note open and close 440 times every second, which is rather mind-boggling. Now we also have a further consideration that within that opening and closing cycle, we can adjust the amount of time they are closed versus open.

So they’re still closing 440 times a second. So let’s just change this to our vocal folds are opening and closing two times a second. We’ll just make this a little easier, you know, so that’s like that. Okay. What I can do is, and again, this is a visual which is completely lost on a podcast, but I can hold my hands together, open quickly and close up and quickly close up and quickly close or I can hold my hands apart, apart close, quickly open, close, quickly open. Okay. Does that make sense? So the handstand closed open quickly and they’re closed again or they’re open, closed quickly. They’re open again, but it’s still at the same rate. It’s still doing that 440 times a second. That is the closed quotient. How long the cords are closed as opposed to open. So in this long round about way, I’m just telling you in a falsetto, the closed quotient is lower.

It tends to be the position where the hands are open, closed quickly and open again so that there’s less pressure built underneath the vocal folds. The more air pressure that you build under the folds it’s called subglottal pressure. There you go. Go and impress your friends and family with that term sub glottal. The glottal is the opening of the folds. So sub glottal below that is the air pressure that builds the more sub glottal pressure you build when the folds finally opened, the more intense the sound wave that you get. So there’s not a lot of subglottal pressure in falsetto. It’s not a big robust sound. The point is to not have it be a big robust sound. So at the physical level there is less contact of the folds and there’s less of a closed quotient. Then you get into what’s happening acoustically in most Falsettos and certainly in the female classical version of the falsetto, you don’t want a lot of upper harmonic content.

In other words, if I’m sitting at my little mixing board, all right or even better, I’m a DJ with a filter and I’m doing a Bzz Bzz Bzz little effect on the music that higher those higher frequencies that I filter in. I want to die those out. The way we filter that with the voice is through vowels. And a good way to find falsetto is on a more closed vowel. That is why yodelers say Yoda lay what he, who he, Ooh. Both Of those vowels tend to want to flip. All right, the resonances of those vowels. What you’re doing is you’re taking certain parts of the acoustic resonance and you’re making it very low. And what that does is that lets go of boosting those upper harmonics. So rather than and you see it as not a really good way to do it. And When people instinctively whoop and holler, they say woo, they don’t do it on aah because you can’t go as high.

The ooh allows you to get into those higher notes. It pulls out those high frequencies. Now when you start learning the belt, you’ve actually got to bring those high frequencies back in. But falsetto can be a good way if you’re struggling to find, those upper notes, that falsetto is a great way to start sneaking in there and getting the folds to start making the basic coordinations for pitch. And then of course you’ll have to start employing a little more TA muscle and open up the vowels. But for beginning steps, falsetto is fantastic. So the vowel’s falsetto. He’s going to tend to work best on things like ooh and eeh. So,what you can do on a very, very closed, Ooh, if you’re having trouble in your voice is constantly cracking and you can’t find those upper notes, just give yourself glides on ooh and that’s really easy to do. Your, even if your voice tends to crack, it’s you’re going to tend to have less cracking on a very, very narrow sound. And you can also experiment with flipping and flipping on purpose in start with a wide vowel aah ooh aah ooh and so that, and as you go to that, Ooh, let it flip and you’ll start to find, you can begin to access that falsetto. 

Now you don’t have to do falsetto on a narrow vowel and there will be instances where you want that vowel to open up a little bit for a pure falsetto. And again, this is where we start having shades and different gradients of a concept. Alright It’s like we can tell if we talk about belts, we can tell when somebody’s belting. And then when somebody maybe not belting, but what about in between where it starts to become strong or where it’s starting to become a little bit beltish, but not totally the same thing here. It’s even the shades of vowels. You know, I have Ooh until and then I have shades of Ooh, until it starts to begin to take on an old quality until I started having different shades of Oh. It’s on a spectrum. So this falsetto can be on a spectrum now in what I consider a more pure falsetto. It’s going to be that low closed quotient and you’re going to be on that narrow vowel Ooh Hee Hoo.

However, if I want to start creating different effects, like let’s say I want a breathy falsetto, a good way to do that is open up the vowel a little bit Hey Hah. Now that’s harder to do on the Hoh. If I close it, it’s harder to stay breathe because I’m actually getting a little bit more efficient back pressure on that closed vowel, it’s actually a little more technically correct, but who wants to sing technically correct all the time. That’s just boring. That’s not communication. Sure, there are art forms where the technical perfection is part of the art form, but especially in contemporary music, it’s not about singing perfectly all the time. So we can begin to open that up Haah Heeh and so you start to get this kind of breathy falsetto. Then what you can do is you can begin to add a little more vocal fold contact and a little bit higher closed quotient so there’s going to be a little more touching and of the folds together. A little more contact negative, stay close a little longer, so it’s a little more haaa heee, you start getting a little bit more in there then which you can do is you can kinda start to go towards that BGE/Prince area where the vowels really start to open up a little bit more. You can even raise your larynx a little bit. You get a little more of that aaah yaah.

And it gets it like a little nastier. And then Prince was able to add overlay the distortion and all those different things on really, really wonderfully. What a loss that was. Anyway, but getting back, it just kills me every time I think about Prince just kills me. Probably the most brilliant pop musician that the U.S has ever produced. I’m going to go out on a limb and I’m going to proclaim that, possibly the all things considered the greatest popular musician any country has produced man, Prince just mind blowing. But getting back on topic. So he just was just a master of the falsetto and shades of the falsetto. I mean Prince recordings are just masterclasses in this. But what you can do is you can start to play with this and start to find different colors and just use it for really nice effects.

And you know, because I talk a lot about not flipping because so much of my, what I do is teach people to eliminate breaks in their voice. Man, having your voice break can have a really nice effect. Chris Martin of Coldplay, and I did a breakdown of this on my little YouTube channel. I haven’t done a lot of these, but I did some videos called why I love this vocal. And, if you go on YouTube, you can find me John Henny vocals. but I love the way that he uses that flip in his voice. Now, some people may argue but he’s always flipping in his voice to which I say, but I don’t care because he’s constructed music around that Chris Martin’s not trying to star on Broadway, you know, in Jekyll and Hyde or you know something we asked to do all this belting.

He has music that’s written around his voice and that, that flip is part of it. You know, look how they shine for you. Oh, I don’t know how much of that I can sing before I start getting a copyright strike. Anyway, so just pretend I didn’t do that don’t tell anyone I won’t put the recordings of that performance up for sale. How about that anyway, he does that. Just that flip becomes really a part of it and it’s really musical. So you can just sit on the again and even on E from a wide vowel, ayee awoo and just feel that flip, start to encourage that. And then on those clothes on that nice gentle falsetto again, you can begin to work on extending your range. You can begin to take that higher and higher again on those glides.

You just feel those, it’s light, it’s gentle, but you can begin to awaken your nervous system to those upper registers and it can become really, really helpful. So there’s your little breakdown on what falsetto is what’s going on both physically and acoustically. I hope if you had any confusion on the subject, this helped erase some of that. 

Hey, if you want to know more about me, you can always check me out at johnhenny.com J. O. H. N. H. E. N. N. Y. You can also get information on lessons with me. I will tell you, I am currently having a few slots open still for my monthly commitment challenge. This is a, I opened this up, just a couple of times a year. I set a part, a small part of my teaching schedule to work with the fans of this podcast who are really serious, who want to commit to weekly lessons.

If you want to do that, I will give you a substantial discount on my rate. Again, you just need to send an email to [email protected] I’m sorry, [email protected]. If You want to talk to me and send suggestions for the podcast, you can do it to [email protected] but [email protected] just reference the monthly commitment special and they will send you the information on how to take advantage of that. 

Also, if you’re interested in learning to be a voice teacher, I have my online contemporary voice teaching Academy. You can get more information at johnhenny.com and just up in the menu. Just click on teacher training. My book teaching contemporary singing is available on Amazon right now. It is just 99 cents for the Kindle version. So go ahead and grab that. And until next time to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.