Singing terms such as “pulled chest” or “mix” can certainly cause confusion.
Not only are the terms imperfect descriptions of what is occurring in the voice, they also mean different things depending on the teacher or singer.
In this episode, John explains where some of the more popular terms come from and how to understand the various possible meanings.
Episode 53 – Why Singing Terms Are Confusing
Hey! This is John Henny. Welcome back to another edition of the Intelligent Vocalist.
You know, I really do have a great time doing these and it affords me the opportunity to address certain issues that I see going on in the singing community, voice teacher community, all these kind of like “let’s argue about the voice communities.” And singing terms are just a minefield of disagreements because they’re ultimately inaccurate. We are using words to try and describe different aspects of singing. The problem is no one word or term is really going to grab all aspects.
When I talk about aspects of singing, there is what the process of singing is like for the singer – what experiences the singer goes through, what sensations are created in the body when singing (ex. a high note versus a low note.) A lot of the singing terms, and certainly some of the older singing terms before we had the benefit of Vocal Science to really break down what was happening, that’s where this terms came from – they were really dealing with the singer’s sensations. So terms such as chest voice, head voice, and the passaggio or passage between them, “what’s going on?”, there’s this funny little feeling as you cross from one to the other. And so these terms were born.
Now some of these terms are getting out of favor or they kind of morphed into subcategories like chest voice (your lower register) and then pulling chest. That is a term that I used all the time and I also know it’s a term that drives some voice teachers crazy. They can’t stand it. And I understand why they can’t stand it because it’s an imperfect term. So we have what’s going on in the sensations of the singer.
But then there is what is actually happening physiologically – what is happening within the muscles of the singer, alright? Within the vocal cords you have a set of muscles, the two primary pairs of muscles that worked for pitches. You have some muscles within the folds themselves – they’re called the Vocalis muscle or the TA which is short for thyroarytenoid. But these muscles will shorten and thicken the folds. And then, as you go into the high notes, you have these cord muscles that pull and stretch the vocal folds. These are the cricothyroid or the CT muscles. There is a shift over as you go higher, from the TA or the muscles that make the cords fat and thick giving over to the CT or the muscles that pull and stretch. And so, vocal terms will try and describe the differences. There’s a different setting if you’re singing a high note rather than a low note.
Then there’s also the acoustics of what happens. When you go to a high note to a low note there is going to be a change in the interaction of your resonators, which are primarily your throat and your mouth. The sound is travelling through these resonators. Your vocal cords are like a trumpet player’s lips and the resonators are like the trumpet. And that’s where the little buzz of the vocal folds are enhanced and built up. And certain aspects of the sound are made louder, and certain aspects of the initial signal from the vocal cords are made softer. It gives not only color to the sound but also vowels, your characteristic sounds. There’s a lot that goes on. So there’s a shift in the acoustics.
But then, there’s also a final shift, which is the sound. The sound will be different. Some people’s voices are described as being brighter or warmer, or darker, or duller, or harsh, or metallic, honey-like. I mean, there’s all different ways to describe sound, and they are all woefully inadequate. Again, I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’m totally paraphrasing, but to quote Frank Zappa “Writing about music is like singing or dancing about architecture.” So talking about singing is like dancing about architecture. It’s pretty imperfect. However, we have to have a common agreement about what these terms mean when we’re talking about different vocal issues.
So here are some of the confusing vocal terms, why they’re argued, why they’re imperfect, and why they kind of worked. The first one we can talk about is chest voice – your lower register. The reason that is called chest voice is if you put your hand on your upper chest and just say “UHH” you feel it vibrate there. There are couple of reasons your vocal folds are fatter and thicker when you are in your lower register, for lack of a better term. So they give a little more biofeedback. You’re going to sense it a little more. There’s more contact with the vocal folds, if you will. Also, in terms of the resonators you’re going to get a little more boost that’s associated with the throat resonator rather than the mouth resonator. Now this will change for certain notes and certain styles of singing, or sounds of singing. But in chest voice it’s primarily your fatter thicker cords, and your getting more resonance in the throat area.
Now, we could say that we are in a TA dominant condition with the first formant on the third harmonic. Yes that’s chest voice, but that’s not how people talk. Maybe within the voice teacher world will start talking more in terms of that, and there’s more of a move towards Science-driven voice teaching, which I’m a big cheerleader for. However, when you’re talking to singers, that’s not going to make any sense and so, we have to have terms that make sense to the late person as well. Now chest voice is a very very old term.
And then you get its counterpart which is pulled chest. “What the heck is pulled chest?” Now it’s really starting to sound like nonsense. And I understand, where voice teachers go, pulled chest is ridiculous. It makes no sense. However, you got to look at what it’s referring to. So as you begin to ascend your chest voice starts to run out of road, if you will. It starts to hit a place in your range where the conditions of your chest voice no longer work optimally. Either you’re using too much vocal folds, you’re not going to get up to pitch, or it’s going to start to use too much muscle, or acoustically you’re getting into a condition where this throat resonator is aligning with a part of the sound wave that’s no longer optimal. You’ll see singers they don’t make the same face. They’re larynx or their Adam’s Apple start to come up and they raise their chin and start spreading them up really wide because they’re trying to keep this condition.
Now, there are ways to take this condition higher than normal for stylistic reasons. Although you do have to make some modifications than in the amount of muscles you use at the folds. So some people will call pulled chest – they’ll say that’s a problem, where it’s actually an artistic choice of the singer. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about when somebody’s really yelling and they’re just really really straining. So you have the condition of probably too much TA versus CT, they’re too much of the muscle within the vocal fold versus too much of the muscle that’s stretching and thin.
And also, acoustically, you probably have a setting of the sound wave resonator interaction that is not going to work. What does it sound like? It sounds like shouting. What do a number of voice teachers, including myself – feel free to throw things at your phone or your listening device if you disagree with me, I’m totally cool with it, I get it. But pulled chest is describing that chest register are taking too far. It is essentially pulled out of where it functions best. And you try and stretch it further than you should in a suboptimal way, (I’m saying optimal a lot but it makes me feel smart when I say it) in a not so great way so that you’re essentially shouting.
There are other terms I’ve heard. Register violation – I like that one. It makes me feel like we should get a ticket. “Oh I just get ticketed for register violation.” But registration is really trying to figure out what part of the voice that we’re in. So what we want to do is we move out at this pulled chest. We don’t want pulled chest as we move out of chest voice.
Well now, we come to an area that gets even trickier because we need to physically move from the cords being short and fat to a bit longer and thinner, but not so much so that they go all the way over and get too thinned out. We still need enough contact. So there’s this inner play of the muscle, that’s what is happening physically. But acoustically there’s a shift and interaction of the sound wave to your resonators and the mouth will become a little more dominant. Or the acoustic boost that’s a little more associated with the mouth begins to become stronger. I’m not going to delve into that too much here. But as you shift muscle and also the acoustic resonator load or what’s providing more of the energy, there’s a shift in sensation. And it feels like you’ve entered another room, or it’s like this sound is beginning to travel back behind my eyes. It’s like I’m going through a passage way or a passaggio. That is the old singing term.
Now there is a debate as to whether this is essentially just now you have entered into another register, or if this functions as its own register. I call this area Mix – totally misunderstood term, or at least an argued term. I often see mix referred to by people as just kind of this lighter style of singing but I believe that you can belt really really hard into a mixed condition.
But what is Mix? Well, that’s an imperfect term. I’ve explained it on another podcast but even then I don’t have the final definition, and I sit on the board of a teacher organization called International Voice Teachers of Mix. Yet mix is argued. So this transition though does happen at some point. If you keep going high enough you can delay its transition. Most people, when they delay the transition they do it poorly. There are skilled singers that can delay the transition skillfully. The sound can be a little intense, a little wide, but stylistically it can absolutely be called for. I like singers to be able to master this area because I find it has most of the singing problems there as we do not only the physical shift but the acoustic shift over. The sound itself begins to change so there’s a different sound as well. When it’s delayed the sound will be a little brighter, a little more in your face, a little more yell-like. When it goes more into what I consider a healthy mix it becomes a little more ringy-er and a little warmer. When it goes too far into that too soon it will become maybe a little over-dark or a little weak.
Now you can also talk about modes, and they talk about lower register being M1 (Mode 1). Then as you go into the upper register it becomes Mode 2. This is kind of cool because Mode 1 or Mode 2, just like thing 1 and thing 2, it’s not a specific name. We’re not describing a sensation. We’re not describing a shift in perceived sound. We’re just describing a mode. And within that mode then we can say “what’s in that mode? Well, that mode is more TA dominant with the first formant on whatever harmonic” rather than the descriptive terms. But I don’t know if that’s really going to catch on with the general singing public – people who are just starting to sing, casually singing. I mean, some of these old terms really do work. The problem is getting an agreement on their meaning. So moving to these modes to describe singing registration, I think ultimately is better. I don’t know if it’s going to perfectly catch on.
Once you go through this passaggio or mix, you go into head register – so named because you feel that more in your head. However, there are different definitions of head. Head voice for a male singer versus a female opera singer is going to be a little different. The tuning is a little different. Acoustically, the muscles being used are a little different in terms of there’s a little more intensity of contact of the folds with the male singer. There can be a debate on what actually constitutes head voice versus falsetto. All of these terms are, again, imperfect.
And then you will get other schools of voice that will begin to talk about modes within the registers and create like different terms for modes, and colors, and intensities, and all of these things. I am cool with all that stuff. I don’t argue any of it. Here’s what I think though is when you are singing something – let’s say you’ve watch a Youtube video and it talks about Mix. Then you watch another Youtube video and the teacher is just going on and on about mix doesn’t exist, there’s no such thing as mix. We kind of have to look at the next level down of what each video is talking about. They may be talking about the same thing, they’re just arguing the semantics. And they may be talking about the same thing in a slightly different way. Somebody may be talking about extending the chest, whereas they’re keeping a little more of the acoustic tuning of chest but they’re making muscular adjustments. And so that’s a little more of an intense sound, it’s a wider sound. And another teacher may say “well that’s pulled chest but it’s not unhealthy. Here’s mix.” “Wait, if that pulled chest is not unhealthy then we can’t categorize pulled chest as bad,”
You know, what is good or bad? To me the only thing that’s truly bad in singing is if you are hurting yourself. And even then, sometimes you got to be a little naughty with your voice. The perfect example is John Lennon doing Twist and Shout. I got a Beatles shirt on and I’m just showing people on the Youtube vlog. You podcasters cannot see it. But I got a really cool Beatles shirt on. Anyway, when John Lennon did Twist and Shout he was sick that day and they save that song to the end of the recording session. And he screamed out that classic Rock and Roll vocal and then he was hoarse afterwards. However, as a voice teacher I’d go “no that probably wasn’t a good idea.” But you know what, as a fan of music I’d go “hell yeah that was a great idea” because now that is captured forever.
You know, right or wrong in singing, that’s not an area that I’m really comfortable fighting in because I think just about everything can be justified if you’re doing it on purpose, if there’s a musical reason. But yes, we do get into these arguments. I’ve certainly used singing terms and then seeing people commenting on it and it kind of lose their minds. Actually, I’m fine with that. I understand it. The only thing I’d say is maybe just look at a level deeper beyond the term. I acknowledge that all the terms that I used are imperfect. But I’ll continue to use my imperfect terms while I attempt to explain what it is I really mean.
So when you’re traversing the world of singing and learning to sing and all these different terms, understanding what’s really going on will help you make sense of all these and make sense of the arguments. Again, if you’ve ever wanted to study Vocal Science, not in a really really deep way but just to understand a little bit I think can really really be helpful if you understand what’s going on physically but then also the acoustics. If that makes sense to you, you can have a much easier time of navigating this area. That’s why one of the reasons I do this podcast, and I do the things on the resonance and acoustics and how vowels work, and all that, which hopefully is really helpful.
Hey! I thank you so much for listening. I can babble on this subject for quite a while but I think you get the idea. Just a little plug here for myself: my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy is now open. You can go to johnhenny.com and on the Menu just click on Teacher Training. It will take you to the page that will explain the course where you can sign up. It’s $49 a month. This course goes from really in depth. Even if you’ve never taught voice lesson but you’ve been thinking about it, it will walk you through all the steps to become a solid voice teacher. and you can take a test, and if you pass you get your certificate – it’s for your teaching studio. I’m pretty proud of it. I’ve done a previous course called Voice Teacher Boot Camp and I learned a lot from doing that. I’ve actually closed that course, completely re-did everything, and now I have Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy.
So if you’re a singer that’s ever thought about teaching voice, go check it out. If you are already teaching voice but want a little more Contemporary teaching skills in your toolset I think it will work for you as well. It’s $49 a month. And if after the first 30 days you don’t really dig the course, just let us know and we’ll give you your money back. I just want people happy. We’ll stay friends. It’s totally cool. It’s actually done pretty well. I’ve had a lot of beta testers through it and they’re really really enjoying it. Again, if you want to check it out, johnhenny.com and then at the Menu just click Teacher Training.
So until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.