By Camille van Niekerk
Head voice, falsetto, and whistle are the three highest-pitched registers of the voice. This article will help you understand what they are, the differences between them, and how to exercise your voice within your uppermost registers!
What is head voice?
Head voice is the primary register you use to sing high pitches. To raise pitch, your vocal folds elongate.
In order to observe how longer, thinner cords produce higher pitches, you can do an experiment with a rubber band: pluck the rubber band and continue plucking it as you stretch it out. The pitch produced by the rubber band will become gradually higher!
In head voice, the CT (cricothyroid) muscle pair is dominant. This is the set of muscles that stretch your vocal folds longer.
What is falsetto? Are falsetto and head voice the same thing?
They are very similar! The current understanding of falsetto is that it is a more loosely connected form of head voice. In both head voice and falsetto, the vocal folds are stretched long and thin. But in falsetto, the folds remain slightly more open than in head voice. The resulting sound is light, thin, and airy.
Do only males have falsetto?
Some singers hold that females have “head voice”, while males have “falsetto” as their main upper register. As explained above, they’re really the same vocal fold function, but with different levels of compression (cord closure). If someone asks you to use “falsetto”, they probably mean head voice! But you can always clarify what kind of sound they’re asking for.
How can I exercise my falsetto/head voice?
• Decompress the vocal folds with an initial “H” sound
• Keep the sound small and narrow
• Encourage head resonance with exercises using MM, NN, and NG
• Use narrow vowels like OO and EE to get into head voice, especially if you tend to pull chest voice
• Be careful to not push extra air at your vocal folds, maintaining a steady, smooth flow of air
• Because higher pitches often require more space to resonate, consider dropping your jaw and employing some vowel modification in tricky areas of your range (like very high notes or notes around your passaggio)
What is whistle voice?
Whistle voice is the highest vocal register. It has a very bright, thin, edgy sound: like a whistle! Because the vocal folds are difficult to visualize in whistle voice, there are a few different theories on how whistle is produced. Some teachers say that only a small front portion of the vocal folds vibrate to produce whistle (rather than the full fold, as in chest, mix, and head voice). Others say that the folds are not vibrating at all: instead, the folds remain still while air “whistles” through the space between them.
Can everyone “whistle”?
It’s possible that most singers can “squeak” above their head voice range; but a relatively small number of singers can consistently access their whistle register with clarity, control, and good intonation. Granted, whistle voice certainly makes an impact on listeners, as fans of Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande will tell you. But whistle voice is a fun extra - not an essential component. Even if you can “whistle”, the vast majority of your practice time should be spent exercising your chest, mix, and head registers.
How can I learn to sing in whistle register?
Try the following steps, adapted from voice teacher Justin Stoney of New York Vocal Coaching:
1. Practice inhale phonation by speaking as you inhale (instead of exhaling)
2. Add vocal fry to the beginning of your inhale phonation
3. Take it up into your head voice/falsetto register
4. Work on matching pitch within this register
5. Use the above steps, now on an exhale (instead of using inhale phonation)
6. Exercise your whistle register with vocal warmups
Exercising your upper register increases your flexibility and dynamic range in all registers. Find the vocal warmups that help you easily access head voice and use them every day!