A taxonomy of high male voices, both classical and popular
May 19, 2013 4:45 AM   Subscribe

This post was inspired by Romania's fabulous Eurovision entry, I hope? The fact that didn't score more highly is evidence that Europe was voting Wrong last night.

The article is really interesting, and reading it and going back to listen again to Cezar was actually thought-provoking - he goes through the passagio around the 40 second mark on that video.
posted by Coobeastie at 5:47 AM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Falsetto and head voice are not the same thing at all.
posted by unSane at 6:07 AM on May 19, 2013

The first part is interesting, but as I am getting further along I'm getting rather weirded out by the fixation on "healthy" male bodies and going into some detail while dismissing other, less masculine bodies. I don't mind technical discussion of the factors leading to some men being able to sing in higher registers, but a malfunction of nerve development that leads to the larynx not being fully developed is from an abstract point of view as much a marker of lack of "health" and "normality" as a endocrine disorder that does the same, and yet the author seems a little too interested in assuring us that the first has a burly male body totally normal and healthy!
posted by tavella at 8:24 AM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Simon? Theodore? Alvin?
posted by jfuller at 8:28 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Let us render unto Cezar the awesomeness that is Cezar's.
He won the twelve points of my heart.
posted by Dr. Zira at 8:35 AM on May 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Also known as "people for whom Madamina is thankful, because she can sing their songs in the original key at karaoke."
posted by Madamina at 8:46 AM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Falsetto and head voice are not the same thing at all.

It's a little hard to untangle how much the two things are actually physiologically different ways of producing sound and how much the difference is just evaluative (we call a falsetto voice a "head voice" when the singer has learned to control their falsetto well so that it doesn't sound breathy or reedy). If you have a good link to actual physiological studies of the differences between head voice and falsetto I'd be really interested to see it.
posted by yoink at 8:57 AM on May 19, 2013

When I see Frankie Valli appear in an article I always think of that Jackie Mason line: "Walk like a man? Sing like a man, Frankie!"
posted by crapmatic at 9:00 AM on May 19, 2013

No mention of Robert Plant or Rob Halford? Fail.
posted by Ber at 9:01 AM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I listened to that Marian guy. Wow. Had no idea that such voices could still exist. The universe is a magical place.

OTOH, NO mention of Thom Yorke? Or Prince? Or Jeff Buckley? Those guys had/have great falsettos.
posted by droplet at 9:19 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

*click link*

Cmd-F "Mael"

No results

*close tab*
posted by SansPoint at 9:29 AM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

*click link*

Cmd-F "Mael"

No results

*close tab*

He's not claiming to offer a definitive list of all the "best" or "greatest" falsettists/countertenors/tenors altisti etc. The examples he names are largely illustrative.
posted by yoink at 9:40 AM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

How about Barry Gibb's unforgettable 'Falsetto Ridiculoso' at the end of 'Staying Alive'? And he had a beard.

I think his big high note lasts for 3 full measures as well.
posted by colie at 11:19 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised he didn't mention Jimmy Scott in the "endocrine issues" group. Or acknowledge the tradition of high falsetto "tenor" harmonies in bluegrass. Otherwise very interesting for this non-singer.
posted by bgribble at 11:59 AM on May 19, 2013

I think of Brad Delp when I think of high voiced dudes whose notes I cannot hit. Tho Steve Perry and Freddie Mercury are the next two.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:06 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gah and I read now that he offed himself in 2007. Shit.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:08 PM on May 19, 2013

OTOH, NO mention of Thom Yorke? Or Prince? Or Jeff Buckley? Those guys had/have great falsettos.

No mention of the guy from the Tiger Lillies, either, or Ralph Stanley, or …

It's not an exhaustive categorization of people who can sing high, it's a discussion of the ways to categorize people who can sing high.
posted by kenko at 12:22 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Same comment applies to several other commenters in this thread. You're completely missing the point.)
posted by kenko at 12:24 PM on May 19, 2013

I'm an alto, albeit a low one, but Chris Colfer from Glee can hit notes in his chest voice higher than I can in my chest voice.

Learning that Freddie Mercury was singing in the alto range explains why I've always found it so much easier to sing along to Queen than most male rock bands. One of my favourites is just so good for showing off his voice, though sadly it's not one of the most commonly played ones (I think it deserves to be): "My Melancholy Blues".
posted by jb at 12:49 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a professional singer -- female, alto -- who also works with trans* women who want to alter their vocal presentation to sound more conventionally feminine. I've not been formally trained for this in any way, I just fell into it through friends who needed the service and couldn't find anyone to provide it for them. This article tracks pretty well with what I've learned through doing this work, particularly the part where the pitch range overlap between "male" and "female" voices is so, so much broader than people think it is; my clients usually have to adjust their average speaking pitch by less than a fourth. It's much more about accessing and utilizing the head resonances in speaking, along with with cultural signifiers such as pitch variation. (I often tell my clients that the easiest way to come across as "female" is to start uptalking, but it may not be the best for a bunch of reasons.)

Some of the women I've worked with have had successful singing careers after transition, albeit not classical ones. The area I struggle the most with is teaching trans women how to have a rich, powerful, female-presenting voice; I don't have a good solution for that yet, although from reading this, it probably means attacking and managing the lower passagio. Since the lower passagio is the bane of MY vocal existence, that will be a thorny problem indeed.
posted by KathrynT at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Here's an old AskMe full of countertenors in popular music, if you want more examples.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:36 PM on May 19, 2013

I know nothing of this, but got curious about the mention of 'head voice' and found this link where singers and singing coaches discuss and debate the differences between head voice and falsetto voice, which the FPP claims are the same thing.
posted by eye of newt at 1:43 PM on May 19, 2013

Interesting article, although there are a number of confusions and mistaken assumptions in the article about how the voice instrument works. This is understandable, however, because teachers and professional users of the voice don't use a common terminology. Moreover, many teachers and professional users of the voice actually believe and espouse things about how the voice instrument works (or should work) that are clearly incorrect and do not reflect the current scientific understanding. And, of course, both vocal terminology and our understanding of the voice instrument have evolved greatly over the centuries. Suffice it to say that, "chest voice" and "head voice" and "falsetto" not only mean different things to different singers today, but they meant entirely different things in the early 19th Century.

Leaving aside some peculiar and idiosyncratic actions at the extreme top and bottom of some voices, the voice instrument has two fundamental ways of working that I will vastly oversimplify: The vocalis muscle can be contracted, in which case the vocal folds are short and thick and have a broad area of contact, or the vocalis muscle is not activated and the thyroid cartilage is rotated forward, in which case the vocal folds are stretched long and thin and interact mostly at the edges. The short/thick action corresponds to lower notes and the long/thin way corresponds to higher notes. But it gets more complicated than that. For most singers throughout most of their ranges, and this is certainly a major tenet of classical singing, both actions are used simultaneously. This is to say that there is almost always some contraction and some stretching of the vocal folds. We might think about this is as a blended production with different percentages of the two actions. A singer might have 95% short/thick blended with 5% long/thin on the low notes, and 5% short/thick blended with 95% long/thin on the high notes.

So that's the physiology. Terminology gets a lot more complicated. Men and women use the same terminology to describe different actions of the voice; terminology has changed over the centuries as vocal techniques and preferences have evolved; because resonant characteristics change depending on the frequency of the pitch and the manipulation of the vocal tract, fundamental changes in resonance are often confused with fundamental changes in the action of the voice instrument (which is further complicated by the fact that changes in resonance can help to facilitate changes in the action of the vocal mechanism); and so on . . .

As a result of the foregoing, it's not often helpful to try to categorize singers in these ways unless there is some reasonably commonly-understood terminology used to make these assignments. In operatic singing, we have the advantage of hundreds of years of evolving tradition that enables us to say that Jussi Björling was a lyric tenor with a big voice whereas Richard Tucker was a spinto tenor, despite the fact that they effectively sang the same repertoire in the same places during the same era. Unfortunately, there is no such tradition or terminology when it comes to high male voices in pop singing, and there is some disagreement about the proper terminology for countertenors/male altos/whatever you want to call them in the classical genre because this tradition is only recently revived into the mainstream consciousness.

One thing I can say is that the author is mistaken if he thinks that any of these guys are singing way up there using "chest voice" which, as he defines it, would correspond to the short/thick action I described above. This is a physiological impossibility. There is a variety of things singers can do to make higher notes sound more "chesty." Indeed, a major evolution in male operatic singing that happened over the course of the 19th Century was to sing higher notes with a greater percentage of short/thick action in the blend, which resulted in a lowering of the average pitch range and an increased emphasis on power over agility for tenors in particular. But more "chest voice" in the blend doesn't come close to approaching mostly "chest voice" in the blend.

Given the fact that all male singers singing in the range contemplated by the author are using some version of a majority long/thin vocal production, it may be useful to consider and understand some of the differences and how this may connect to the concept of "falsetto." One of the difficulties with this term is that there is no widely accepted physiological definition of falsetto, and for most people it is a "recognize it when you hear it" kind of thing. Although not everyone listening to the same tone will agree as to whether it is falsetto or not. One way of thinking of falsetto would be that it is a pure long/thin vocal production without any significant presence of the short/thick vocal production. This is true for many of the singers the author lists as "falsettists." Add even a small amount of the short/thick vocal action into the mix, however, and the tone can start to take on characteristics that make it seem more substantial and "chesty" than falsetto. On the other hand, other things such as singing with an elevated laryngeal position or incomplete closure of the vocal folds can bring one of these beefed up tones back into falsetto territory for many listeners.

It's still hard to say anything definitively, though, because perceptions can be so heavily influenced by context. Consider, for example, a C5 sung by a tenor or a countertenor. The tenor spends most of his time singing pitches between C3 and G4, where he can employ a lot of short/thick vocal action in the blend. So if he sings that "high C" at the end of the night with a much smaller amount of short/thick vocal action in the blend, audiences are likely to say "oh, he had to take that note in falsetto." Meanwhile, the countertenor spends most of his time singing pitches between A3 and E5, where it is not possible to employ nearly as much short/thick vocal action in the blend. So if he sings the same C5 with the same blend that the tenor used, audiences may be likely to say "listen to how chesty that was."

There are also a lot of things a singer can to do create a more "chesty sounding" tone, such as configuring the vocal tract to emphasize upper harmonics and put more "bite" into the sound, and, of course, bringing as much short/thick vocal action into the blend as the instrument can withstand. Interestingly, a singer can also create a more "chesty sounding" tone going in the opposite direction, by configuring the vocal tract to emphasize the darkness of the tone quality and reducing the amount of short/thick vocal action in the blend. Pop singers tend to use the former approach, which is facilitated by the use of a microphone, whereas most "big voice" operatic singers use the latter (there are some notable exceptions in both genres). The best approach is also informed by the kind of voice the singer has generally, the former approach working best for naturally brighter and higher voices, and vice-versa.
posted by slkinsey at 2:12 PM on May 19, 2013 [22 favorites]

So, slkinsey--and thank you for a terrific comment--what of the difference between "head voice" and "falsetto"? Re these just not-very-useful qualitative judgments, or is there some genuine systematic difference between them that one can point to in the physiology?
posted by yoink at 2:20 PM on May 19, 2013

Flagged as fantastic, slkinsey. Wow.
posted by KathrynT at 2:44 PM on May 19, 2013

There is no concrete difference that everyone would agree on. Personally, I would say that head voice is a blended production containing "a certain amount" of the short/thick action of the vocal folds. How much short/thick action needs to be in there depends on who is singing and who is listening. But there needs to be some. For me, this is the only criterion that differentiates falsetto from head voice. Other people would say that falsetto must feature incomplete closure of the vocal folds, others would say it has to have an elevated laryngeal position, others would insist on both, and others might have more criteria. These, to me, are faults in vocal production that exist independently of whether or not the tone is falsetto.

I should hasten to point out that the foregoing really only applies to men. An interesting phenomenon about vocal physiology is that women's voices aren't like higher versions of male voices. The pitches that are most felicitous for a majority short/thick vocal action or a majority long/thin vocal action are the same pitches for men and women. What this means is that most male singers do the majority of their singing with a majority short/thick blend and most female singers spend the majority of their singing with a majority long/thin blend. It is only we poor tenors who have to spend plenty of time in both categories of blend, not to mention negotiating the treacherous region of the voice where it is possible to do either kinds of blend and all gradations in between. Most female singers, on the other hand, rarely if ever have to sing pitches that require a majority short/thick blend. This is sometimes called "raw chest" and is usually considered something to avoid (although sometimes it is unavoidable). This is where a lot of confusion arises. Many male singers would consider almost all singing by female singers to be various gradations of (majority long/thin blend) "head voice," whereas many female singers might characterize the bottom of their range as "raw chest" with a zone of "chest voice" above that. So now we have a vocal production that many men would call "head voice" and many women would call "chest voice." This misunderstanding has constituted the basis of many disagreements I have had with Mrs. slkinsey while discussing singing.
posted by slkinsey at 2:49 PM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I sing a4 (lowest alto) in a 16-voice chamber choir, and I do sometimes sing what I would call raw chest there. Like when I have to sit on a pedal e3 for a page and a half. On the other hand, when I sing with the Symphony Chorale, I wouldn't sing raw chest on that same note -- I have a d3 upcoming at one point in the Britten War Requiem, and the machinations I go through to make that audible are unbelievable.

this isn't arguing btw. I know very little about this from a physiology point of view, just how differently I sing when I'm doing solo work vs. symphony chorale vs. chamber chorale, and how differently I sing Beethoven vs. Mozart vs. Faure.
posted by KathrynT at 2:58 PM on May 19, 2013

Choral singing and solo operatic singing have such different and incompatible requirements and goals as to be entirely different species of singing. Choral singing requires great flexibility in vocal production in order to blend into the ensemble and accommodate radically different styles of writing. Solo operatic singing, on the other hand, requires the singer to find and refine the optimal vocal production for his of her specific instrument and the vocal requirements of his or her much more narrowly defined range of repertoire. The solo operatic singer will still sing Wagner a little bit differently compared to Verdi or Rodofo compared to Cavaradosdi, simply due to the differences in vocal requirements. These are nowhere near the differences a choral singer must negotiate between singing the Cherubini, Faure, Verdi and Britten Requiems.
posted by slkinsey at 3:22 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Or even the differences between the alto part in the "Crucifixus" and second soprano in "Et resurrexit" two seconds later in the got-danged Bach B Minor, really. (Woe to you if your sopranos can't cut through and you have to tack on S1 in "Et in terra pax hominibus" just for kicks.)
posted by Madamina at 5:48 PM on May 19, 2013

I think of 'head' and 'chest' as resonances, as opposed to vocal chord mechanics. Whereas for me 'falsetto' is a vocal chord coordination. If I sing at the top of my range I can make two very different sounds which are both head resonances (they're the same pitch) but one sounds like falsetto and the other doesn't. But I'm talking pop/rock and I don't know what I'm talking about.
posted by unSane at 6:11 PM on May 19, 2013

So. I used to sing with a rather famous men's chorus, and we would perform Handel's Messiah, along with the women's chorus counterparts, the local symphony, an augment from local women's colleges. We also had professional vocalists for the solos, usually a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass (though sometimes we had a countertenor instead of an alto).

As a joke, during rehersal, the "Men's Section" (the baritones and basses, as we called ourselves) would, after two recicatives from the alto, perform the alto part in full falsetto / head voice, starting here.

So the alto turns from the pulpit (where the soloists sang their pieces) and heads back after only two sections! Our choral director was keeping time, a slow look of dawning horror on his face as he sees all 60 or so of the Bass/Baritone section inhaling for a truly stupendous falsetto piece, just like we had practiced!. The front row of members gesitculate wildly at the alto, who smoothly turns, remounts the steps on the pulpit, and lands on the note and the top step at the same time - "And suddenly, there was with the angel" indeed.

I have a lot of admiration of countertenors and male falsettists - their breath control alone is amazing.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:43 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

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