Vocal register

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Singing registers refer to physical attitudes in human singing that evoke certain pitches and timbres . The sound impression of the untrained human voice differs significantly in different pitch ranges and breaks can occur between these ranges. Since it is the ideal of European artistic singing to compensate for these vocal qualities and to make the transitions imperceptible ( register compensation ), the term register plays a particularly important role in vocal pedagogy and in research into the human voice.


Figure 1: The laryngoscopy. From: Garcia, 1884

There are two different approaches to register definition and division:

  1. the commonly used phenomenological or acoustic definition: "A commonly used definition says that a register is a phonation frequency range [i.e. vocal range] in which all tones are perceived as if they originated in a similar way and had a similar timbre " (Sundberg , 1997).
  2. the functional or laryngeal definition, it is based on the findings of Manuel Patricio Rodríguez García , the inventor of the larynx mirror , since around the middle of the 19th century.According to this, a register is a series of homogeneous (same-sounding) tones that are formed by a mechanism of the vocal apparatus that can be distinguished from another series of homogeneous tones based on a different, different mechanism.

Since the register divisions resulting from the two definitions do not necessarily have to coincide and the first definition has a not inconsiderable subjective part, it is understandable that there is a lot of confusion and controversy about the registers and their division. Therefore, in the following, the two definitions are to be used separately.

Register division

Phenomenological Register

The following list tries to give the most common names and descriptions for the phenomenological registers.

  • The straw bass register, buzz register or pulse register is the lowest register that occurs in men, and more rarely in women. It generates creaking, deep noises in the range below approx. 70 Hz. In this frequency range, the vibrations are perceived as individual "pulses". The use of the straw bass register is not common in European art singing, but it can be used e.g. B. in the singing of certain Asian peoples (" undertone singing ").
  • The chest voice register is also known as the full voice or the modal voice and is the main register of the middle pitch for men and the lowest register for women. With women, the chest voice is mostly avoided in modern European art song or used as a special means of expression in the lowest register. Multiple uses in the pop area.
  • The middle voice or voix mixte represents a tonal mixture of chest and falsetto or head voice. The middle voice has a special meaning as a "mediator" between the registers with regard to register equalization. The middle voice is the main register of the middle pitch for women.
  • The term head voice is used either as a synonym for the middle voice or as a synonym for the falsetto, occasionally it is assigned a meaning of its own beyond that. The head voice is also often used in the high, supported tones of the men above the male passaggio . For most singers, the passagio, the transition between the chest and head voices, is particularly important in higher registers and is often clearly audible with an untrained voice. It is generally less pronounced in female singers.
  • The falsetto is, except for the whistle register, the highest range of the voice. In a man's untrained voice, the result is a breathy, relatively weak sound raised by an octave, as in the imitation of the female voice. The trained falsetto voice is that of the countertenor or alto and is characterized by a good load-bearing capacity and sound mixing in the depth by chest and head voices. The falsetto voice is occasionally used as a synonym for falsetto . As a rule, however, only the breathy, weak falsetto voice of the untrained singer is addressed as a fistulous voice .
  • The whistle register (also called the flageolet register ) is the highest register of the human voice. It is usually used to produce notes from around e '' '(e3, international designation E6). These tones no longer allow swell tones, articulation and vowel differentiation. It is very rare for men to sing with this whistling voice.

Functional registers

Fig. 2: Schematic representation of a vocal fold in cross section
Fig. 3: Movement of the vocal folds in the modal function, after Hirano, 1968

The basis of the functional register division is on the one hand physiological measuring examinations with the help of modern examination techniques such as B. electroglottograms (EGG), in which the opening and closing phases of the glottis are measured, or the direct stroboscopic observation of the movements of the vocal folds . On the other hand, the sound spectra of the various register areas and in particular the formant characteristics to be measured were examined.

In principle, the following functional registers can be distinguished based on the activity of the vocal folds:

  • In the straw bass function , the vocalis muscles, and thus the entire vocal folds, are short and thick, relaxed and supple. The vocal folds vibrate with only very short opening times and long closing phases, they generate deep, creaking noises.
  • In the modal function , the entire vocal folds also vibrate, with a vertical phase difference occurring. The vocal folds are thick and have a comparatively large vibrating mass and vibration amplitude. The opening and closing phases are more even than the straw bass function up to the point where the opening phases predominate. The sounds produced correspond to the chest voice.
Fig. 4: Movement of the vocal folds in the falsetto function
  • In the falsetto function , the vocal folds are thin and the vibration amplitude is significantly lower compared to the modal voice (chest voice). Only the edges of the mucous membrane (marginal edges) of the vocal folds (in Figure 2 the mucosa ) vibrate , which is why we speak of the marginal voice here. A vertical phase difference no longer occurs. The opening phase is always longer than the closing phase, the vocal fold closure is often only incomplete, especially with breathy phonation. In the literature, a further mechanism in the falsetto voice is occasionally described: during the transition to the falsetto function, the vocal folds should be closed by the position of the cartilage on the part facing the cartilage in such a way that only about 2/3 of the vocal folds or their Edge edges can swing.
  • Knowledge of the whistle function is still the most incomplete. The vocal folds are probably closed except for a small residual opening and the vocal cords do not vibrate or hardly vibrate, the sound is produced by the air turbulence behind the residual opening , similar to whistling with the mouth.

If one ignores the straw bass and whistle function , there are two functional registers , the modal function and the falsetto function. Occasionally there are also 3-register hypotheses . The American researcher and vocal teacher Lloyd W. Hanson finds an area between the modal function and the head voice that he calls middle voice or mixed voice .

  • According to Hanson, the main characteristic of middle voice or mixed voice is that the vocal muscle no longer resonates, but the ligament ( vocal cord ) is still involved in the vibration. Only with the head voice only the vocal cord edges vibrate without the involvement of muscles and ligaments. In his opinion, this is the countertenor's register . He differentiates head voice and falsetto in that the vocal cord closure is incomplete in the latter and the voice is therefore breathy.

Since the terminology of individual authors is very inconsistent, especially with falsetto, fistula and whistling voices, modern vocal researchers prefer to work with more objective numbering terms. One example is a work by Henrich et al. The authors carried out electroglottogram measurements on professional singers and were able to clearly distinguish the following four functions:

  • m 0 corresponds to the straw bass function
  • m I corresponds to the modal function in women, modal voice and head voice in men
  • m II falsetto function
  • m III whistling voice with the woman.

This division corresponds to a 2-register hypothesis and is currently the most common way of designation in research on the singing voice.

According to Cornelius L. Reid , the two basic registers, breast and falsetto registers, come about through the different ways in which the muscles of the larynx work together: the breast register and / or modal register is based on the dominance of the internal larynx muscles when the glottis is closed, while falsetto is based on the dominance of the outside vocal cord extensors (musculi cricothyroidei) located in the larynx, with the glottis fully open. The internal muscles of the larynx are functionally part of the respiratory system; their involvement in sound production is obvious, as they open and close the glottis. The external vocal cord tensioners, on the other hand, which tilt the thyroid cartilage of the larynx, are involved in the peristaltic movements during swallowing. The influence of the vocal cord tensioners on the voice is pitch regulation as they elongate and thin the vocal cords.

According to Reid, the independent innervation of these two muscle groups makes it possible to train the voice ( functional voice training ): You can change the interaction of the muscles and thus influence the properties of the vocal folds during sound generation. These properties are the thickness, length and tension of the vocal folds. Since a tone is determined by pitch, volume and timbre (vowel), and since these properties in turn cause the thickness, length and tension of a string (in this case the vocal folds), changes in the interaction of the muscles also affect the quality of the tone.

Register adjustment

Vocal pedagogical concepts for register adjustment

A particularly important concern in vocal pedagogy is the avoidance of register breaks , i.e. the fact that the singer cannot switch smoothly from one register to the other, but that there is an audible transition, either with an overlap in the vocal range or with a gap. On the other hand, it is the ideal of European art singing to “blend” the register transitions and make them imperceptible, or at best to allow breaks as a special means of expression. One such special case is yodelling , where the rapid change from chest to head voice and back is used as a characteristic sound medium.

As a result of the register adjustment, however, the so-called unit register should arise. To achieve this, however, there are numerous, e.g. Sometimes also contradicting methodological approaches. Accordingly, the perception of the number and type of registers and the location and characteristics of the transitions varies greatly.

There are essentially two opposing concepts:

  • A holistic approach is based on the unit register , which mixes the characteristics of the various registers acoustically from the start. The singing student learns, starting from this unit register in a middle, comfortable vocal range, to expand the mixture down to the lowest or highest range. "Isolated" registers should never be used unless this is to be used as a special means of expression.
  • The functional approach is based on the existence of different registers, which are initially developed and practiced separately according to their different physiological bases. The registers that have been strengthened and developed in this way are then merged into a single register. A prominent example is Cornelius Reid with his two-register apprenticeship. He ignores the straw bass register, which is hardly used for singing, and on the other hand assigns the whistle register to the falsetto as a special form. The core of his concept is that there are two and only two registers (modal register and falsetto) and that the vocal pedagogue has to develop and strengthen these separately in order to then merge them together. Falsetto should come in many forms and it should be developed in such a way that something valuable and useful for singing emerges from it. When the two basic registers are combined, their tonal and dynamic properties change. According to Reid, the chest register becomes the chest voice and the falsetto becomes the head voice. These two components together result in the “Voce integra” of lyrical song. The change between the registers (“ponticello”) is ideally not a break, but a gradual switch from the dominance of one mechanism to the dominance of the other. Reid sees himself there in accordance with centuries of experience and refers z. B. on Tosi and Mancini .

Functional investigations

In the study by Henrich mentioned above, the modal voice and head voice could not be distinguished due to the electroglottogram. Obviously the method has its limits, as it only measures the opening and closing phases of the glottis and does not make any further statements, e.g. B. on which muscular systems are involved. In a follow-up study (Castellengo et al.) They had several professional singers of different voices sing in the phonation range in which they each practice the middle voice according to their own statements. As a result, only the mechanisms m I and m II were shown in the EGG, which corresponds to the modal function and the falsetto function. Mixing is probably not done at the level of the larynx setting, but rather controlled by breathing, setting the sound intensity and modifying the sound spectrum through the use of different resonances and, in particular, the formation of the singing formant . Obviously, the singers learn to “imitate” the characteristic properties of the other register with one register and vice versa, so that the two registers in the middle voice largely approach each other from the auditory impression. The middle voice is then not a physiologically separate register.


  • Peter-Michael Fischer: The singer's voice: Analysis of its function and performance - history and methodology of voice training . 2nd edition, Metzler, Stuttgart, Weimar 1998, ISBN 3-476-01604-8
  • N. Henrich: Mirroring the voice from Garcia to the present day: Some insights into singing voice registers . Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology. 31: 3–14, 2006 ( available online here ; PDF; 598 kB)
  • Fritz Klingholz: Medical Guide for Singers . Libri Books on Demand, 2000, ISBN 3-8311-0493-X
  • Johan Sundberg: The Science of the Singing Voice . 1987, The science of the singing voice, German: Friedemann Pabst, Orpheus, Bonn, 1997, ISBN 3-922626-86-6
  • I. Titze: Principles of Voice Production . Prentice Hall, 1994, ISBN 0-1371-7893-X (Facsimile)
  • W. Seidner, U. Eysholdt, Jürgen Wendler (Hrsg.): Textbook of Phoniatrie and Pedaudiology . 4th, completely revised edition. Thieme, Stuttgart, New York 2005, ISBN 3-13-102294-9
  • Günter Wirth, Tadeus Nawka: voice disorders , Deutscher Ärzte-Verlag, 5th edition, Cologne 2008, ISBN 3-7691-1142-7

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Johan Sundberg: The Science of Singing Voice 1997, p. 74
  2. Manuel Garcia: Mémoire sur la voix humaine, présente´ à l'Académie des Sciences en 1840, Encyclographie des sciences médicales, Bruxelles, 1840, Vol 4 No 2, p. 391 ( online here at Google Books , see discussion: "Link to the original work Manuel Garcia").
  3. ^ Minoru Hirano: The vocal cord during phonation . Igaku no Ayumi 80 (1968), no. 10. pp. 622-627
  4. a b N. Henrich, B. Roubeau, M. Castellengo: On the use of electroglottography for characterization of the laryngeal mechanisms . Proc. Stockholm Music Acoustics Conf., 2003, Stockholm, Sweden, pp. 455–458 ( available online here ).
  5. ^ Cornelius L. Reid: The Free Voice: A Guide to Natural Singing . Boston: Coleman and Ross, 1965. Reprint, New York: Joseph Patelson Music House, 1975. ISBN 0-915282-02-X .
  6. ^ A. Bybee, JE Ford (Ed.): The Modern Singing Master - Essays in Honor of Cornelius L. Reid , Scarecrow Press, Inc. Lanham, London 2002, ISBN 0-810-85173-3 .
  7. M. Castellengo, B. Chuberre, N. Henrich: Is Voix Mixte, the Vocal Technique Used to Smoothe the transition across the two Main Laryngeal Mechanisms on Independent Mechanism? . Proc. Intern. Symp. Musical Acoustics, 2004, NARA, Japan, 4 pp. ( Available online here ).