For singers looking to incorporate more dynamic and stylistic choices in their higher range, it’s helpful to understand how these two terms are both similar and different from each other.
Let’s start with what they have in common—which is a lot!
Head voice and falsetto are both produced by thin vocal folds, a coordination that is often referred to as CT dominant (vocal nerd moment: CT stands for cricothyroid muscle, which is the muscle that thins the vocal folds out).
Most singers also feel that head voice and falsetto resonate in similar spots of the body, somewhere in the head area.
When sung quietly, head voice and falsetto can also sound similar. But as soon as they are used at a louder dynamic level, you’ll be able to clearly tell the difference.
Dynamics reveal the difference.
The breathy and relatively thin nature of a falsetto tone will become very evident as compared to head voice, which has a clearer and richer timbre at a louder tone.
Head voice has some of the buzzing element that most people know so well from chest voice. This is because when singing in head voice, the vocal folds close (adduct) more than when singing in falsetto.
[In the first chorus, Jordy switches into falsetto for all the higher lines, but on the final line, he sings in a connected head voice: “I like you a little too much for that.”]
The additional closure in head voice is caused by the activity of the TA, which is short for thyroarytenoid muscle. It’s the same muscle that is very active in the production of chest voice.;
For this reason, chest voice and head voice can be blended well, whereas falsetto and chest voice have opposite sound qualities.
Head voice can even be built to a point where it sounds like a natural continuation of chest voice. Just listen to these examples:
- “Legendary High C’s” by Luciano Pavarotti
- “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry
- “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin
Whereas pure falsetto is hardly used outside of stylistic effects or shorts phrases, there are some singers that walk the line between head voice and falsetto by using what is sometimes referred to as “supported falsetto.” They add in just enough vocal fold adduction (TA activity) to get a sound that carries better but still keeps the timbre of the voice very thin.;
Examples would include the Bee Gees or Earth, Wind & Fire in many of their choruses.
Am I using head voice or falsetto?
If you ever have doubts about whether you are in head voice or falsetto, there is a pretty reliable guideline: You can hold a note in head voice a lot longer than in falsetto, since stronger vocal fold adduction lets less air escape. So if you run out of breath quickly, chances are you are in falsetto.
A singer with a balanced voice will have access to both head voice and falsetto. This is an exciting prospect when you realize all the different colors and sound qualities you can find with both!