In the past 20 years there has been an increase of male singers in popular music who use falsetto to sing their songs. Indeed, some artists, like Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Chris Martin of Coldplay, have based their whole careers on singing falsetto.
As a result, many young men today try to imitate them and confuse their singing falsetto with countertenoring. Though both techniques allow you to reach the same high notes, they are extremely different in a physical level, and are utilized by different voice types.
Believe it or not, most people who utilize falsetto because they can’t reach high notes in their full voice, are not countertenors, not even tenors, but actually baritones. Read on to learn more about it.
As a quick side note at this point, I want to note that women, too, can sing in a less developed falsetto, but most of the time they don’t have a use for it. The only tradition that utilizes female falsetto is classical Indian singing.
1. Falsetto Definition
Falsetto is a type of pseudo-voice, or false voice (therefore false-tto), which results when a man tries to imitate a female voice or sing notes that are higher than his normal range.
Falsetto is not a legitimate, higher version of the male voice, but instead it’s a fake, artificial, and disembodied sound that started and was encouraged in the sacred music tradition because women were not allowed to participate in choirs.
Though up to the 16th century little boys would sing the soprano parts, the Baroque fashion with its intricate and flamboyant designs had a toll in music as well. Melodic lines became too hard for boys to sing and therefore falsettists were called in to take on their place.
Falsettist is somebody who utilizes, usually, only falsetto in his singing. So again, Adam Levine and Chris Martin are falsettists, not countertenors.
In the classical tradition, falsettists can, also, be known as male altos, but I personally feel that this characterization is not appropriate as a female alto sings in full voice, whereas a male alto doesn’t.
Male singers usually switch to falsetto between a C4 and an E4.
2. How Does Falsetto Work?
In normal, full singing, your entire vocal folds vibrate, with the elastic mucous membrane billowing as air passes through, and opening and closing with each vibration. If you’re not squeamish, take a look at this high speed Youtube video of vocal folds vibrating.
In falsetto singing, however, the vocal folds stay open all throughout the sound production and only their edges vibrate as air is blasted through them.
Though it might seem that falsetto is easier to sing because you need less air to produce sound than with full voice singing, it’s actually more strenuous and fatigue can come about really fast.
The reason for this is because although you need less air to make the edges of your vocal folds vibrate, you need to push that air out really fast in order to overcome the stretched vocal fold resistance.
Think of it as trying to make an overstretched guitar chord produce sound. You have to put some effort when striking it. It’s the same thing with falsetto; you have to utilize your diaphragm and tense your abdominal muscles in order to blast out air.
Knowing that it’s only the edges of the vocal folds that vibrate during falsetto singing, it’s also a very good indication of why falsetto sound is so light and lacking in timbre. The warmth and depth of a singing voice is directly correlated to the amount of harmonics that a sound has.
Harmonics are, basically, secondary multiple frequencies of the primary frequency the air vibrates at when we produce sound. So, if the air vibrates at 261.6 Hz when you sing the middle C, the second harmonic vibrates at 523.2 Hz, the third harmonic vibrates at 784.8 Hz, etc. The more the harmonics you produce, the more full that note sounds.
Since it’s only the edges of the vocal folds that vibrate when singing falsetto, it’s natural that the sound lacks in harmonics, and thus the notes sound light and disembodied.
3. Am I a Countertenor?
Well guys, I’m sorry to say that more than 98% of the times the answer is going to be “no.” But read on to learn why and determine whether you’re part of that 1-2% who gets a “yes.”
Due to the popularity of falsetto singing in pop, musical theater, and gospel music, many singers have realized how to sing in falsetto and are confused as to which voice type category they belong to.
Traditionally, the range of a countertenor extends one octave above tenor range, so the octave starting with C5, with some extreme countertenors being able to sing in the C6 octave. Just to put it in perspective, that’s the real of the coloratura soprano.
What separates a countertenor from a falsettist is his method of sound production. Although in falsetto singing the vocal folds stay open and only their edges vibrate, in countertenoring the vocal folds open and close normally with each vibration cycle and can billow like in natural singing.
This is why even though both countertenors and falsettists can sing the same notes, countertenors can sing in a full, non-breathy voice, and can even utilize vibrato, something falsettists can’t do.
If you feel that you have two different ranges, a baritone range and a countertenor range, you can be sure that you are a baritone with a developed falsetto voice and not a countertenor.
At this point I would like to note that countertenors are NOT castratos. They are men whose singing mechanism has not matured due to hormonal imbalances, and does, therefore, resemble more that of a child. A countertenor who gets treated for this hormonal imbalance, can actually lose his ability to sing so high.
4. How to Sing in Falsetto
All men can sing in falsetto. If you feel that you can’t, worry not. It just means that you haven’t yet realized how to. The best way to figure out how to sing falsetto is to try to imitate a woman speaking or a woman singing.
If you’re a high tenor, you might not be sure if you’re singing in falsetto or not, as you might be able to sing the same notes in full voice. That might, actually, be a good thing, as in the classical tradition singers are disparaged for using falsetto if they can sing the same notes in full voice.
But unless you want to become an opera singer, you have no reason not to utilize falsetto. Many choir directors will, indeed, encourage their singers to use it to finesse their higher notes or even reach them in the first place.
Though it might be counterintuitive, experience has showed us that it’s baritones and not tenors that make the best falsettists. Since more than 65% of male singers are baritones and there isn’t a baritone section in a choir, it makes sense for choir baritones to try to develop their falsetto and transition from full voice to falsetto, and sing in the tenor section.
Extra: Falsetto and Yodeling
So how’s falsetto connected to yodeling? I really wanted to include this part in the post because I found the connection to be very interesting.
Believe it or not, yodeling is not really a different and esoteric singing art. Instead, it’s the ability to move really fast from chest/middle register notes to falsetto notes (in women from chest/middle register notes to head register notes).
Of course there’s a lot of technique involved in learning how to do so properly, but still, you can’t become a great yodeler unless you know how to sing in falsetto. Who knew?
If you think that you learnt something from reading this post, sign up for my newsletter and keep more new cool articles coming.
I would like to thank my good friend, great tenor, and teacher Greg Pyrialakos who helped me write this post by providing me with relevant bibliography, and my amazing lyric tenor husband, George Banis, who was very patient with me while I made him transition from full voice to falsetto and back and quizzed him all the way through.