Leon Thurman, Ed.D., Graham Welch, Ph.D., Axel Theimer, D.M.A., Carol Klitzke, M.S., CCC/SLP

Vocal registers are controversial in the pedagogical, clinical, and scientific domains of vocology. For centuries, concepts and practices related to vocal register phenomena, including their linguistic labels, have been somewhat varied and commonly contradictory.

Yet, within both the voice science and the voice education communities of the early 21st century, discrepancies remain in the conceptual frameworks, terminologies, and practices that are related to vocal registers. To people who are not familiar with the jargon of the voice-related professions, these incongruities are puzzling, confusing, and can even call into question the credibility of voice profession members.

Seven explicit or implicit assumptions that are imbedded in the jargon of vocal registers:

  1. There are speaking-voice registers and singing-voice registers. [implicit assumption: all human beings have two voices (larynges), one for speaking voice, one for singing voice]
  2. Chest register is associated with lower singing pitch range and a comparatively “thicker” voice quality. [implicit assumption: it is activated by neuromuscular coordinations, or other phenomena, that occur within the chest and thus produces perceivable vibration sensations therein]
  3. Head register is associated with higher singing pitch range and a comparatively “thinner” voice quality. [implicit assumption: it is activated by neuromuscular coordinations, or other phenomena, that occur within the head and thus produces perceivable vibration sensations therein]
  4. Falsetto register is associated with highest singing pitch range, or with all pitches produced above chest register, and a comparatively “thinnest” (or “thinner”) voice quality. [confusing implications: in Western cultures, it is strongly associated with a female-like voice quality produced by males; a “false” or “fake” voice that is of little or no practical use except in comedy; is falsetto the register of the entire pitch range above chest in both genders?]
  5. Middle register is associated with a middle singing pitch range and a voice quality that is a “mixture” of chest and head (or falsetto) registers. [confusing implication: How does this fit with #4 above?]
  6. When voices change from one register to another, unskilled vocalists typically experience register breaks (abrupt transitions), but skilled vocalists have learned how to blend the transitions. A lower and an upper passaggio pitch area are in all voices; they define the pitch range of middle register.
  7. Each register can be performed throughout the entire capable pitch range of all singers, from lowest capable pitch to highest.

Among singing teachers, three perceived vocal characteristics are correlated when registers are categorized and labeled: (1) pitch range (based on frequency), (2) voice quality (spectral characteristics), and to some extent (3) volume (amplitude/intensity).

Scientific voice research has assembled anatomical, physiological, and acoustical parameters that may be correlated with these perceived register phenomena:

  1. vocal fold length (longer-shorter),
  2. vocal fold thickness (thicker-thinner),
  3. vocal fold tautness (greater-lesser),
  4. vocal fold adduction force during vibration,
  5. vocal fold contact area during vibration,
  6. vocal fold tissue depth during vibration,
  7. mode of vocal fold vibration
  8. interaction of vocal tract and tracheal resonance with vocal fold vibratory function

This paper will present a reconciliation of the varied and conflicting register concepts, terminologies, and practices by:

  1. presenting a brief historical context of vocal registers,
  2. proposing a documented science-based theory that accounts for all vocal register phenomena from perceptual, physiological, and acoustical perspectives,
  3. proposing criteria for selection of categorical word labels for register phenomena and suggest terms that meet them,
  4. suggesting how the theory can be beneficially applied to the teaching of efficient, skilled singing and speaking among music educators, choral conductors, singing teachers, speech teachers, theatre directors, and to therapeutic clinical settings.

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