Head Voice vs. Falsetto: the Difference for Singers (and How to Do Both)

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As you progress through your singing career, you’ll likely question how you can better improve your vocal skills and style. Perhaps you’re wondering how Beyoncé hit those high falsetto notes on her latest album—or maybe you’re wondering how to best use a head voice like Ed Sheeran. The trick is that most accomplished singers can navigate between head voice and falsetto smoothly, creating a harmonious sound called mixed voice. Keep reading for information, tips, and techniques to help you achieve the ideal mixed voice.


What is falsetto?

Ariana Grande on stage with backup dancersFashionStock.com/Shutterstock

Falsetto, a Latin term meaning “false voice,” is defined by its airy, tinny sound. This sound is purposefully created to hit very high notes by loosening the vocal cord closure.

Both male and female singers use this technique to achieve their desired sound. However, men are often thought of as the primary users of falsetto, since it’s easier to notice the difference when they sing from their deeper chest voice before switching to a higher register: think of Chris Martin’s airy vocal mix in "Higher Power." Because women’s voices tend to have naturally higher pitches, it can be more difficult to identify true falsetto, like in Ariana Grande’s "Moonlight."

What is head voice?

Sam Smith singing on stageDebby Wong/Shutterstock

Head voice is defined by its richer and steadier vibrato resonating at a higher range than the normal speaking voice. Though head voice is similar to falsetto in the way they are both used to sing at a higher pitch, it’s important for singers to keep in mind that head voice does not contain the breathy, lighter sound found in falsetto. For example, Sam Smith uses head voice to create the lighter but powerful register in "I’m Not the Only One." 

“The voice should always be felt either in the chest, face, or head,” says Los Angeles–based celebrity vocal coach Valerie Morehouse. “As the singer leaves the chest, for example, for a woman it’s an A to a B flat and above a middle C is where you have to switch gears; and for a man, it’s in the F or F sharp range.” When you go past that range, she adds, “your notes start to bypass the neck, go into the face area, and to the head, which is a cavernous and resonating space.”

How to know if you’re using falsetto or head voice

Contestants performing on 'America's Got Talent'Trae Patton/NBC

Since both head voice and falsetto are identifiable by their lighter sounds, you may wonder how to identify which style you use while singing. “A lot of the time with the falsetto, you can do different runs that you [can’t do] with head voice, because you’re using less energy,” says singer-songwriter Autumn Rowe, who served as a vocal coach on "America’s Got Talent." “If your sound is stronger and your vocal cords are more compressed for control of your notes, that’s your head voice.” 

“If your singing is a little too breathy, you’re not in your head voice,” Morehouse adds, explaining that a mix of the two is ideal for better vocal support. “Sometimes singers can put a little too much weight on their head voice as well—a mix is quite loud and you should learn how to sing from resonance, not muscle. That’s the biggest mistake singers make. If you’re in your chest voice on a verse, and then you hit a sharp chorus and your vocal cords are starting to tighten, that’s a bad sign. That means you’re in the wrong space [for both styles]. So blending and getting stronger muscles in the neck are most important.”

Is it better to use head voice or falsetto?

Jeff Bridges on 'The Old Man'“The Old Man” Credit: Prashant Gupta/FX Networks

Whether you’re still trying to figure out your personal vocal style or prepping for a singing audition, you may be wondering about any pros and cons between the two styles. The answer is that it’s situational: Sometimes it’s better to breathe out the lighter, airy notes of falsetto, and other times it’s preferable to hit the richer head voice sound. 

For auditions and performances, “you need to be able to identify the different sounds you want to achieve,” Morehouse advises. “You need to have chest voice, mix, head voice, and falsetto all working together as a unit because oftentimes the songs [at auditions] go a bit higher, and they’re going to wanna hit that in a head voice. And if you don’t know how to hit it strong without any tension, you’re going to sound weird and you’re going to be off-key. So you have to have all of your instrument fully.” 

If you need a little encouragement about accessing all parts of your voice, look no further than veteran actor-singer Jeff Bridges, who—thanks to Morehouse—is hitting sharp notes on FX’s "The Old Man" at the age of 72. “We were going up in scale and [Jeff] wasn’t going into his head voice or falsetto, he was just grabbing, and that’s what a lot of singers do when they don’t use those parts of their voice,” Morehouse notes. “And he says, ‘Well, I don’t really use that part.’ And I said, ‘But if you don’t use it, you’re gonna lose it.’ And once we taught him how to get up there, [he] literally lit up like a Christmas tree because he felt how easy it was to sing that high. And then everything below those notes felt simple and felt easy. It’s like stretching your body out. It’s athletics. Singing is athletic. It’s not always a measure of ability, it’s just a measure of technique.”

How to train your vocal cords for a successful head voice, falsetto, and mixed voice

Bruno Mars performing on stageBrian Friedman/Shutterstock

The ability to transition from head voice to falsetto smoothly is a source of insecurity for many singers, as mixed voice can be tricky to navigate without proper training. According to vocal coaches Morehouse and Rowe, to hit these registers, you must:

  • Study and learn: Sometimes the best way to learn a new skill is by watching others. Morehouse notes Chris Martin, Sam Smith, and Adam Levine as singers with strong command of tone and range in head voice and falsetto. Similarly, Rowe says she listens to Maxwell, Bruno Mars, and Jon Batiste for inspiration. Rowe also suggests the vocal training program "Singing for the Stars" by Seth Riggs to help perfect your scales. 
  • Think expansive: Head voice and falsetto are not particularly suited to a specific vocal type, so don’t let your own hold you back. “Everybody has a tone in their voice where they might sound a little bit more natural singing, but don’t put yourself in a box,” Morehouse says. “It’s very damaging to think you’re only one type of singer. A vocal coach can see how much you can stretch your range and make it possible for people to sing all types of music. If you’re a good self-starter, you can grow your vocal cords and stretch to ranges you never thought possible.” 
  • Learn your bridges: Morehouse says she loves to test singers on their vocal bridges. Conquering these bridges can lead to smooth vocal transitions. “Singers need to understand bridges… They need to get familiar with those places in the voice where you have to shift gears in the body and leave the chest and go into the face and into the head, bypassing all the neck muscles,” she says. “So learn your bridges—otherwise, you’re just flapping out in the wind going, ‘I don’t know why that’s gotten difficult on that verse or that hook.’”
  • Practice good vocal health: Vocal exercises and proper breathing techniques are important, especially for falsetto, which relies on steady airflow. Rowe suggests the siren method—open up your vocal cords and really let loose—to help transition into a higher register. “It’s a great tool to see whether your voice is rested, hydrated, and connected. [The exercise] will sound broken if you’re tired.” 
  • And just practice: The more you test out your head voice, falsetto, and mixed voice—while heeding vocal health—the better. Training your vocal cords through regular practice will allow you to sing better, stronger, and higher.

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