Falsetto: Definition, Songs & Singers

Instructor: Sharon Rhinesmith
In this lesson, you will learn about a type of singing called falsetto. Falsetto is an artificially high pitched singing voice used primarily by male singers to sing outside of their normal range.

What Is Falsetto ?

When listening to a singer on the radio, do you ever wonder if the singer is a man or a woman? What you were hearing was probably a man singing in falsetto.

Falsetto in Italian means 'a little false.' It is produced with only the edges of the vocal cords that are stretched open rather than using the full cords and is pitched much higher than the normal range for a male singer. It also has a hooty or breathy quality rather than a full resonant one and involves an abrupt change in register. For these reasons, many voice teachers consider this type of singing to be fake or even unhealthy because it can lead to vocal fatigue and take away from the smooth, flowing musical phrase desirable in many kinds of music.

Where Can You Find Falsetto Singing in Music?

Falsetto singing is common, especially in the popular singing world. Audiences are drawn to the sweet quality of the sound, and singers like having a different range to explore.

Robin Gibb's 'Stayin' Alive,' Frankie Valli's 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough' are good examples of singers who employed falsetto for dramatic appeal. The background singers in 'Big Girls' and 'Stayin'Alive' use their natural voices, so when the lead singer suddenly switches up into a high falsetto, it creates contrast and provides an element of excitement and even surprise to the song that they can add to their artistic arsenal.

Falsetto is found in the classical world as well. Traditional English men and boy choirs typically have a male alto part that uses falsetto. Falsetto allows the singer to use a cleaner - some would say purer - sound with very little vibrato and better intonation (pitch). This makes it easier to sing music from the Renaissance, for example, where straighter tones are more stylistic of the period.

Countertenors

A countertenor is a male singer who sings in falsetto in an alto range- a range normally sung by a woman. Countertenors have become popular in Baroque vocal music, such as the music of Bach or Handel, and in leading male opera parts that once were sung in 17th and 18th century Italy by a castrati.

A castrati did not use falsetto. Instead they were castrated so that they could produce a naturally high voice. They were enormously popular because they could thrill audiences not only with their powerful high notes but also with their stunning vocal acrobatics, like fast running passages and trills. For obvious reasons, castratis are no longer used.

Countertenors, whose natural voice falls typically in the male baritone range, use a kind of reinforced falsetto. This means they sing in a high register but with more resonance than a typical pop singer with falsetto would use, and it allows them to sing in a way that more closely resembles what a castrati used to do.

How do countertenors do it? Well, as I mentioned before, when you sing in your normal range, your entire vocal folds vibrate, and the folds open and close each time they vibrate. In falsetto, the vocal folds are stretched open all the time and only the edges vibrate. This creates a light, colorless sound.

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