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Vocal Register, Range & Tessitura

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

To become a good singer, you need to start by getting to know your voice. In this lesson, we'll examine vocal range, register, and tessitura and see how this impacts our understanding of both singing and music in general.

Singing and the Human Voice

What makes some people such good singers, while others aren't? Speaking is a natural part of human communication, so why doesn't this always translate into singing abilities? Well, there are a few things at play here. For starters, the sounds you produce are products of your vocal chords, larynx, and other components of the throat. Some people are more naturally suited to vibrating their vocal chords in a nice way. This sounds weird to say, but that's basically what singing is. For other people, it takes practice, and there's nothing wrong with that. A trumpet will always be a trumpet; it's not changing its shape or quality at all. But with practice, your muscles and voice can be exercised and refined. To start doing this, we need to understand some things about how human singing works.

Vocal Range

One of the first things that many aspiring singers need to establish is their vocal range. Your range is the full set of tones that you are physically capable of producing. It doesn't matter if it sounds pretty, the range simply extends from the lowest note you can make to the highest. With lots of training, singers can extend their ranges one pitch at a time, exercising their vocal chords and throat muscles to produce higher or lower tones. Some people also speak in a useful range, or the spectrum of notes you can sing well.

Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, was famous for the extent of his vocal range
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Vocal Register

Vocal range is a pretty easy concept, but you may have noticed that your voice doesn't sound the same throughout the entire range. Try singing a low note, then one in the middle, then one up high. Does your voice sound have the same quality each time? Probably not, and that's because you're switching registers, or a specific spectrum of tones within your range.

A register is a set of tones that your voice can produce at roughly the same quality and in the same way. If you start low in your range and try to sing a straight line of notes into the upper registers, you should be able to feel when you switch from one register to the next because your larynx shifts and your vocal chords vibrate differently. You may even experience a register break, a point at which it becomes very difficult to sing as you transition between registers. Singers practice for years to smooth out these breaks.

Different Voices

In general, musicians divide vocal registers into a few main categories. We'll start with the lower register of your normal voice, called the chest voice. Your chest voice is where most people's normal talking voice is, and where most people's natural singing voice is situated as well. Try this: place your hand on your chest and sing out a nice, clear tone which is around the same pitch as your normal speaking voice. You should feel the vibrations in you chest (hence the name ''chest voice'').

Now, start to raise your voice higher as you sing. Eventually, you'll notice that those vibrations don't feel concentrated in your chest, as much as they feel concentrated in your upper throat, mouth, and head. You may also feel your throat tightening. This is your head voice, the upper register of your useful range. For most people, their chest voice is open, rich, and deep but can lead to overly open vowel sounds. The head voice, however, is brighter and richer, but generally takes a lot of practice to make it sound good.

Many singers also recognize a third register in their main range, called the middle or mixed voice. This is a combination of head and chest voices, and helps singers more fluidly transition over those register breaks. It can take a lot of work to build up the middle voice, but will also greatly impact your singing.

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