Head Voice vs Falsetto: What’s the Difference?

Head Voice vs Falsetto: What’s the Difference?

What is falsetto?

The terms “head voice” and “falsetto” have confused singers for a long time.

And for good reason:

The terms head voice and falsetto make people think that singing is happening outside of their voice.

But with the help of modern science, we know that in head voice, the voice is not really coming from the top of the head.

And falsetto isn’t false or wrong; it’s actually a very real and useful sound.

What Is the Difference Between Falsetto and Head Voice?

Is head voice the same as falsetto? There’s been some confusion on this question in the past, so let’s clear the air now.

While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.

Let’s talk more about the difference between these different vocal registers and more importantly, learn how to sing in head voice on high notes.

By the way, if you want a vocal program that will take you through all these singing techniques, you can check out my complete singing course, Master Your Voice, here.

Also, if you want to watch a great video that will take you through all the exercises to improve your head voice and falsetto, check this out:

Head Voice vs Falsetto: What's the Difference?

Chest Voice, Head Voice, and Falsetto:

Before we start talking about the differences between head voice singing and falsetto singing, we should compare the two main vocal registers in singing: head voice vs chest voice.

So, what is a head voice in singing?

Here’s what you need to know:

The chest voice is the range of notes at the bottom of your voice.

how to hit high notes

And head voice is the range of notes at the top.

how to hit high notes

But even though these terms can be confusing, here’s all you need to memorize:

The chest voice is created by thick vocal folds.

And head voice is created by thin vocal folds.

That’s it!

Think of a guitar.

close up of the strings on an acoustic guitar

As you start to play higher and higher notes, you have to use thinner strings.

The voice works the exact same way.

So those low notes at the bottom of your voice are created by thick vocal cords, while the high ones are thinner.

People ask me sometimes: is chest voice better than head voice? Is it bad to sing in head voice?

Not at all! Each has its own uses.

The trick is to learn how to switch from chest voice to head voice and use each at the right time.

Now that you’re familiar with how your voice is split into the two different vocal registers, we can finally tackle that all-important question: what does it mean to sing in falsetto?

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of falsetto vs head voice.

Exclusive Bonus: Download our FREE Video with 3 bonus exercises to develop your head voice and falsetto.

Head Voice vs Falsetto: What’s the Difference?

I’m fond of saying that for every voice teacher, there is a different vocal technique.

And when we’re talking about how to sing falsetto, different vocal techniques label things differently.

This creates confusion in the student and they begin to mislabel what’s really happening in the voice.

The falsetto definition and head voice definition are common stumbling blocks for a beginning singer.

So here’s all you need to know about the difference between head voice and falsetto.

Falsetto Voice Definition

Falsetto is a mode of singing that sounds breathy, flutey and hollow.

It’s usually found in the upper registers of male and female singers.

hands playing a clarinet

We’ve all heard someone sing in falsetto voice at some point in our lives.

Some of the time, the breathy quality of falsetto is used for effect to sound otherworldly and beautiful or young.

Some of my favorite singers have used falsetto for effect.

Do Females Have Falsetto?

Yes!

Singers of all genders are capable of falsetto. However, female singers were thought, for a time, to not be capable of falsetto.

This myth, I think, came from the fact that women tend to have higher vocal ranges. This made their switch to falsetto less noticeable than for men.

But plenty of studies have since shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.

Falsetto Examples:

You can hear falsetto all the time in Pop, Rock and Folk Music.

So here are a few examples so you can train your ears to hear the falsetto.

Here’s Charlie Puth’s “We Don’t Talk Anymore”.

Charlie Puth - We Don't Talk Anymore (feat. Selena Gomez) [Official Video]

Listen to that breathy falsetto.

You can hear through the whole chorus.

Or take a look at Maroon 5’s “Sugar”.

Maroon 5 - Sugar (Official Music Video)

Again, pretty much the whole chorus is on a falsetto.

For a Rock example, take a listen to the Queens of the Stone Age song “I Sat By the Ocean”.

QOTSA - I Sat By The Ocean (Live On Letterman)

Front man Josh Homme goes to that breathy falsetto on the 2nd line of every verse.

But falsetto isn’t always used for effect.

Sometimes, falsetto is the result of the voice breaking that is completely undesired.

We’ve all heard this too.

The voice cracks as it is rising and a breathy, cracky sound is all we hear--usually with a drop in volume.

But in order to completely understand what causes falsetto, we need to take a look at the vocal folds.

Exclusive Bonus: Download our FREE Video with 3 bonus exercises to develop your head voice.

The Mechanics of Falsetto Voice

How do you sing in falsetto? What are the vocal mechanics behind the falsetto voice?

Well, when we sing, the vocal folds (or cords) come together to vibrate.

This vibration is caused by resistance to the air coming from your lungs.

This vibration is rich in harmonic frequencies and creates the raw material of singing.

There are 3 modes in which the vocal folds can resist air from the lungs: pressed, breathy and flow.

Now each of these modes create a very different sound.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Pressed Phonation – Pressed phonation is when there is an excessive amount of resistance to air at the vocal fold level.

Since the cords are pushing hard against the air from your lungs, the resulting sound is “pressed” with a bright metallic tone.

Pressed Phonation is similar to singing with chest voice.

It results in a lot of sound, but can be a strainy if taken too high.

2. Breathy Phonation – Breathy phonation is a mode where there is a lack of resistance to air flow at the vocal folds.

The vocal folds open or unapproximated

Since the vocal cords aren’t pushing to resist the air, breath escapes and the sound is “breathy” with a flute-like tone.

Breathy Phonation is similar to singing with falsetto.

The breathy, fluty tone doesn’t have the strength of the chest voice.

3. Flow Phonation – Flow phonation is the perfect balance of air and muscle at the vocal folds.

The vocal folds closed or approximated

The vocal cords are neither pushing nor giving too much so the sound is neither too pressed or breathy.

But it’s still strong and resonant.

Flow Phonation is similar to singing with a mix of the chest voice and head voice.

Check out this video explaining the differences between falsetto and head voice.

Hitting High Notes (Without Falsetto)--Sing Higher Notes

Which Vocal Mode is Falsetto?

Falsetto voice is nothing more than a breathy phonation in the head voice register.

What does all that mean?

Basically, falsetto is just a breathy version of head voice.

So how does this happen?

Often when a singer is straining and too pressed in their singing, the muscles in the vocal folds can simply “give up” and disconnect.

So rather than having an even, balanced tone at the top, the voice goes from pressed to too breathy.

man holding his throat in pain

Alternatively, a voice that starts breathy isn’t resisting the air from your lungs well to begin with so they will lose even more resistance in the higher register.

So singing too light can also result in falsetto.

Head Voice in Singing

So, if Falsetto is a breathy head voice, what does singing in full head voice mean?

Singing with a full head voice (also called “singing with a mix” or “middle voice) is simply when you sing in your head voice register without going breathy.

Put another way, head voice is just a balanced or “flow phonation” at the top part of the voice, or head voice range.

This means that falsetto and head voice are simply two different ways of approaching the same note.

One breathy (falsetto) and one with a balanced tone (“mix” or head voice).

note scale with one very high note

You can hear the difference.

Check out these head voice examples for men:

Take a listen to Sam Smith, one of the greatest head voice singers.

Here’s his song “Money on My Mind”.

Sam Smith - Money On My Mind (Official Video)

Those high notes that Sam is hitting are not JUST falsetto.

There’s a good amount of power in there.

That’s head voice!

Or take a listen to Freddie Mercury sing “Somebody to Love”.

Queen - Somebody To Love (Official Video)

All those high notes have so much power!

Even Paul McCartney sings in a full head voice.

Listen to the 2nd “be” in “Let it Be” here:

Let It Be (Remastered 2009)

In these examples, you can tell that the singer has chosen a more balanced tone for the top of their voice than the breathy falsetto.

It’s not belted like with pure chest voice.

But there’s a lot more power than in pure falsetto and no breathiness in the tone!

Sounds great, right?!

The best falsetto singers know how to balance their falsetto and head voice to achieve this level of power and clarity.

So let’s talk about how to get that sound.

How to Sing in Head Voice Without Using Falsetto

As we discussed earlier, falsetto comes from vocal folds that are too thin to resist the air from your lungs.

Sometimes, it can be caused by a breathy voice on the bottom.

It can also be caused by too much strain and pressure at the cords that results in the vocal folds simply “giving up”.

Singing too lightly or heavily are two of the Most Common Vocal Mistakes.

In either case falsetto is the result.

By the way, if you want to learn to sing through your different vocal registers without just going to falsetto, you can check out my complete singing course, Master Your Voice, here.

No matter which situation you find yourself in, we need to find a balanced resistance at the vocal folds.

That means finding anything thicker than falsetto on those top notes.

So let’s talk about the different ways to hit high notes without falsetto.

If you’re singing light and breathy…

We know that if your voice is light and breathy on the bottom, then your high notes will be too.

So how do you hit those high notes without falsetto?

The first thing we need to do is get the vocal folds a little bit thicker so they can resist the air from your lungs.

Here’s a picture of a what a cross section of thick vocal cords would look like:

fully contracted vocal chord shorteners

See how thick they are?

In order to find those thick vocal cords with your voice, we need to find your chest voice.

If you haven’t heard the term chest voice before, check out this article on How to Hit High Notes.

It covers the 3 different modes of hitting high notes and has exercises for each.

But here’s all you need to know:

The chest voice is one of the modes of singing high notes where the vocal folds are thick and stretched.

Singing this way is also known as belting.

Belting is known for that bright, powerful sound.

Before we jump into the exercises, it’s important to know what high notes you can expect from your voice.

I’ve written an article on the different voice types and what high notes to expect from each.

Make sure to check it out.

How Do You Belt Those High Notes?

The best way of belting high notes is to sing with more chest voice.

I like to help students find their chest voice by using the power of their speaking voice on a scale.

Then you can use that power to expand your vocal range.

There are several ways of doing this.

Let’s try the simple Octave Repeat “Nay” exercise.

Exclusive Bonus: Download our FREE Video with 3 bonus head voice exercises.

The Octave Repeat “Nay”

Here’s the exercise:

Say “ay” (as in “Ape”) at a strong volume.

Do you feel that ugly, buzzy sound on the vowel?

That’s chest voice.

Let’s bring that up to some high notes.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Take a breath and say the word “Nay” (like “Neighbor”) a few times at a strong volume. Remember to enunciate the ugly “Ay” vowel strongly.
  2. Find a comfortable starting pitch (try E3 for guys and C#4 for girls), take a breath and sing the word “Nay” on this pitch, keeping the same strength as your speaking voice.
  3. Take a breath and sing the following scale. As you sing the scale, try to make the high note just as strong as the first note.

Here’s the scale for Men:

notes on a scale

Here’s the scale for Women:

notes on a scale for women

If you don’t have a keyboard or can’t read music, don’t worry.

Here’s a video demonstrating the Octave Repeat “Nay” exercise:

Professional Vocal Warm Up - w/ Scales for Men and Women

If you’re singing loud and heavy…

We know that you don’t always break into falsetto if you’re singing too lightly.

In fact, you may break into falsetto if you’re singing too loud and strainy as well.

Because of the tension and thickness of the vocal cords, they may “give up” and disconnect.

So our first step is to unpress the vocal folds and let them thin a bit on those high notes.

Here’s what the vocal cords look like when they’re thinner:

vocal chord shorteners when singing falsetto

What the vocal folds look like in falsetto.

In order to get the vocal cords to thin, we need to find more head voice.

There are lots of ways to allow more head voice into your high notes.

But today, let’s use the Octave and a Half “Gee” exercise.

The Octave and a Half “Gee”

The “G” consonant is great at getting the vertical depth of cord needed for chest voice, while the “ee” vowel stretches the cords for head voice.

Here’s how to sing it:

  1. Begin by saying the word “Gee” as in “Geese” at a comfortable volume.
  2. While saying the word “Gee”, make sure that you are enunciating the “G” consonant.
  3. Now find a comfortable starting pitch (try C3 for guys and G3 for girls) and begin to sing the word “Gee”.
  4. Sing the following scale. As you sing, keep a strong emphasis on the “G” consonant.

Here’s the scale for guys.

musical scale for men

Here’s the scale for girls.

musical scale for women

Again, don’t worry if you don’t have a piano handy.

Just watch this helpful video to learn how to do the exercise:

Professional Singing Warm Up - All Male and Female Keys

A Few things to Note About Falsetto

Some students ask me: is it bad to sing in falsetto?

Of course not! Falsetto is a perfectly legitimate type of vocal technique.

Just because it is associated with voice “breaks” or “cracks” does not mean falsetto is bad or must be avoided completely.

As we’ve seen, there are many successful artists that use it for effect.

However, in the end, we want to make sure we can sing with a “balanced” head voice and “breathy” falsetto on those high notes.

It’s important that we are not just defaulting to falsetto because we can’t find head voice.

If you feel that you’ve been doing the exercises in this article correctly and are still struggling to find your head voice technique, consider booking a trial free lesson.

We will make sure to do some great head voice warm ups so that you can find balance.

How Can I Put This to Use With My Own Voice?

I created a free video that you can use to apply the most important info from this post in your own singing.

The free video includes 3 Bonus exercises for developing your head and falsetto voice.

That way, you can improve the top of your range today.

Click the big image to get the free video!

17 Comments

  • by Oblomov Posted September 8, 2017 9:14 pm

    Hi, I’m curious, can we belt with the head voice? I mean if it’s complete with a balanced twang, effective vowel modification toward open sounds and strong adductions. I found indeed many rounded belting in the Bb4 D5 range roughly or higher, sometimes to F5 or even G5, sung by men or women with low voices, which resemble very closely the belting of women soul singer with higher voice, or in general the fullness and roundness more typical of women belting. But it’s clear that, rightly so they changed register with respect of what they do with say their E4 and F4 belting zone. They use less vocal mass and that’s good and healthy, but keep the compression. While women with higher voices, of course, likely can get to such notes with their full folded mix. No one is worse or better for that, a higher voice simply sheds mass higher and even for them good results are not granted easily. Also I think that at F5 and above even most female belting is adducted and twanged light mass phonation like men’s (which of course further thins out proportionately).
    Bottom line is, can you sing very high belts in head voice, without distortion? Thank you very much.

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted September 14, 2017 10:56 am

      Great question!
      From a laryngeal and acoustic perspective, belting is “yelling skillfully” which is not technically a head voice registration.
      While singers are usually belting in the head voice area, they’re using the larger vocal fold configuration found in chest voice. It’s just that you’re able to thin the folds enough (through twang and vowel) in order to achieve the correct pitch.

  • by Sav Posted April 23, 2019 7:26 pm

    I love that you used Somebody to love As an example. But even higheR is Roger taylor. People think hes singing falsetto when its simply the top end of vocal register. He was a choirboy as a kid, obviously one of the higher registers.

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted April 23, 2019 8:34 pm

      Yeah Sav, Roger Taylor is a beast!

      Thanks for your message.

  • by Chris Posted May 1, 2019 11:47 am

    Cover photo is not all that great…

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted May 3, 2019 8:28 am

      Hey Chris,

      Don’t hate on Bey.

      She’s awesome, ha!

  • by Parker Posted January 15, 2020 12:05 pm

    This was helpful! Thanks

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted January 16, 2020 10:51 am

      You’re welcome Parker!

  • by Elisabeth Enger Godar Posted April 9, 2020 7:17 am

    All through grade school and high school I was a first soprano…singing in a head tone. much to my surprise and terrible sadness at about 28 years of age it disappeared…one day it was there and the next day I was no longer able to produce it. I have always wondered what could have happened…it has never come back. I never had any trouble singing before that…in the 2 years I took chorus in high school, I made Illinois all-state chorus both years so I was a very accomplished singer…can you offer any reason for this? Ever since that happened I lost my interest in singing I hate the sound of my chest tone and I have range either. I am now 63 years old…I MISS MY VOICE!

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted April 9, 2020 8:11 am

      Hey Elisabeth, lots of different possibilities here:
      1) Did you stop singing after school? Was there any break where you weren’t working with your voice?
      Remember the voice is a muscle and needs to be continually worked.

      2) It’s possible that you still had those high notes at 28 but due to whatever reason, you weren’t able to find them as easily.
      This would have been a good time to find a teacher to help you regain access.

      3) As we age, hormonal changes tend to make women’s voices lower.
      So it’s possible that at 63 some of this range is indeed gone.
      But if you’re still looking to improve your vocal range, I’ve had fantastic success in helping aging singers reclaim their range.
      You just need to do vocal exercises to improve it.

  • by oghieghie Posted July 8, 2020 4:32 am

    is it possible to be a doctor and a singer at the same time?
    and do you have any good songs that i could sing to improve my head voice??
    thanks 🙂

  • by oghieghie Posted July 8, 2020 4:39 am

    iv noticed that as i go higher my voice starts to get thinner, is there a reason behind this??

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted July 8, 2020 2:02 pm

      Hey Oghieghie, thanks for your message. Yes as the vocal cords thin out to get to head voice, the vocal tone usually follows.
      However the whole point of this article is to help you learn to sing with a fuller head voice. Check out the exercises.
      In regards to your other question, of course it’s possible to do both at the same time.
      I have students in lots of different careers who pursue singing.
      And finally, yes check out the songs that I listed in the article to help you improve your head voice.

  • by Chris Posted August 16, 2020 1:53 pm

    Would you call the high part that brian wilson sings in songs like “Surfer girl” falsetto? Surely that can’t be his natural range, but it doesn’t sound breathy. I’m thinking of attempting a cover of that song but normally i’m a baritone. Do i’m not sure if it’s a realistic goal. When I tried singing the high notes my voice was strained, but that could be partly lack of practice. This is really the first time i’ve made a concerted effort to sing with a head voice since I sang in a choir as a child. I know everyone’s voice is slightly different, but generally speaking, do you think many baritones could hit those high notes even in falsetto?

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted August 16, 2020 2:22 pm

      Hey Chris, great question dude!
      You’ve accidentally just dipped your feet into Vocal Acoustics.
      The high parts in Beach Boys’ songs are done in a mode 2/head voice/falsetto configuration.
      But you’ll notice that above a certain point, the voice becomes very strong and clear again.
      That’s because his first formant is actually lining up with the pitch that he sings.

      This tends to happen when you make it over the “first bridge” area that SLS talks about.
      So for example, E4, F4, F#4 and G4 tend to be quite difficult for a tenor.
      But around an A4, his voice opens up again. That’s because of the first formant interaction with the harmonic.

  • by Nandika Posted September 5, 2020 1:45 am

    Everything makes sense now. That was super helpful,in a small its kinda changed my life! Thanks a lot!

    • by Matt Ramsey Posted September 5, 2020 1:18 pm

      You’re welcome Nandika! So glad it helped.

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