Happy Monday, everyone! I’m back to talk about another juicy voice training topic today. One common question I receive from students is, “What is the difference between a vocal resonance choice and a vocal register choice? Are they the same thing?” There is a short answer and a long answer to that question. The short answer: No, they aren’t the same thing… BUT they are closely related, produced through similar functional means, and share a symbiotic relationship. Please allow me to get a bit technical for a moment:
- Vocal resonance can be defined as “the process by which the basic product of phonation is enhanced in timbre and/or intensity by the air-filled cavities through which it passes on its way to the outside air.” Resonance is often described using perceptual terms like ‘bright’ or ‘dark’. Some individuals say singers can directly control resonance by simply willing a sound to be forward or back (aka bright or dark). In reality, resonance is largely a byproduct of intentional or unintentional changes made to the throat/vocal tract shape. As such, it is more accurate to say singers can indirectly control resonance by creating a hospitable environment within the vocal tract for specific types of resonance to flourish.
- A vocal register can be defined as “a series of sung pitches with a unified tonal quality produced by a particular vibratory pattern of the vocal folds.” When singing in ‘chest register’, the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a longer closed quotient phase (aka they remain firmly touching for a longer period of time). There is also a high level of subglottal breath pressure– with less airflow through the folds themselves. When singing in ‘head register’, the vocal folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and there is a shorter closed quotient phase (aka they remain touching for a shorter period of time). There is also a lower level of subglottal breath pressure– with more airflow through the folds themselves. ‘Mix’ is a bit more complicated and abstract, but it is often described as an acoustic phenomenon that combines various aspects of the chest and head register qualities above.
From there, it is important to understand the three basic ‘parts’ of the vocal mechanism: power (aka the breathing mechanism/muscles of inhalation and exhalation), source (aka the larynx and vocal folds that vibrate to create pitch), and filter (aka the vocal tract/throat and mouth above the larynx that filters sound produced by the vocal folds). All three parts work together in tandem to create both resonance and register choices. So, they’re basically the same thing, right? Not quite… resonance changes are MORE dependent on filter/vocal tract shape adjustments than source/vocal fold behavior alterations, and register changes are MORE dependent on vocal fold behavior alterations than filter/vocal tract shape adjustments. This key difference is reflected in the definitions above as well (see the underlined portions).
Why make these distinctions and what does this all mean in a practical sense? First and foremost, it means we as singers can control resonance and register choices independently from one another (to a significant degree). For example, a performer can choose to sing in chest register using brighter or darker resonance. Likewise, they can choose to sing in head register– see also: falsetto for tenors/basses– using brighter or darker resonance. Again, this is because vocal register and resonance choices are not synonymous– despite being heavily reliant on one another and produced via the same three parts of the vocal mechanism listed above. You can think of a vocal register as a specific, unified core sound quality across a series of pitches and resonance as the vibrancy/acoustic ‘ring’ of said quality.
It is problematic to equate vocal resonance with vocal registers for a number of critical reasons. One is because doing so suggests certain vocal behaviors can be learned solely by adjusting resonance. I sometimes see this with sopranos and mezzos who have been exclusively classically trained and come to me to learn to belt. They have typically been told by others in the past that if they just make their head register sound very bright and forward via resonance changes, it will eventually sound like they’re belting. The reason that approach often doesn’t produce desirable acoustic results is because those resonance/vocal tract adjustments don’t do enough to change the underlying vocal fold behavior in a meaningful way (remember: register changes are heavily dependent on significant source/vocal fold behavior alterations). At the end of the day, a bright-sounding head register is still… a bright-sounding head register. It is not the sort of robust, chesty/mixy belt sound we often associate with contemporary musical theatre and pop/rock singing. Producing the latter type of sound requires the vocal folds to behave in a specific manner they simply don’t in head register (no matter how much ‘forward placement’ or ‘mask singing’ one attempts).
Does the above mean that classical sopranos and mezzos can’t learn to belt? Absolutely not. Most people can learn various vocal behaviors– provided they have a good teacher who understands how to elicit and cultivate the proper power/source/filter responses required to produce said behaviors. For example, the vast majority of tenors, baritones and basses can learn to sing in falsetto. There are many functional and professional benefits for performers learning to sing in all registers of their voices. This doesn’t mean every tenor or bass is going to be a world-class countertenor– nor is every soprano or mezzo going to be a world-class belter. That’s not really the point. The goal is to be a flexible, well-rounded singer who can freely produce various types of sound when needed. Performers will be much more marketable that way. They will also likely have fewer vocal issues in the long run due to their instrument being more flexible and versatile than many others. Happy singing!
P.S. Need help finding musical theatre songs to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.
– Kevin Michael Jones