What is the Difference Between Whistle Voice and Falsetto?
Whistle voice and falsetto are both high vocal registers that use alternative positions of the vocal cords and sound like different parts of a flute. Whistle voice sounds like the upper notes of the flute (high and whistle-y) and falsetto sounds like the lower part (breathy and warmer). Both registers are different from “head voice” which is a continuation of the chest register and not a register itself.
The easiest way to think of falsetto is as an alternative register (a “false” voice) capable of hitting the same high notes as high chest voice, head voice, and whistle voice, but with a different tone and technique. The key to understanding this is understanding the different vocal registers and “voices”.
Before you can understand the difference between whistle voice and falsetto, you must understand the vocal registers.
TIP: Falsetto sounds like Mickey Mouse or Neil Young, whistle voice sounds like the high notes you can imagine an opera singer or Mariah Carey singing. Meanwhile, the other voices and registers discussed below can be described like this: vocal fry is that low crackle-y sound we can all make with our voice (like when Britney Spears says “Oh, baby, baby”), chest voice is regular voice which can hit both high and low notes (the voice most tenors and altos will use in their mid-range), and head voice is that same tenor / alto voice extended to its top range without going into whistle or falsetto (if you start in a regular singing voice and raise your pitch you’ll feel like your voice is moving toward your head, this is “head voice”. If you feel like your vocal chord positions changed while moving up, you likely just “popped into whistle or falsetto”).
The Difference Between “Vocal Registers” and “Voices”
There are 5 “voices” and 4 “vocal registers”. Registers are actual vocal chord “positions” and voices are what sounds like is happening:
- For singers, there are 5 “voices”. They work like this from low to high: Vocal fry -> Chest -> Head -> Whistle (Falsetto is an alternative register covering all high notes from high-chest to whistle). NOTE: “Mixed voice” is between head and chest, sounding as if it has qualities of both. We can also express variations of “voices” for instance we can say high-head voice, or low-chest, etc.
- For speech pathologists and scholars of phonetics, there are 4 “registers”. They work like this: Vocal fry -> Chest -> Falsetto -> Whistle (Each register is a different vocal chord position).
Notice that, either way, a falsetto is different than a whistle, and that there is no “head register” for scholars of speech. Registers are changes in the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds and are determined by length, tension, and mass. Since all registers originate in the larynx, “head” is not considered an official register and should be instead thought of as the high part of the chest “register”, or simply, a “voice”.
A simple visualization of the vocal registers and where falsetto fits in. Remember technically “head register” is not a thing, it’s “head voice”. Falsetto is “an alternative voice” that can hit the notes of high-chest, head, and whistle.
Difference Between Head Voice, Whistle Voice, and Falsetto
Whistle voice is sometimes called head voice, but it’s easier to think of head voice, whistle voice, and falsetto as separate things.
- Head voice is like a continuation of chest voice that is higher and feels like it’s resonating in the head. In terms of registers, we can consider a high chest register “head voice”.
- Whistle register is like a continuation of head voice, sort of an “ultra high” head voice (like the vocal fry is an ultra low continuation of chest voice).
- Falsetto register is not considered head voice, but in common language, some will refer to all registers above chest including head, whistle, and falsetto as “head voice”.
Remember there is no official “head register”, and this is part of why terminology can be fuzzy. The confusion is only compounded by older works that refer to falsetto as “head voice”.
Falsetto vs. Head Voice. In this video “head voice” is referring to high chest register (not whistle voice specifically).
TIP: It is correct to call whistle voice head voice, and people do all the time. That said, it’s confusing not to differentiate between the two. Either use the registers when speaking of voices or differentiate between the whistle and head to avoid confusion.
Adam Lopez made the Guinness book of world records for the highest note sung by a male (hit in whistle voice). Here he explains the whistle register and demonstrates falsetto.
How to Tell the Difference Between Whistle Voice and Falsetto
Falsetto register can be thought of as an alternate voice (or “fake voice”) while whistle voice is more like an extension of the chest voice.
Each of the vocal registers uses a different part of the vocal chords and resonates in a different part of the body, so both tone and vocal chord position are different for each of the two registers.
Singers are often able to sing notes in the high tenor range in chest voice, falsetto, head voice, or whistle voice. Which voice a person uses or which one is best for what situation is a matter of taste.
The differences between whistle voice and falsetto can be difficult to hear, due to differences in tone between singers, that said in an exaggerated form it’s the difference between Mariah Carey hitting the highest note you can think of (whistle) and Neil Young’s highest notes (falsetto).
Whistle voice (head voice) is what Mariah Carey does on the very high part of Sweet Fantasy and what some 80’s metal singers do (although they also use falsetto). It’s the natural extension of a lower register as it moves from the diaphragm up to the head. It feels like it’s happening at the top of the head.
Mariah Carey’s Whistle Register Collection.
Falsetto is what guys typically do when they do female voices, Mickey Mouse uses falsetto, and so does Neil Young. It feels like it’s being generated behind the jaw or in the throat. Falsetto is also called “false voice” as it’s used instead of moving from “chest voice” to “head voice”.
Neil Young Harvest Moon.
What Makes Falsetto and Whistle Voice Different Physiologically?
The tone is the main quality that differentiates between falsetto and whistle voice. That said, there are physiologically different things happening too.
Production of the normal voice involves vibration of the entire vocal cord, with the glottis opening first at the bottom and then at the top. As we move up through the four registers (vocal fry register, the chest register, the falsetto register, and the whistle register) different parts of the vocal chord expand and contract, and “vibratory sensations” to be felt in different parts of the body.
TIP: Chest register is sometimes called “modal” register.
Do Women Have a Falsetto?
It’s a myth that women can’t physically sing falsetto, both women and men are physically capable of phonating in the falsetto register. The myth likely persistent due to the way voices are categorized and the fact that prior to studies done in the 1950’s and 60’s this was the common thinking.
It’s common practice to divide voices like this:
- Men’s voices are designated “chest”, “head”, and “falsetto”
- Women’s voices are “chest”, “middle”, and “head”. In this “head” refers to whistle voice.
That said remember that in technical terms both males and females have:
- 4 registers: vocal fry register, the modal register, the falsetto register, and the whistle register.
- 5 voices: vocal fry voice, the modal chest voice, head voice, falsetto voice, and whistle voice.
As you can see from the video women can most certainly use falsetto.
Very interesting. As a learning singer, I’ll say that yes, the main point is quite right, whistle is definitely another register than falsetto, it uses a further reduced vibrating portion of the vocal folds.
I have to disagree with some of the underlying premises about falsetto and the definition of head voice in the subject of registers, resonances and their supposedly legit uses.
“Both registers (i.e. falsetto and whistle) are different from “head voice” which is a continuation of the chest register and not a register itself.” yes, if we assume head voice as a resonance position and enhancement, others conventionally use the term to indicate a register, sometimes the same people unintentionally mean both a register and a resonance depending on the situation.
Basically you should have said that chest, in your definition, exist both as a register and as a resonance, and you (rightly so) separate registers and resonances, so yeah, vocal productions of the chest “modal” register (or M1) can have both optimal resonance in the “chest” and in the “head”, depenting on the pitch and internal shaping of the instrument, in order to optimize their resonance, as the naturally audible overtones, shift from the throat to the pharinx depending on the pitch.
But if people, by head voice, mean M2 or light mechanism, the register between modal and whistle, then falsetto is technically “head voice” as it lies in that register, it just has either low closure, insufficient resonance or both, but it lies in a mechanism that uses thin folds and partial vibration, some call it “falsetto” no matter the power and timbre you obtain with it as long as it lies in the M2 register, the point is, you can have a wide range of timbres, strong fold closure within this register.
Where the article gets weird is when you basically suggest that falsetto is a false voice and you should stay in the chest register all the way to the whistle range, just in the head resonance. Here
“Falsetto register can be thought of as an alternate voice (or “fake voice”) while whistle voice is more like an extension of the chest voice.”
“Falsetto register can be thought of as an alternate voice (or “fake voice”) while whistle voice is more like an extension of the chest voice.”
Why skip the intermediate gear and consider whiste, but not falsetto (as you consider falsetto an entire register, not just a tone and say that head voice should stay within the chest register). If falsetto is fake because it uses less fold depth, whistle uses even less of it.
You probably assume that the “loft”, “M2” or thin/partial fold register between Modal and Whistle has to always sound as falsetto, as in sounding weak or hooty.
That’s not true. Coming back to what I said about the same people unintentionally meaning both a register and a resonance depending on the situation, I hint at the classical style, there, women are supposed to transition in head voice, men too, but only for women, this involves a register change. Yes, women don’t stay in modal voice all the way to their whistle range, there, they find full closure in what you call “falsetto”, but then it’s not falsetto any more.
Men too, might be shifting to M2 for their A4 to C5 high notes, but they mostly simply lighten up M1 as much as possible without shifting, going into head resonance.
Renee fleming is a voice dark enough you can hear register changes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKXztxxHDR0&ebc=ANyPxKrHIp_KnIffocBnXjMFaa4QgzFLqZVRnL_HpF67PFcjtrJjhhvQ_rVbysaJoBtRR1jJUE9RnM7QSZZQNcKx_mLQYZIT8w but here you see how to make “falsetto” sound like a belt. Ok some hard line pop singers, really take chest belts up there, but mostly they can achieve a similar result with high closure in “falsetto”.
Sorry, duplicat comment, I didn’t get the vote mechanism :).
Thank you for the thoughtful feedback. I’ll give the article a review and try to address your points. You could very well have provided a better answer.
There are common misconceptions of the differences between head voice and Falsetto. Falsetto is translated from French meaning “false voice,” this is because Falsetto occurs when the vocal folds do not completely close, producing a sound that is different than what you usually sound like producing a “false voice (hence the name). You misjudged falsetto in saying “If falsetto is fake because it uses less fold depth, whistle uses even less of it.” You also stated “” “”It (falsetto) lies in a mechanism that uses thin folds and partial vibration, some call it “falsetto” no matter the power and timbre you obtain with it as long as it lies in the M2 register, the point is, you can have a wide range of timbres, strong fold closure within this register.””” The two statements are both incorrect and I, too, have thought this way for a long time. The vocal register that uses “less fold depth” is head voice, not falsetto. Head voice occurs when only use a portion of the vocal chords are used to produce a higher pitch. The folds still stay together when this happens. The reason why chest, head, fry, and whistle registers are catagorized together is because in all four cases, the vocal chords come together and make contact when singing. The differences between them are how much of the vocal folds are used. Thanks for listening and please feel free to respond.
Great points. I know this one gets debated even between professionals, appreciate seeing the conversation unfold here. I’ll keep updating the page as you all keep providing compelling arguments.
Hi David, really interesting point again. I agree with you!
“Well, no you don’t, how is it possible?” you might reply 🙂 jk.
First off a trivia, I’m Italian, but not because of this, I know falsetto is from Italian, a sort of diminuitive of “falso”, it might be “falselet”, so “little/small and false”. In French “false voice” would be “faux voix”.
Rephrasing on the point where you correct me “The two statements are both incorrect and I, too, have thought this way for a long time. The vocal register that uses “less fold depth” is head voice, not falsetto. Head voice occurs when only use a portion of the vocal chords are used to produce a higher pitch. The folds still stay together when this happens.” I see it more or less the same, as if the folds come together you have a full, potentially powerful voice, which you can scale softer or louder.
But in the article he seemed to say that head voice was a part or a voice of the chest register, aka full folds and that partial folds would mean falsetto.
Stating that some people would call falsetto any sound, however powerful or full, produced by partial folds, didn’t mean that I agree with such view, but I also stated it’s a matter of terminology, as long as there’s agreement in what’s going on, and when there’s not, it’s another matter.
You say that such mode where folds don’t come together strongly, which is falsetto, is a completely different register or tone, disconnected from all full tones, unlike the four registers where folds can come together.
I read head voice as full voice in partial folds is just falsetto without hair or with compression, you and I would say that falsetto is defined in itself by it’s breathyness and being unsupported.
Where I partly disagree, but I’m open to be wrong and learn something new, is exactly on the point of falsetto being a different register.
We see falsetto as typicall breathy and/or witchy, shrill, pretty much almost always hooty and unsupported.
But we can get witchy, breathy and falsetto like unsupported, shrill tones in chest voice too, we could say that’s it’s still falsetto in this case, neither chest or head voice. But the matter is that I think you can get breathy tones with both full and partial fold depths, I think, though it’s sure likely that a breathy tone has less depth.
But have you tried yodeling from middle high chest voice, isn’t that the epitome of register change? Well you don’t typicall break into a full head voice but into falsetto, a very thin head voice. And if you try breathy unsupported chest tones up to your typical break zone (C4 – F4 but it depends on your voice weight), you will break into partial voice early, as the voice lacks the energy to transmit the vibration to the muscle and core.
Falsetto is indeed also a head voice taken low, in areas which would more easily sound better sung in thinned out chest voice. It’s difficult to turn a partial fold E4 – F4 into a full tone, so it will easily sound like falsetto.
This countertenor seems to be able to take full head voice low and stay resonant, but the sounds stays purer than he could blending more chest mass in it (E4), hence the idea of “falsetto” as falseness of timbre, but above G4 such timbre is certainly not false at all, it’s just a male canon to treat the voice differently using more chest or make head voice sound like chest up to D5.
This is a woman but its’ an example of non lyrical head voice sounding like chest belting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nft_kE7CyZg&t=0s 😀
Bye and hope to read again from you.
Lots of great detail, thank you! I’m hesitant to post this (as it is rather odd looking)… but looking at the vocal chords in action can help offer a visual. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-PZlj0UH0c
Or: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XGds2GAvGQ <—- this one offers side-by-side comparison of ranges.
Great video. Yeah I can her the first guy continuously yodelying into falsettos, head voice etc. as his fold lengthen and sometimes open. When he makes distorted sounds, the pit where the folds lie narrow and constrict, they are the “false folds”, a group of secondary folds called “ventricular” above the normal ones, they have harder time vibrating regularly, so they are mainly used for noise distortion and growled gritted sound, more or less safely depending on the technique.
Twang is different, I can show here an example of how it effects the base tone of the voice and empowers it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERAFQic5A-4, that white leaf life shield on the back is the epiglottis and you can see the fold opening is narrowed :).
You first example also has lots of twang.
I happen to think that David Fan actually meant to head voice as thinned out modal, with slightly lengthened folds and possibly less depth involved, while i meant the border registers, where usualy most of the muscle is dialed off the vibration system all together, but it still sounds full if the cords stay closed and you twang or cover.
But as I hinted about whistle voice, it’s speculated that such register is used up high, even by women with “The queen of the night” aria.
I might speculate (but I still have some doubts) that like “falsetto” head voice, some people have the whistle weak and disconnected, some have or trained to get it very strong and connected to head voice and part of their full voice.
As David said, they make all registers part of the full voice, just use less and less of their folds the higher they go, also focusing their resonance in smaller and smaller spaces, starting by the twang, then vocal narrowing and brightenig or darkening – covering in opera.
That explains very simply why some singers seem to have four + octaves and others two, the latter aren’t worse singers, they just specialized in singing in less registers and I think that if you want to sing in 4 octaves consistently you better start by the registers you can sing credibly and consistently into and not just do it just to show range ;).
Thanks. Btw I’m voting “fact” this time, as I had “no vote” selected before ;).
Mind that these nitpicks might be not at all indicative of how good a singer or teacher you are. Another point is that middle voice is quite conventional, and I know some people make a distinction in the voice division in men and women. Depending on what you mean I’m completely open to the significance you give to it, when you say “Men’s voices are designated “chest”, “head”, and “falsetto”
Women’s voices are “chest”, “middle”, and “head”. In this “head” refers to whistle voice.”
Given we are mostly talking about the M1 or “modal” voice here, I get we are still talking about resonance or levels or medial compression (which constitute the “mix” register gradients and often prevent breaking). I still see no difference in women and men, all the range is a mix of resonance and it’s rather much more about pitches than registers how the resonance move and shift.
An E4 naturally resonates more in the pharynx than an E3, be it coming from a man of from a woman, as smaller spaces emphasize higher pitches, overtones and formants more. For a woman it might resonate more in the throat as most women have a smaller larynx, though they can widen and lower the down, and men can narrow them (of course both genders can do both things and more).
Twanging the epiglottis more for higher notes is one out of the many things we do to accomodate our internal vocal “trumpet” shape and spaces, to make the notes resonate optimally.
The point is, there are many different optimal and expressive up to less optimal but discrete resonance management for many different tones, timbres and styles and even within the same style if it’s an eclectic style like jazz, r’nb etc, it or our interpretation is expressive, flexible and eclectic :).
That’s why, while chest, middle or mix and head, while not appropriate or realistic illustrates the idea that the resonance shifts and we have to accomodate the transition to some extend, it’s unnecessary, confusing and plain inexact, to suggest that it’s somehow different for women and men just because of vocal tract and folds differing on size, that men somehow lack a “middle voice” for some mysterious reasons.
And that’s not aimed to you but to the sources
The fact that you used Wikipedia and other such non-peer reviewed sources rather than any one of the many important vocal pedagogy books for your research proves why sites like this one are pointless. You are just regurgitating the same superficial bilge that is already floating among the flotsam of the internet. You would lend weight to your article and by extension your website if you would use valid, academic resources and interview experts (e.g. qualified, voice teachers or voice doctors) who have spent years studying and working with voices.
This site is about gathering the best sources we can over time and doing our best to research a topic. It would be better if we had even better resources to add alongside Wikipedia for sure, but the closest thing we have to citing experts thus far for this specific page is what can be found online (we shouldn’t assume online = non experts though, experts have access to the internet too).
With that said, I’ve talked to professional singers and vocal instructors about singing techniques over the years… but whistle voice vs. falsetto is a murky topic even then. I still haven’t found a better answer than the one explained on the page (instead I got conflicting answers).
Hopefully over time we’ll be able to gather more information and improve the page. If you have any ideas of “vocal pedagogy books” I’d love to hear them.
As for “just regurgitating… yada yada,” not exactly. This page is more than that. Its a result of years of vocal lessons and research trying to figure out the difference between falsetto and whistle voice. I know someone out there understands this better than I, but at the same time, they are not I. Hopefully this page will attract them and the will be kind enough to comment with insight or resources.
In short, this page by all means should be useful and I think is a little better than you give it credit for… but I won’t deny that I myself would like to see it be more sure of itself and cite better sources.
I will say though, thank you for the well written comment and sentiment.
I readed your blog.
Would you please listen to my high notes voice(Volume attention).
Thanks for sharing. I’m not sure it is a world record, but it is interesting.
Check this out. This is what we would be up against for world records (in terms of pitch; I would assume she can also sustain that note): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtEvTmhVeQQ.
Thank you for listening.
I know their existence.
I practiced to approach them.
So would you please listen to my high notes voice(Volume attention).
“I still haven’t found a better answer than the one explained on the page (instead I got conflicting answers).”
Hi, it’s nice to see you again. I think you meant conflicting answers arount internet.
Because while I’m open to learning and far from considering my contribute the Truth, I explained how I think my understanding and David’s didn’t actually conflict. He explained me that the voice with partial folds was full voice and head voice, and the voice is not full or “false” if the folds don’t come together which is what makes falsetto. Indeed, that I know legit pianissimo to fortissimo dynamics involve full folds, but that’s academic, in modern singing there’s more freedom (:.
This article originally stated that head voice is still in the chest register and the register between them was false.
Duck doll: Interesting, is that noise false folds btw or part of the transition.
Btw this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAbWqDWbbJc interestingly compares the voices and styles of both Julie Andrews and Carrie Underwood, two polarly different styles to say the least. I think there’s an earlier transition into “head” voice and partial folds from Julie as that’s the classical operatic style, then I’m undecided on whether Carrie transitions too, although higher up, as she, but not necessarily because it’s placed in the throat, as she sounds confortable, the resonance is simply more open and in your face :).
Sounds like Carrie couldn’t blend as much or take the support as high as the final F5 and Bb5.
I think many classically trained sopranos, though, can support all the way to whistle and keep it strong. I didn’t pay attention to all singing production by Julie Andrews, but her ease seem to tell she could.
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