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How to start a fight among voice scientists

There was a running joke when I was doing my PhD work that to have a good time at a voice research conference, walk into the room and yell "REGISTERS!" and then watch the chaos unfold. I never got brave enough to try that, but I did hear a lot of spirited discussion over what exactly registers are in the singing voice among (mostly) delightful researchers.

Singers have, almost without a doubt, experienced the need to change how they sing at different pitch levels along their range. But there is disagreement among teachers and researchers about how many registers there are, what's happening in different register regions, and how to manage them. Why the controversy?

First, we enjoy arguing about stuff.

Traditions die hard, and in the singing world, particularly in Western classical singing, we have a lot of traditions that have been based in conjecture and feeling for centuries. Some of those things have been confirmed or nearly so through scientific observation in the last decades, but not everything. And when someone is utterly convinced of one thing, it can be hard to let go of that idea. For an interesting thought experiment, think through all the things you've been told about vocal registers, and try to determine where those ideas came from. This isn't necessarily in order to find a reason to reject those ideas, but to be honest about where they came from and think deeply through beliefs we've been handed. A quote I heard today in a podcast fits this practice well, "All questions deserve answers, and all answers deserve to be questioned." Good scientists and scholars question things, and that questioning can be fun and challenging.

Second, we simply have less research on the singing voice than we do on the speaking voice.

There is a lot less confusion when it comes to the speaking voice. It's been fairly settled science for a while that there are four registers in the speaking voice: fry, modal, falsetto, and whistle. While these four registers are possible, not every person can produce all four registers, so that's interesting. These registers have been observed as distinct vibratory patterns produced by the vocal folds, so there's a fair amount of objective data to go along with these conclusions. We have less objective data in the singing voice. In a couple more decades we'll have more data, and probably a whole lot more clarity.

Third, we sing in a lot of different ways.

We haven't studied all the different ways we sing enough yet to know how the vocal folds vibrate differently for different styles of singing. If I were doing this research, I'd be asking questions like, "Is a high belt in music theater the same as singing a school fight song at the top of your lungs?" Or maybe "Does training in rock singing change the vibratory patterns?" Or even " What in the world is happening at the vocal fold level during Mongolian throat singing, and is that a different register????"

I'm kind of glad I'm not doing this research, to be honest, because even defining the research questions would be a doozy. But I know there are folks out there that are asking these questions and designing the studies to try to figure out the answers. The sheer number of different ways we can sing makes this a very difficult and complex question to tackle, and a big reason why we just don't know everything we want to know about singing registers yet.

Still, there are some things we can know instinctively before the science catches up.

We can know that the voice is a fascinating instrument that contains myriad mysteries, and that is both frustrating and fun. That kind of constant discovery that we can engage in as we learn more about the voice is endlessly inspiring to me. I mean, how cool are voices?? SO COOL! I think it's fine to embrace that ambiguity with our clients and admit that we don't have all the answers to all the singing questions yet.

We can know that smoothly shifting gears in the voice can be a lifelong learning journey. How we navigate that shift depends on the volume we're singing, the genre, the vowel, how healthy we are at any given moment, and our skill level, among a whole lot of other things. We can know that helping our clients with those gear shift moments (as I call them often in my own studio) is a big part of the job for a lot of us.

We can know that the voice is also an imperfect instrument, and sometimes it freaks out and does things we don't expect, and often at the most inopportune times. And because the register shift areas are a vulnerable part of the voice, that's likely where things are going to go off the rails. Helping our clients know and accept the imperfections and disruptions in the voice can be just as important as working toward consistency. Because let's face it, sometimes things just go wrong. Whaddya gonna do?

Over the next several months, I'll post more about registers, but I thought starting with why there is so much confusion still out there was a good place for us to start on this journey together. Keep your eye out for future blog posts and perhaps a Pedagogy Happy Hour specifically on this topic. There's plenty for us to nerd out about! If you'd like to stay up-to-date on upcoming webinars, courses, and Pedagogy Happy Hours, the best way to do that is to be on my email list. I promise I won't spam you (I don't know how) and I try to give you some good tips and info that make a real difference in your teaching. I'd be honored if you joined me! Click the button below to sign up. Happy teaching!


Hixon, T. J., Weismer, G., and Hoit, J. (2014). Preclinical Speech Science: Anatomy, Physiology, Acoustics, Perception, Second Edition. Plural Publishing.

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