The female middle voice, a complex and misunderstood puzzle, Part 1

The register scheme for the female voice causes lots of grief and a pointless debate much more so than the male register scheme. The traditional operatic male voice rejects extremes such as flute voice(i.e. falsetto) and vocal fry. Female singers on the other hand have made acceptable use of the extremes which is one of the main reasons for the confusion.

One student recently asked me the following: “Could you put an end to the register debate, once and for all? Are there two, three, four or five registers? I have seen all four points of view expressed but with little clarity.” My answer to her was (and I have looked for the opportunity for such smart-ass sarcasm my whole teaching life. I am not beyond a little fun at the expense of a student): “Yes!” She enjoyed neither the answer nor my self-satisfied impish grin.

It might seem a tall order at first, but if we review what has been written here on this blog on the subject, we can find all four perspectives very defensible. Our perspectives on the female middle voice become conflicted when considering registration theories.

1. Two-register theory: Based on the female modal voice when both vocalis and CT muscle groups are active, this theory rejects both the pulse (fry) range devoid of CT activity and the Flute/Whistle voice devoid of Vocalis activity. This leaves a modal voice of two and a half to three octaves wide consisting of two modes: a) Heavy mechanism (Vocalis dominant) and light mechanism (CT dominant).

2. Three register theory: Based on the acoustic theory of formant dominance: a)the lower voice up to and including E4 is dominated by the first vowel formant; b) the middle range which includes approximately the octave between F4 and F5 is dominated by the second formant; c) the high voice, above F5 is again dominated by the first formant.

3. Four-register theory: Includes all modes of muscular dynamics including the fry register and the flute/whistle register as one mode (i.e. CT only, no Vocalis activity).

4. Five-register theory: Same as three except that whistle is distinguished from flute voice because whistle register includes dampening (i.e. the folds only vibrate along the forward portion while the arytenoid portion remains closed).

How does one define middle voice in a two register theory? A three-register theory? A four or five register theory?

I prefer to ask: How does the female singer experience registers? How does she cope instinctively in the absence of clear definitions? How do famous sopranos and mezzos influence the experience? Do famous singers (especially the legendary ones) conform to logical norms? And if not, how do we determine what is correct?

The classic problem that most women are concerned with is how to smooth out the so-called first passaggio. Why is there often a registration problem between D4 and G4?

The basic problem in this area is fundamentally one of resonance. We are used to our speaking voices, and what we refer to as the speaking quality is defined scientifically as First Formant resonance. Higher than D4, the [a] vowel which is among the most frequent vowels in singing loses the viability of its first formant frequency. It becomes necessary at this point for the singer to reshape the vocal tract (modify the vowel) to access the second formant resonance (a concept called covering). Second formant resonance is a foreign feeling to the inexperienced singer. The first instinct is to force the first formant sensation as much as possible. With that strategy the vocal tract resonances becomes incompatible with the sung pitch and causes laryngeal tension. Over time such a production causes an imbalance between the vocalis muscle which thickens the folds and the crico-thyroid that lengthens them. The other muscles adjust to compensate for the imbalance. At this point the entire system of laryngeal musculature would be malfunctioning.

At this juncture, simply modifying the vowel to the second formant will not work. The problem must be worked backwards: 1) Lighter singing to re-balance the vocalis-CT interaction. 2) Achieving a comfortably low larynx, a sign that the muscular compensation has been neutralized 3) achieving a balance phonation that produces a clear focused tone supported by adequate breath pressure 4) modifying the vowel as was initially necessary. This takes time, patience, guided practice and eventually conscious strategies on the singer’s part. Quick fixes do not resolve such problems but rather exacerbate them.

It should be added that the problem is always less pronounced for the [i] to [E] vowel spectrum because those vowels facilitate the formant switch with mild, almost spontaneous vowel modifications.

Although the resonance changes cause a mild quality change, when phonation is consistently efficient (that is the tone is focused and well supported)and the resonance change is gradual, no perceivable change is heard. This always brings the following question:

Are the low voice and the middle voice the same or different.

We have already addressed the resonance issue. The resonance is different between the two ranges below Eb4 and above Eb4. However the nature of the phonation remains fundamentally the same. However as the singer goes from low to high, the vocalis-CT balance changes (i.e. vocalis gradually less active, CT gradually more).

What must be accomplished therefore in addition to the resonance change is a gradual thinning of the vocal folds as one goes up. The laryngeal muscles will accomplish this automatically if 1) the resonance change is appropriate 2) breath pressure is reduced to allow the lengthening of the folds to occur naturally.

Here we must understand a paradoxical reality: As the singer goes up in fundamental frequency (pitch) she must reduce in volume (breath pressure). However, as the fundamental frequency (F0) rises, the tension and medial pressure of the vocal folds actually increases and cause an increase in breath pressure. The natural increase in pressure and the singer’s conscious decrease of volume (also breath pressure) yield a balance of breath pressure that is appropriate to the note being sung and the singer’s native muscular strength.

Marilyn Horne demonstrates an excellent exercise for dealing with this passaggio, precisely pointing out the issue of reducing volume as the singer rises. See 4:50!

This post is getting long and I have only dealt with the first passaggio. In the next edition we will deal with the middle voice itself. Other than issues of muscular balance, the most important issue in the middle range is the resonance. In the next post we will define the female middle range and why it is often weak.

© 01/08/2009