Registers Of The Voice

It may be observed, in listening to an ascending series of tones sung by

an untrained or by a badly-trained adult voice, that at certain pitches

the tone-quality undergoes a radical change; while a well-trained singer

will sing the same series of tones without showing any appreciable break

or change in tone-quality, although the highest note will present a

marked contrast in timbre to the lowest. The breaks or changes in

> register so noticeable in the untrained voice are covered or equalized

in the voice trained by correct methods. These breaks in both male and

female voices occur at certain pitches where the tone-producing

mechanism of the larynx changes action, and brings the vocal bands into

a new vibratory form. "A register consists of a series of tones produced

by the same mechanism."-- Emil Behnke in "Voice, Song, and Speech."

G. Edward Stubbs, in commenting upon the above definition, says:

"By mechanism is meant the action of the larynx which produces

different sets of vibrations, and by register is meant the range of

voice confined to a given set of vibrations. In passing the voice from

one register to another, the larynx changes its mechanism and calls into

play a different form of vibration."

The number of vocal registers, or vibratory forms, which the vocal bands

assume, is still a matter of dispute, and their nomenclature is equally

unsettled. The old Italian singing-masters gave names to parts of the

vocal compass corresponding to the real or imaginary bodily sensations

experienced in singing them; as chest-voice, throat-voice, head-voice.

Madame Seiler, in "The Voice in Singing," gives as the result of

original investigations with the laryngoscope five different actions of

the vocal bands which she classifies as "first and second series of the

chest-register," "first and second series of the falsetto register" and

"head-register." Browne and Behnke, in "Voice, Song, and Speech," divide

the male voice into three registers, and the female into five. They are

termed "lower thick," "upper thick," "lower thin," "upper thin" and

"small." Other writers speak of three registers, "chest," "medium" and

"head," and still others of two only, viz., the chest and the head.

Modern research has shown what was after all understood before, that, if

the vibratory form assumed by the vocal bands for the natural production

of a certain set of tones is pushed by muscular exertion above the point

where it should cease, inflammation and weakening of the vocal organs

will result, while voice-deterioration is sure to follow.

A physiological basis has reinforced the empirical deductions of the old

Italian school. In dealing with children's voices, it is necessary to

recognize only two registers, the thick, or chest-register, and the

thin, or head-register. Further subdivisions will only complicate the

subject without assisting in the practical management of their voices.

Tones sung in the thick or chest-register are produced by the full, free

vibration of the vocal bands in their entire length, breadth and

thickness. The tones of the thin or head-register result from the

vibration of the vocal bands along their inner edges alone.

We may then conclude from the foregoing that children up to the age of

puberty, at least in class or chorus singing, should use the thin or

head-register only.

1st. It is from a physiological standpoint entirely safe. The use of

this register will not strain or overwork the delicate vocal organs of


2d. Its tones are musical, pure and sweet, and their use promotes the

growth of musical sensibility and an appreciation of beauty in tone.

3d. The use of the thick or chest-voice in class-singing is dangerous.

It is wellnigh impossible to confine it within proper limits.

It is unnecessary to discuss the second point. Anyone who has noted the

contrast between the harsh quality of tone emitted from childish throats

when using the chest-voice, and the pure, flute-like sound produced when

the head-tones are sung will agree that the last is music and the first

noise, or at any rate very noisy, barbaric music.

The third point, if true, establishes the first, for, if the chest-voice

cannot be safely used, it follows that children must use the

head-register or stop singing. It must be said, before proceeding

further, that it is not denied that the thick voice can be used by

children without injury, if properly managed; that is, if the singing be

not too loud, and if it be not carried too high. It is also fully

recognized, that, when theoretically the head-voice alone is used, it

yet, when carried to the lower tones, insensibly blends into the thick

register; but if this equalization of registers is obtained so

completely that no perceptible difference in quality of voice can be

observed, why then the whole compass is practically the thin or


Now, can the thick voice be used in school-singing, and confined to the

lower notes? And is it fairly easy to secure soft and pure vocalizations

in this register? Let the experience of thousands of teachers in the

public schools of this and other lands answer the last question.

It would be as easy to stop the growth of the average boy with a word,

or to persuade a crowd of youngsters to speak softly at a game of

baseball, as to induce them, or girls either for that matter, to use the

voice gently, when singing with that register in which it is possible to

push the tone and shout.

There should be some good physiological reason for the habitual recourse

to the strident chest-voice so common with boys, and nearly as usual

with girls. And there is a good reason. It is lack of rigidity in the

voice-box or larynx. Its cartilages harden slowly, and even just before

the age of puberty the larynx falls far short of the firmness and

rigidity of structure, that characterize the organ in adult life. It is

physically very difficult for the adult to force the chest-voice beyond

its natural limits, which become fixed when full maturity of bodily

development is reached, but the child, whose laryngeal cartilages are

far more flexible, and move toward and upon each other with greater

freedom, can force the chest-voice up with great ease. The altitude of

pitch which is attained before breaking into the thin register is with

young children regulated by the amount of muscular exertion they put

forth. Even up to the change of voice, boys can often force the thick

register several notes higher than women sopranos.

It must be borne in mind that the thick voice is produced by the full,

free vibrations of the vocal bands in their entire length, breadth and


Imagine children six years of age carrying tones formed in this manner

to the extreme limit of their voice; yet they do it. The tone of infant

classes in Sunday-schools, and the tone of the primary schools, as they

sing their morning hymns or songs for recreation, is produced in nine

hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand in exactly the way set

forth. If the vocal bands of children were less elastic, if they were

composed of stronger fibres, and protected from undue exertion by firm

connecting cartilage; in short, if children were not children, such

forcing would not be possible. If it were not for the wonderful

recuperative power of childhood, serious effects would follow such vocal


We are now prepared to understand that common phenomenon of the

child-voice, termed the "movable break." Every public school teacher who

has had experience in teaching singing must be familiar with the meaning

of the term, though possibly unaware of it. Allusion has already been

made to the fact that, in primary grades, the thick quality, if

permitted, will be carried as high as the children sing, to

[Music: e'']

for example. If they are required to sing the higher tones lightly, then

the three or four tones, just below the pitch indicated, will be sung in

a thin quality of voice. The place of the break or the absence of any

break at all will depend upon the degree of loudness permitted.

Pass now to a grade in which the pupils average eleven years of age.

These can use the thick tones as high as

[Music: d'' e'']

only with great exertion, and, if required to sing softly, will pass

into the thin register at a lower pitch than the primary class. Now, go

to a room where the children range in age from thirteen to fifteen

years. The girls will still use thick tones up to

[Music: b' c'' d'']

The pitch at which the break occurs will vary in individual cases

according to physique or ambition to sing well; but the boys (excluding

those whose voices have begun to break) will manifest the utmost

repugnance to singing the higher notes. "Can't sing high" will be the

reply when you ask them why they do not sing. And they are correct. They

cannot, not with the thick voice. Even when putting forth considerable

exertion, they will pass to the thin voice at

[Music: g' {or} a']

and lower, if they sing softly. This phenomenon, then, is the "movable

break" of the child-voice. The pitch at which the child-voice passes

from the thick to the thin voice depends first upon the age; second,

upon the amount of physical energy employed, and third, upon the bodily

vigor of the child.

It may also be added that boys' voices break lower than girls' during

the year or two preceding change of voice. When, now, it is remembered

that the adult female voice leaves the chest-register at

[Music: f' f#']

it will be admitted by everyone who has had actual experience in class

singing in schools or elsewhere, that the facts set forth in reference

to the ability of the child to carry the thick voice from one to eight

tones higher than the adult, has a very important bearing on the subject

of training children's voices.

But, is it physically injurious? It may be said that, as regards upward

forcing of the vocal register, authorities upon the adult voice are

united. Leo Kofler, in "The Art of Breathing," p. 168, says: "I have met

female trebles that used this means of forcing up the chest-tones as

high as middle A, B, C, and (one can hardly conceive of the physical

possibility of so doing) even as far as D and E flat. The reason why

this practice is so dangerous lies in the unnatural way in which the

larynx is held down in the throat, and in the force that is exercised by

the tension muscles of the vocal ligaments and the hard pressure of the

muscles of the tongue-bone.... I have examined with the laryngoscope

many ladies who had the habit of singing the chest-tones too high, and,

without exception, I have found their throats in a more or less diseased

condition. Laryngitis, either alone or complicated with pharyngitis,

relaxation of the vocal ligaments, and sometimes paralysis of one of

them, are the most frequent results of this bad habit. If a singer is

afflicted with catarrhal trouble, it is always aggravated by this

abominable method of singing."

Emma Seiler, in "The Voice in Singing," p. 54, after describing the

action of the vocal ligaments in the production of the chest-voice and

alluding to the fact that such action can be continued several tones

higher than the proper transitional point, goes on: "But such tones,

especially in the female voice, have that rough and common timbre, which

we are too often compelled to hear in our female singers. The glottis

also in this case, as well as parts of the larynx near the glottis,

betrays the effort very plainly; as the tones ascend, they grow more and

more red. Thus, as at this place in the chest-register, there occurs a

visible and sensible straining of the organs, so also is it in all the

remaining transitions, as soon as the attempt is made to extend the

action by which the lower tones are formed beyond the given limits of

the same." And again: "In the ignorance existing concerning the natural

transitions of the registers, and in the unnatural forcing of the voice,

is found a chief cause of the decline in the art of singing, and the

present inability to preserve the voice is the consequence of a method

of teaching unnatural, and, therefore, imposing too great a strain upon

the voice." Quotations innumerable might be made, to give more emphasis,

were it needed, to the evils of register forcing.

The only point remaining is the one very often raised. Is it not

natural for children to use the chest or thick voice? If their vocal

organs are so flexible, may they not carry such tones higher than

adults, and younger children higher than those a little older, and

so on?

It is quite obvious, for reasons herein set forth, that children do not

experience the same degree of difficulty in continuing the use of the

thick voice to their higher tones as do adults, but as to the effect

upon their vocal organs there need be no reasonable doubt. A. B. Bach,

in "Principles of Singing," p. 142, says: "If children are allowed to

sing their higher notes forte, before the voice is properly equalized,

it will become hard, harsh and hoarse, and they will fail in correct

intonation. A mistake in this direction not only ruins the middle

register but destroys the voice altogether. The consequence of

encouraging forte singing is to change a soprano rapidly to an alto; and

they will generally sing alto equally forte because their vocal cords

have lost their elasticity through overstraining and the notes will no

longer answer to piano. . . . . The fact is that reckless singing often

breaks tender voices and breaks them forever." It may be observed that

the writer cited evidently accepts the same classification in register

for children and adult women's voices, but this does not make the above

extract any less applicable. The baneful effects of forcing the voice is

clearly set forth. How to avoid it is another matter.

Leo Kofler, in the work previously mentioned, p. 168, refers to this

point as follows: "It frequently happens that the tones of the lower

range, or the so-called chest-tones, are forced up too high into the

middle range. This bad habit is often contracted while the singers are

quite young. Boy trebles have this habit to an unendurable degree,

usually screaming those horrible chest-tones up to middle C. Of all bad

habits, this one is the most liable to injure a voice and to detract

from artistic singing."

To cite Madame Seiler once more, p. 176: "While it often happens that at

the most critical age while the vocal organs are being developed,

children sing with all the strength they can command. Boys, however, in

whom the larynx at a certain period undergoes an entire transformation,

reach only with difficulty the higher soprano or contralto tones, but

are not assigned a lower part until perceiving themselves the

impossibility of singing in this way, they beg the teacher for the

change, often too late, unhappily, to prevent an irreparable injury.

Moderate singing without exertion, and above all things, within the

natural limits of the voice and its registers, would even during the

period of growth be as little hurtful as speaking, laughing or any other

exercise which cannot be forbidden to the vocal organs."

Browne and Behnke, who separately and together have given most valuable

additions to the literature of the voice, in a small book entitled "The

Child-Voice," have collated a large number of answers from distinguished

singers, teachers and choir-trainers to various questions relating to

the subject. The following citation is from this interesting work,

p. 39: "The necessity of limiting the compass of children's voices is

frequently insisted upon, no attention whatever being paid to

registers; and yet in finitely more mischief is done by forcing the

registers than would be accomplished by allowing children to exceed the

compass generally assigned to them, always provided that the singing be

the result of using the mechanism set apart by nature for different

parts of the voice."

There can really be no doubt that the use of the chest or thick voice

upon the higher tones is injurious to a child of six years, or ten

years, or of any other age. The theory that in the child-voice the

breaks occur at higher fixed pitches than in the adult is shown to be

untenable. The fact would seem to be that comparisons between the

registers of the child and the adult voice are misleading, since the

adult voice has fixed points of change in the vocal mechanism, which can

be transcended only with great difficulty, while the child-voice has no

fixed points of change in its vocal registers. This point must not be

overlooked. It is the most important fact connected with the child-voice

in speech or song. It is the fundamental idea of this work and is the

basis for whatever suggestions are herein contained upon the management

of the child-voice. The rigidity of the adult larynx, the strength of

the tensor and adductor muscles and the elastic firmness of the vocal

ligaments, are to those of the child as the solid bony framework and

strongly set muscles of maturity are to the imperfectly hardened bones

and soft muscles of childhood. Nature makes no fixed limits of the vocal

registers until full maturity is reached. A fixed register in a childish

throat involving a completely developed larynx would be a startling

anomaly. The laryngeal muscles of childhood are not strong. They are

weak. Most of the talk about strength of voice in children is utter

nonsense. When the muscles and other parts concerned in tone-production

perform their physiological functions in a healthy manner, that is, in

such a way that no congestion, or inflammation or undue weariness will

result, the singing-tone of the child will never be loud. High or low,

under these conditions it must perforce be soft, and if proper

directions be followed the quality will be as good as the voice is

capable of.

Everyone who has observed has also noticed the contrast in the lower

tones of children and women. The chest-voice of the woman, which she

uses in singing her lower register, is normally very beautiful in its

quality. Its tones are the product of a perfectly developed, full-grown

organ. The chest-voice of the child is an abnormal product of a weak,

growing, undeveloped organ. It possesses, even when used carefully,

little of the tone tints of the adult voice. The chest-voice belongs to

adult life, not to childhood. The so-called chest-voice of children is

only embryonic. It cannot be musical, for the larynx has not reached

that stage of growth and development where it can produce these tones

musically. The constant use of this hybrid register with children is

injurious in many ways. Its use is justified in schools merely through

custom, and it can not be doubted that as soon as the attention of

teachers is called to its evils, they will no longer tolerate its use.

The usual analogies then which are drawn between the adult female voice

and the child-voice, in so far as they imply a similar physiological

condition of the vocal organ and similar vocal training, are not only

useless, but misleading. He who tries to train the average child-voice

on the theory of two, three or five clearly-defined breaks, or natural

changes in the forms for vocal vibration assumed by the vocal bands will

get very little help from nature.

With due consideration it is said that it is a harder task to train

children's voices properly than to train the voices of adults. Where

nature is so shifty in her ways, it requires keen penetration to

discover her ends.

The child-voice is a delicate instrument. It ought not to be played upon

by every blacksmith.