The ‘Mixed Voice’

The holy grail. Or at least it seems that’s how many singers view it. After all it is a really hard register to master. However, it’s kinda misunderstood by teachers and singers. Since it’s a bit hazy out there, I’d like to take the opportunity to look at it on a basic level in a short post. Namely, the way resonance works.

 

What they think it is

You may have heard of the term ‘mixed voice’ before, and if you have you’ve probably tried to find it. I’ve seen it described on About.com as “about a 50/50 split in resonance”.

 

“What the heck are you talking about?” I hear you say.

 

Well, many see the voice as two registers and then a mixed register in-between them. Firstly the chest voice/bottom voice is where the voice resonates in the lower notes (essentially the throat cavity), and head voice/upper voice is where the higher notes resonate (the mouth cavity). In the mixed voice (located between the chest and head registers) a skilled singer is able to split these resonances to allow them to ascend with that chestier, more intense sound. In simpler terms, some resonance remains in chest to give the sound some ‘beef’ and some goes to head voice which allows it to ‘lift’. If you can’t mix your registers then you’ll end up yelling with too much chest, or sounding weak and/or breathy with too much head.

Fact or Myth

The only thing is, although it has worked for some to picture it like that, it’s not strictly true.

 

There are still plenty of singing myths flying round out there amongst the old skool. The vocal cords ‘zipping up’ being one of them. The reality of mixed voice is another one that proud teachers of voice refuse to concede.

 

What actually happens

Quick bit of science! When you sing the vocal cords vibrate and create a pitch, and that pitch has a complex stack of other pitches rolled up into it called harmonics. Harmonics, and how they are boosted, are what gives tone colour to a sound. In singing, your ear hears the bottom harmonic as the pitch and the rest as that tone colour. Harmonics are what makes a piano sound like a piano, and you sound like you. They are boosted by spaces, and it is your vocal tract that does the boosting of harmonics for your voice. The body of an acoustic guitar would do it for the strings on that instrument too.

 

An obvious example of the tone colour changing would be where a band sounds different when playing in church than in a rehearsal room. That is harmonic boosting in action. It’s also known as acoustics (try to stay awake).

 

Harmonic graph

A view of the harmonic stack

 

Both the throat and the mouth (the resonant spaces) boost harmonics all of the time so we are in a constant state of ‘mix’ or dual resonance. For the geeks out there, as the articulators (mouth, tongue, lips, larynx etc) move they change the shape of the two resonant spaces and give a changed tone colour to the sound. This is how we get different vowel sounds.

 

Like we said, both spaces are resonating but in the bottom voice the throat is dominant and is providing the majority of harmonic boost. When you ascend the harmonics raise in pitch and the mouth takes over as the dominant resonator.

 

At the point where you would mix the real event is where a particular harmonic in the voice, which was boosted by the throat, becomes too high for the throat to continue giving it energy.

 

This is where skilled singers know how to shape the vocal tract in order to allow for a smooth handover of that harmonic to the mouth, allowing the head voice to become the dominant resonator. Combine all this with the continuous stretch of the vocal cord muscles and you get the sensation that something really lifts up and changes at that point.

 

How can it sound so chesty if the chest resonator isn’t dominant?

Chest voice has a great deal of energy in it, and when the mouth is able to boost those harmonics as effectively as the throat did down low then you get a louder, more energised sound. That contributes to what seems like a chesty tone perception.

 

Also, when everything is in place harmonically AND a singer has well coordinated laryngeal muscle (in less anatomical bumph, I’m talking about the vocal folds) then you can achieve a really strong sound. Head voice has long been associated with a breathy tone, however a sound is only breathy when the vocal folds are weak or struggle, for whatever reason. If this sounds like you, you can train your voice so that your vocal folds are happy and stay together easy.  This can be a bit tricky in the upper areas because they are directly affected by how well harmonics are being boosted. Having this boost can massively assist a singer in sounding powerful up top.

 

Lastly, like we’ve explored, there are boosted harmonics in the throat cavity at all times and they will contribute to the depth of the sound provided the shape of that space is right.

 

With all these things in place it can seem like a singer is singing freely in a mix that is more like 70/20 in favour of chest, which blows the minds of some mixers as they would pull like hell if they tried it. I really believe that is down to the flaws of the ‘mixing’ principle. With the way it really works, we are actually looking to boost harmonics and enhance cord closure in the head voice state, which is all eventually achieved by good vowel tuning.

 

 

Why is it so hard?

Blimey, it could be anything! The smooth handover of harmonics relies on the resonant spaces being just the right size and shape in order to boost the correct harmonics, so if your vowel shapes aren’t right to facilitate that then things can go wrong. And when things go wrong, tension creeps in.

 

Sometimes the vocal cords and other neck muscles just jam up habitually and everything falls apart.

 

There’s even the situation where the correct feeling of the change is enough to make a singer lose their nerve and drop off. The list really does go on.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, especially those who practice or teach mix. The scientific research is around to give clarity and there is so much more to it than what is above. Please leave us a comment to discuss.

 

 

Chris is an expert vocal coach and mentor based in London. He works with major label recording artists, West End actors and songwriters, helping them maintain a voice that’s ready for a demanding industry.
Chris is also a writer for iSing Magazine, a founder/presenter of The Naked Vocalist podcast, a voting member of Pan American Vocology Association, and a teacher trainer/vocal coach with the Vocology In Practice network.
All that aside, he’s a pure and true music fan with a penchant for Donny Hathaway and songs about heartbreak.

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Chris Johnson Vocal Coach

Chris Johnson Vocal Coach

Expert Vocal Coach. Performer. Utter Geek. at Chris Johnson Vocal Coach
Chris is an expert vocal coach and mentor based in London. He works with major label recording artists, West End actors and songwriters, helping them maintain a voice that's ready for a demanding industry.
Chris is also a writer for iSing Magazine, a founder/presenter of The Naked Vocalist podcast, a voting member of Pan American Vocology Association, and a teacher trainer/vocal coach with the Vocology In Practice network.
All that aside, he's a pure and true music fan with a penchant for Donny Hathaway and songs about heartbreak.
Chris Johnson Vocal Coach

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Oblomov says:

    Hi, very interesting explanation. But so, why so many singers tend to break above the passaggio? What’s this break? It’s not only a matter of unbalanced resonance, it seems more physical, like the folds blow apart and a higher but hootier sound yodels out.
    But is a register there, is falsetto or head voice a voice made by a part of the folds and head voice being the professional and full voiced version of it? If there are these two primary registers, mixed voice makes sense, cause it’s not just resonance, you need to gradually fade from the full fold voice to the partial folded head voice, without a break, when the pitch start to be too high for the weight of your vocal fach.
    It’s more physical and it’s the passaggio. But great tips :).

    • Naked Web Monkey says:

      Thanks again for your input Oblomov! Agreed, this article is swayed more towards the resonance effects of ‘mixing’ as that is what many pedagogies relate it too. One could say that a mix between thick fold and thin fold, or TA and CT is also relevant when it comes to effective singing. In our experience, falsetto and head voice are different setups and recruit vibration from different parts of the vocal fold layers, as does chest or modal voice.
      If a singer isn’t trained enough to coordinate the gradual handing over of tension from the TA muscle to the ligament then you’ll get a fairly obvious register change, or crack. If airflow is excessive high up then you can also get a crack or flip. If resonance doesn’t support vocal fold vibration you will also experience problems and instability.
      It’s hard to say why some people crack above the passaggio. Some may be able to create good resonance but hang on to too much vocal fold tension (in the TA) until they have no choice but to drop it… crack! Some singers could lose their harmonic boost unless they adjust their vowels, which can cause swift register flips etc. We’re sure there are other situations, but let’s keep it light 🙂
      You sound well educated Oblomov! Keep in touch 🙂

    • Marcutio says:

      I never do it gradually. Somewhere on my way up against pasaggion, sometimes as low as C3 depending on the frases, I’m able to switch to upper extention, because it’s impossible for me to do it gradually around E4-G4. And it’s easier to “mix” so low and continue up to C5+. I’ve noticed that some mezzoaltos sound qukte like they’re doing that

  • Oblomov says:

    Sorry, I didn’t see your response. Thanks for all and for the esteem. I’m practicing everyday.
    I recently found the importance of resonance and twang toward the passaggio.
    The voice has to get more pharyngeal to emphasize higher formants.
    Twang and pharyngeal are a bit different although the latter is in part consequential.
    The twang is necessary, in part, depending on the volume or dynamics in the low and very low range as well, but it is basically a multifaceted function which gives ring and reinforces fold closure.
    It’s not nasality, as it happens at the epiglottic level, a bit like swallowing but without constricting (and you have to avoid extrinsec constriction to kick in, letting the throat open although the space is a bit narrowed).

    Does the singer formant reside in the throat or in the pharynx, as with twang you sort of separate the two chambers more than usually :)?
    I know that the vowels mostly depend on the pharingeal space/mouthshape (called embrochure by The Voice studio, I think), the wider (dunno if the brighter as wel) vowel is in fact the slightly dampened Ah (Uh) and with pharingeal voice you modify your vowels toward this and you have to create all your vowels within this newer formantic space.

    Part of the ease of higher voices seems to be related on the already shorter vocal tract which makes the vowels closer to the “head” high notes setup to start with.

    Not sure about this, though.

    About the mixed voice, it really seems we mix the resonance as well as registers and forcing a resonance seems to force a register.
    But pulling thick folds up is definitely different than keeping full voice in thin folds, that’s why I think there is some intermediate setup.
    Yet some texts say we only have M1 and M2 and trained singers are just good at disguising the registration event (but I wonder how they don’t yodel then).
    Do you know the Michelle Castellengo research about registers?

  • Nancy says:

    My mixed voice sounds like an opera singer, and I want it to sound more pop style and have a chestier sound. So a chest dominat sound.
    But how do I close my vocal cords in head state and where should I specially place the sound when I want to belt I the mixed voice with more chest?

    • Sorry we missed your comment Nancy. There’ll be a few things that make you sound operatic, and using a darker tone will be one of them becaue it lowers the larynx a little too much. When this happens we get a bit too much depth in the tone and it doesn’t sound poppy or speech like anymore. Experience higher larynx positions and work with twangy tones to find and hone a different tone. You’ll need to a coach to guide you, but that is highly likely to be the cause.

  • A slide upwards using ‘ah’ in chest voice changing to o for middle voice and ooh for head really helps the voice to transition easily.

  • Kristiana says:

    Thank you, this article is great! I’m in training and I find it’s a lot to do with release in my body. If i have the smallest tension, I won’t be able to mix properly and it will be noticable but if I relax, stay in the right posture and breathe, i will transition more smoothly. I agree with Nancy that it does sound more towards classical rather contemporary tone..is it because i am still at the beginning of training my mix voice? What are the ways to adjust that?

    • Hi Kristiana. It could be because you are at the beginning of your training. Lots of singers rely on hooty tones and lowered larynxes to start finding a mix, but eventually we need to come away from that. Working on forms of brighter tone through twang-like sounds can help us to start working on that pop sound where the larynx sits higher. A coach is needed to make sure you’re not achieving your brighter sound with lots of excess tension. When female singers are too light they can sound classical too, so working on how you can encourage the involvement of the chest register in your sound, again being sure it’s with ease and not by external force.

  • Caitlin says:

    So I haven’t realised that I’ve been singing in mix for a couple years now to be honest. I’ve always been afraid of people hearing me sing (it’s a very personal part of me) so I’ve often wanted to sing to myself, not in chest as it’s too loud, but not in head as I’ve wanted more power than that so by pure accident I found this in between. Bear in mind I’ve been singing since I was 5 and I’m 20 now.

    But I thought this was a fake voice that I’d made up or something. I only used it for very quiet singing to myself but when I finally realised this was considered a serious technique, I’ve been practicing to sing louder in that voice and suddenly I can hit these notes (G5+) with complete ease and no strain that I’ve previously never been able to belt in my life, due to being mezzo soprano and having a chest range up to E5 (rarely F5).

    So this has been quite a discovery for me, I feel very excited by it! 🙂 And thank you for writing this as it’s helped me learn more about the mix.

  • Dean says:

    When I do mix voice for myself my voice for a male is naturally high so, I use my falsetto range and my lower falsetto range sometime even my own voice with phrasing a certain word or phrase! With a little bit of vocal fry, but the more I use my vocal fry and my own voice on certain lines I’m starting to notice gradually going down lower and being able the jump back up! It isn’t easy to do and I’m still learning to do so but just not getting enough, if I use all my chest it’s too beefy and beefy to do pop music and I can’t switch it I just stretch and it just my throat. Have a listen to My Instagram page Supermanndean hope to hear back something soon

  • Marcutio says:

    After decades of misjudgement I’ve been, again, trying to develope higher extention, ths time on my own. After having singing countertenor couple of years in early 90s, this was my first choice. That was the best way for me to abandon that rush for high tones, pressing larynx higher and bending waves with higher airpressure.
    Now I can manage to start at A4 and glide down with larynx head tilted forward below the treacherous E4 with ease. On my best, I’m able to reach F5, but there is no beauty in it yet 😀
    Anyway, this path was possible thanks to you and other singers, who share with their knowledge and experience.

    • Naked Web Monkey says:

      Good to hear that there’s some value in the posts on our site Marcutio! We’ll publish more on mixed voice soon which might help you.

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