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.
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).
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 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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