I must be mental to write about this ‘mixed voice’

But here goes…

Mixed voice is such a common term so why would it be a nightmare to write about? Well, that’s because it means such different things to different people. Is it is a voice quality, or is a particular set of notes? Could it be a gear change or the area between chest voice and head voice? Here’s one definition from about.com

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 does that mean? How do I split my resonance?

I can’t answer either of those questions without yawning, or starting the entire post again having got nowhere. Instead let’s cover mixed voice in the acoustic sense, which is just one way to attempt to describe this ambiguous little blighter. I will absolutely post something on the vocal fold story of mixed voice soon, but that’s another ball game altogether!

Let’s get physic-al!

Before we begin, I need to sound the ‘nerd alert’. This is a definition article with a little bit of science babble. Not a short instructional piece showing you how to do it. That’ll come later… just so you know 🙂

Now that’s out of the way, I honestly don’t feel like I can describe the resonance phenomenon of mixed voice without potentially alienating you with an unsexy subject – physics. More specifically, acoustics.

However, for a true understanding of what everyone is rattling on about when they talk ‘mix’ you NEED to know this stuff. It also handy to know more about vocal acoustics if you want the ability to discern singing truth from singing BS. That’s handy when there’s so much of it around!

via GIPHY

Harmonics

Let’s get our head around harmonics for a sec. Stay awake…

Our vocal folds begin to make sound by interrupting the airflow that leaves our lungs. This interruption causes pressure to build up underneath the vocals, which causes them to vibrate as the air eventually bursts through. For the record, this pressure build up and vibration thing happens in a fraction of a second.

The speed of vocal fold vibration is determined by the vocal fold’s tension, which is adjusted by the muscle in our larynx when we sing higher or lower. You exercise this tension-changing ability every time you sing a melody and speak expressively so it’s not a very technical thing. We just do it, although extreme pitches and tensions are what we have trouble with mostly. That’s where teachers come in to help out.

ARE YOU STILL WITH ME???

As the vocal folds vibrate in singing, they are constantly parting and colliding, many times per second, in a constant cycle. As they collide, their mucosal covering also vibrates as a result of the collision. In a better description, the covering ripples like a kind of vocal jelly. Those ripples allow little puffs of air through at varying speeds. These little puffs send vibrations though the air molecules in our throat and mouth, and eventually into the outside world. Our ears are the receivers for that signal, and therefore we have sound waves!

So, in essence, harmonics are sound waves created by these little puffs of air in each vibration of the vocal folds. The amount of vocal fold vibrations that happen in one second is decoded by our ears and brains as the pitch. This measurement is known as the frequency, displayed as Hertz (Hz). If we sing an A4, that equates to 440Hz. That is, 440 vibrations per second!

Back to the puffs of air that create harmonics, because they come from the same event (IE, vocal fold vibration/collision) our brain decodes these extra parts of the sound wave as the tone colour of the note being sung. Because the puffs of air ripple so much faster than the vocal fold vibration, they send off much higher frequency elements in the sound wave. Up to thousands of vibrations per second and beyond.

To summarise harmonics…

It’s such a b*tch to grasp harmonics. It’s essentially lots of different pitches being created at the same time, from the same source, but we only hear one consolidated sound! On saying that, it’s lucky we only hear one. It saves us from being overwhelmed by this barrage of individual sound waves. Instead, we just hear two things: the amount of vibrations per second (the pitch) + the harmonics generated in that vibration (the tone colour). Thanks brain!

Moving on from harmonics, we need to march on into spaces and resonance…

The boost

mixed voiceIf only this was about chocolate 🙁 But alas… back to physics

The thing about spaces is that they preferentially reinforce sound waves, making them more intense. This is purely because spaces can change how sound waves travel through the air in them. Their size also changes how and when these waves reflect around in the space. A bit like how a room, and what it’s made of, can change how long an echo bounces around the walls for. As you’ve probably guessed it, if you were to scream into a wardrobe it wouldn’t be very resonant.

Don’t ask why I scream into my wardrbobe

Larger spaces boost lower frequency vibrations, and hence lower pitches and harmonics. Smaller spaces reinforce higher frequency vibrations, and hence higher pitches and harmonics. In singing, a larger space would be considered as the throat and our lower notes may feel like the resonate there. A smaller space would be the mouth, and that space is capable of resonating much higher pitches.

Interestingly, vowels change the shape of both our throat and mouth. So, these spaces are capable of being many different sizes! That means they are also capable of resonating many different frequencies. Oh the wonder of it!

The ‘F’ word

The preferential frequency, or pitch, that a space will resonate is called a ‘formant frequency’. Formant for short, which is terminology you may have come across before. If the space changes shape, the formant (and hence the pitch frequency that it will boost) will also change.

If you’re not too bleary-eyed from the last 934 words, let’s get to the myth.

The bridge/passaggio

I’ve already banged on about the throat being able to resonate lower pitches, which is significant here. Certain harmonic energy in our voice becomes too high for the throat to resonate. It’s just too big and suited to low notes!

If we keep raising pitch, we will reach the point where this energy stops being resonated and doesn’t contribute to our tone colour anymore. We can feel and hear that as it happens. You’ll know the place… around E4/F4 for guys and A4/B4 for girls, singing an UH vowel.

Provided you’re not massively straining, this transition will be felt subtly, but obviously, without a big break or crack.

I know what you’re thinking though…
“But I’m not resonated anymore… waaaaaaaaaah”

You are, but it’s just not the harmonic energy that was bouncing in the throat. There’s plenty of other harmonic energy knocking around in the other spaces of the vocal tract that contribute to your sound. Otherwise, you’d be completely inaudible! We just feel the one described above much more distinctly, so we have latched on to it.

We always have the vowel on our side too. Because vowels change the shape of the throat and mouth, they are very useful tools for adjusting which pitches and harmonics we can resonate. That’s why some vowels are impossible to sing high up, and some help us negotiate the passaggio.

Is that it???

Pretty much. Entering the acoustic world of mixed register basically boils down to:

Certain pitches and harmonic energy getting too high for the throat space to resonate, so acoustic energy changes.

No mixing in sight, really. Because there’s no mixing, the teaching industry is beginning to avoid the term ‘mix’ because it is so misleading.

This is on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis

I usually battle with myself when writing articles like this. I think to myself, probably like many voice teachers reading this:

“Who honestly gives a sh*t about physics???”

Or the more polite version:

“Actually how useful is it knowing this?”

For teachers who want a better understanding of how voice works and a good BS meter for taking in new material, I feel it’s essential to dig into science. It also helps teachers avoid unhelpful or inappropriate vowel choices. That makes getting to the end game much quicker for everyone.

When I sing I don’t think much about this at all, granted. But many of the tools that got me where I am today were based on this knowledge.

For singers and enthusiasts, it could muddy the waters to know all this stuff. You’re in serious danger of analysis paralysis! My view is that you are better off experiencing it with someone trained to create a scenario where you can. That way you can name it whatever you want. Mixed voice, monkey voice or “my god I can’t feel a thing” voice. Please take this information as purely a geeky indulgence without losing sight of the instinctive, experiential nature of singing training.

It doesn’t stop there…

All of that up there is about resonance, but there’s another massive chapter in the mixing myth; the vocal folds. This is the theory that the vocal folds themselves can create a mixed setting, which is aside from resonance. Stay tuned for that article, which will be coming soon once I’ve recovered from this one 😉

Please do contribute to the conversation below if you’re a singer, mixed voice enthusiast or vocal coach.

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

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Join the discussion 21 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.

      • Oblomov says:

        Not only low larynx, I’d say, more like dark vowel shaped toward a dark Oh and OO and a relatively close and narrow Eh, especially toward the high notes. The shape of the mouth less spread in the middle low to middle high relative range and less twang. The low larynx can instead be useful to counteract the need for marked twang in high notes for lower voices, I think.
        For pop you need more open vowel, alternated, depending on the genre and your personal expression to more closed, or bright or narrow ones.

  • 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.

  • Sebastian says:

    But how do People that are Flip Falsetto singers get a Perfect mixed voice since they flip into falsetto in the 5th octave. I am really struggling With this as a flip falsetto myself i have no problem With Falsetto expect that it is has a very limited use and as an artist\singer that is something you do never want. So please how can flip falsetto singers get a mix, please help me

  • Mike says:

    Quote : “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”
    Would singers with a larger oral cavity (bigger jaw, wider face?) have a natural advantage in creating chesty tones higher up their range than a singer with a narrower face and smaller jaw? I note that Steve Perry, David Coverdale and Dio all have quite wide, squarish faces. It’s also a bit of a cliche that operatic tenors tend to be short and stout.

    • Hi Mike! Sorry for the late reply! There’s some interesting research by Ingo Titze about the ability to resonate different ranges being linked to the head size to mouth opening ratio. Morphology plays a part in tone and resonance for sure, but I think vocal registers are more down to the larynx and how that interacts with everything than the face shape itself

      • Oblomov says:

        Hi, I think if we want to be true to the term, we should talk indeed about chest and head as resonance, they are all mixed of course, but it’s about the prevalence. Chest might mean dark tone, a tone is darker the more the fundamental, but especially the overtones just above it are amplified, such tones, resonate more in the larynx, especially in low to mid tones.
        The chestiness is linked to twang and open vowels or compression, only in the measure that it’s linked to full voice than tones actually resonating low. Anastacia, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, might have/had, great “chesty” belts on a E5, but nevertheless such note, unless very forced (but that actually doesn’t help in terms of resonance), actually are in the mask and are twanged open vowels with just a hint of darkness.
        Twanging has the advantage of adding ring more than it removes darkness, compared to simply raising the larynx, which if done alone and in itself creates a loss of resonance.

  • kathy says:

    An excellent discussion. Lots of helpful info and explanations. Thank you. I would love your thoughts on two things – When you consider the changes in resonance that allow the voice to sound chestier, even in head register, do think the larynx is involved in making these resonance adjustments? I think some teachers will argue that these adjustments in resonance involve not only the upper vocal tract, but also muscular movement at the level of the larynx. Second question: Do you recognize two passagi or just the one? Maybe you are just focussing on the one ‘big’ transition as it seems most relevant and keeps the article uncluttered with too much geeky voice stuff. I have training in both classical pedagogy and contemporary, and for the moment I am in my classical brain. If you recognize two passagi, then by definition, we all have a ‘middle’ register. For men, the more subtle passagio is from chest voice (full voice) into the brighter, headier full voice. The more obvious passaggio is from that headier full voice into falsetto. For women, the most obvious passagio is from chest voice into middle voice. Middle voice can also be thought of as a chestier sounding area of the head voice. The more subtle passagio for women, is the transition from middle voice in to full-on head voice. Janice L. Chapman talks as length about the registers in her book, Singing and Teaching Singing. She also refers to a different system of naming registers where each register is called M0, M1, M2, M3, which correspond with vocal fry, modal, head voice/falsetto, and whistle. If you take out the rarely-used-in-performance vocal fry and whistle, this system is more like the two-register system to which you referred. Janice explains why she recognizes the additional registers beyond jus the two. Finally, one more question, do you think it is possible to develop a unified system of terminology and thinking about voice and vocal registers that could be understood and used across regions and genres? Thanks for your great work.

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