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Voice Break and Switching Vocal Registers

Our article about the anatomy of the voice is giving some insight of how the voice is created in the human body, how we achieve a powerful voice, how we produce pitch, and how we influence our vocal qualities. A practical understanding of the physiological mechanisms of the human voice is helpful for the singer to develop a better vocal technique among other benefits.

We have seen, that the quality of the tone of our voice is influenced by resonators like per example the chest, larynx, pharynx, oral cavity, nasal cavity, and sinuses. The use of these different areas in different combinations determine the vocal register we address as singer. The intentional focus on a specific resonator is called voice placement. The vocal registers are a simplification to describe a part of the overall pitch spectrum of the voice. You may have heard of chest, middle, head, and falsetto. Among other concepts these are describing vocal registers.

Choose a topic

This melody drops one octave. It is also about one octave the sound of a voice of a young man drops during voice change.

This melody drops one octave. It is also about one octave the sound of a voice of a young man drops during voice change.

^ What is voice break?

The term voice break is used in the context of two different phenomena, which both have to do loosely with the pitch of the voice.

Every human being is going through voice change, also called voice mutation and voice break during puberty. As a child we all, boys and girls alike, start off with a voice that sounds higher than those of adult people. This higher voice is based on the smaller larynx and thinner vocal cords. Only once the development of larynx, vocal cords, and resonators are completed, the person will gain a voice that is lower in pitch and fuller in tone.

Voice break also refers to the transition between the different vocal registers, which happens when a vocalist performs a note that requires a different placement than the note before, be it to avoid straining of the voice or to gain a better sound. Some singers may have problems to control the access of vocal registers at first, and find themselves switching the vocal register unintentionally. If this happens we speak of voice crack, also called vocal break.

Let's take a look into these two phenomena in more detail.

^ Voice change during childhood

Voice change is caused by expansion of the larynx and development of the vocal folds, which grow longer and thicker during puberty. The thicker vocal folds will vibrate at a lower frequency, and the change is accompanied by growth of facial bones and the resonator spaces like the cavities in the sinuses, nose, and the back of the throat. Both sexes go through this development, but for boys the change is far more prominent as the development of the Adam's Apple caused by a tilting voice box may illustrate.

During the process the sound of the voice drops and deepens by as much as a full octave for boys, and a few notes up to a third octave for girls. Mostly for boys the sudden drop of pitch may sometimes lead to significant problems in vocalization, such as voice crack or straining of the voice. A pitch which was previously considered chest voice becomes head voice, and for a few months the young man will need to relearn to access pitch. The whole process of voice change may last up to a full year, and finding the new singing voice may even take longer.

Voice change is a normal and natural process, which cannot be prevented or accelerated naturally. The change starts somewhere around the ages 11 to 14 and a half, and while some voices change gradually, others might change more quickly. For children who have been trained to pursue the art of singing at a young age voice change can be a great disruption, as it becomes challenging to access the changing instrument. Oftentimes this disruption may lead to a break or discontinuation of the arts of singing altogether.

As a possible means of support during this time the young men should be encouraged to continue vocal practice during voice change, even if it means that the choir will feature an adolescent voice. Frequent and regular singing throughout all the stages of the vocal development will help to gain comfort, feeling, and hearing skills. Two types of exercises have been considered especially beneficial during this phase, the one being "sirens", a warm up exercise that stretches the vocal range, and the other being "descending scales" which are believed to create less tension. It is also important to train these young men in avoiding to apply any type of force to the changing voice. They should always sing in a comfortable range and be allowed to switch octaves or harmonies as needed.

^ Principles of voice range in literature

When we read through literature in the field of vocal pedagogy and speech pathology we will stumble upon different concepts of how the range of the voice can be divided. We think that the definitions in this chapter will help to understand literature better, because professionals in these fields are divided over the use of a mutually agreed upon terminology.

Here are the different concepts of how the voice range can be divided

^ Voice by resonance

Some authors divide the vocal range by a system which describes the location within the human body, at which the resonance of the sound of the voice mainly happens. They do this in the understanding that the voice is always produced by laryngeal function. However, the different resonance chambers within the body are giving the voice a specific colour in tone, which can be influenced by the way the vocalist supports his voice during singing.

Vocal range by resonance is divided into

  • Chest voice
  • Mouth resonance
  • Nasal or mask resonance
  • Head voice

Oftentimes authors only speak of head voice and chest voice to simplify things.

^ Voice by range

Some authors go a step further and redefine the vocal range by the knowledge of how we use resonance chambers through accessing different voice support.

These authors divide the voice range into

  • Lower voice/range
  • Middle voice/range
  • Higher voice/range

The lower voice range is accessed by using the chest as a resonator. A voice that finds its main resonance in the mouth and nasal areas is allocated to the middle voice range. The higher voice range is accessed by using the chambers in nasal and head area to resonate the sound of the voice.

^ Voice by pitch

Other authors approach the division of the voice range into specific registers by thinking in terms of pitch. They also take into account the different voice types by including the general difference between genders.

For men, they speak of

  • Chest register
  • Head register
  • Falsetto

For women, they speak of

  • Chest register
  • Middle register
  • Head register

It is important to not confuse this terminology with the classification of voice range by resonance chambers, because the use of the different resonance areas is not at all considered in this concept.

^ Voice by feeling

Some authors define vocal range by a feeling which a vocalist can observe when producing the sound of the voice. In this concept the location of vibrations felt during singing determines the position within the vocal range.

These authors divide the voice range into

  • Vocal fry
  • Modal voice
  • Falsetto
  • Whistle register

The modal voice is a term that describes the natural or normal voice and refers to any pitches which can be produced by natural disposition of the vocal cords. Our speaking voice falls within this register, and a well trained singer can achieve a range of two octaves or more within the modal voice.

The vocal fry register describes sound which is produced by pressing air through a loosely closed Glottis. This air will press through the vocal folds in bubbles producing a rattling sound with very low frequencies.

While overlapping the modal voice by about one octave, the falsetto register has access to higher pitches. The sound characteristic is different because the vocal folds do not vibrate in full but they do in part. More air is used that results in a breathy, flute-like sound with only few overtones present. Unlike the falsetto definition used in the classification of vocal range by pitch, both genders can access this technique.

Children, men with countertenor and tenor voice types, and most women can train to access the whistle register, which is able to produce the highest pitches of the human voice. The sound of the voice is created by using only the back of the vocal folds, meaning that the shorter length at which the folds vibrate lead to the higher pitches.

^ Switching vocal registers

When you sing a melody that requires a larger vocal range, the creation of the lower and the higher notes may be based on a different vocal support to be able to hit the notes without straining the voice. The vocalist achieves this by accessing different vocal registers.

Depending on the vocal school, the definition of vocal registers supporting the voice is defined by either the breathing technique alone, or by additionally including vocal fold resistance and resonance concepts, which is called appoggio. Please refer to the chapter "Principles of Voice Range in Literature" here and to our article at "Improve Your Breathing" for further details.

For some singers switching between registers may cause problems which becomes audible when accessing a note through a resonator, which is not the optimal choice for the specific pitch. What does this mean? It simply means that an overlapping area of pitches can be produced through two different vocal support systems. If a singer chooses to produce the pitch with the "wrong" vocal support, the produced note will not sound very good or seems to be out of place. This effect is called vocal break.

Singers address this problem by first expanding the range that can be accessed by use of the different vocal support systems through exercises, so that they create additional choices from which they can select to produce a specific pitch. As a second step they then learn to choose the "correct" support system for every pitch to gain an optimal sound and tone for their singing performance.

^ How to choose the correct support system

An easy way to determine if a support system is the correct choice for a specific pitch is to observe the produced volume of the performed note. If the vocalist can effortlessly reach a high volume for the note, the choice was correct. It is to mention, that the resonance of a tone is directly related to its volume. Think of an acoustic guitar. Without the resonance body behind the strings the sound of the vibrating strings would be weak and flat resulting in a much lower volume.

^ Blending vocal registers

Blending, also called bridging vocal registers refers to a technique with which the vocalist makes a smooth and seamless transition from one vocal register to another. It requires a gradual adjustment of the laryngeal muscles, breath control, and vowel modification. In general the singer uses shorter and more compact vocal folds by accessing more musculature at lower pitches. The more higher the desired pitch, the more elongated and thinner the vocal folds should become, but also the area of vibration on the vocal folds should shrink gradually. A correct blending technique between vocal registers will eliminate voice break, sometimes also referred to as register break.