The Mile High Club – Welcome to Falsetto

In “More About Singing – Part 2” I talked about how the three main registers of the voice work.  I also very briefly mentioned a fourth one – falsetto. In the last few days, I’ve had quite a few people ask me about falsetto and how it works, as a video snippet has appeared of Adam using it. This is the one, if you haven’t seen it:

(video from Alessandra Andrade’s YouTube uploads)

Now, the recording quality isn’t great, but this is definitely his falsetto voice – and we don’t hear it that often. Adam tends to use it more as a special vocal effect, or when he’s singing acoustically, rather than singing whole songs in it. A couple of quick examples that are easy to pick out are the “cuckoos” in Cuckoo and the “eyes baby eyes” phrase of Music Again. He uses it in a number of other songs, such as the studio version of Feeling Good and A Loaded Smile, particularly the bridge section

Pic credit: como.fi

Pic credit: como.fi

Another really good example of Adam using his falsetto voice is during the riffing that he did with Brian before the start of I Want It All, such as this version of it from Sheffield (it was different every time – the mark of two good musicians working with each other!)

Adam flicks over in falsetto at about 0’23” until about 0’40” (the delay on the sound makes it slightly difficult to pick up when he changes back) and then there is a very high section from about 1’26” to 1’40” where he is well into soprano territory. Using falsetto here had two big advantages over using his full head voice – it enabled him to match Brian’s guitar sound; they managed to blend incredibly well and sometimes it’s difficult to hear which is the voice and which is the guitar.  There is a collection of these clips all put together on YouTube if anyone is interested in hearing how many different ways they improvised together.  This clip is from Sheffield.

(Video from kinkykiedis’ YouTube uploads)

So, how’s it produced?

Instead of the vocal cords coming together in the usual way, only the very edges of them touch, so there is only very light pressure applied, but with a lot of air rushing past them. It’s rather like producing a harmonic on a guitar or violin string.  Most people who’ve dabbled in playing the guitar will have been shown how to produce a harmonic – you don’t fully depress the string, but you need to be fairly high up the fretboard so that the string is already stretched fairly tightly.  The principal for the human voice is the same; think of it as a sort of vocal overdrive. A male singer with a good falsetto can add a huge amount to his vocal range, and Adam certainly demonstrated that on the QAL tour.

It’s only comparatively recently (since the invention of endoscopic cameras) that we have been able to work out how falsetto is produced anatomically, so until then it was a bit of a mystery.

I did think of adding a video of an endoscopy of this process happening, but it was all a bit pink and icky and I thought that a lot of people might find it a bit gruesome.  If you’re unbearably curious, go to YouTube and look up “falsetto singing – endoscopy” and you will get the idea.

As the vocal cords only touch with their edges during falsetto, they don’t connect together in the same way as they do when you’re singing with your “real” voice and the sound is very different. It can sound breathy or hooty and a bit otherworldly – the original Italian word means “false voice”. There isn’t usually any vibrato when it’s produced (although a trained voice can add it).  It doesn’t necessarily follow that if you can sing well, you can also produce a good falsetto, so it’s yet another factor about singing that is a bit random and down to anatomy.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m only going to talk about male falsetto voices.  There’s a lot of debate amongst singing teachers whether or not women can produce falsetto at all; as womens’ voices are much higher than mens’ anyway, it’s difficult to pick up the change in sound in a woman, as the high sounds of a woman’s voice overlap with the range that you would use as falsetto. In the world of classical music, some low female voices can produce a falsetto sound and this can confuse singing teachers into thinking that they’re sopranos when they aren’t. Some women can produce what’s known as a “whistle” register for extremely high notes. However, most men can make a falsetto sound of sorts, although some of them are very much better at it than others. I’m told by male singers that it can feel rather odd singing in falsetto when you use it as a special effect as it feels detached and rather fragile, almost as though it’s not you making the sound.

Pic credit: Warner Bros

Pic credit: Warner Bros

Where it can become complicated is picking out what is head voice and what is falsetto. With Adam this is particularly difficult as his natural voice is so high, so you can’t assume that when he’s singing in a certain pitch, it’s always falsetto.  If you hear a baritone voice singing falsetto, then it’s very obvious as the sound is completely different. Also, because of Adam’s vocal training, it sounds to me as though he is capable of mixing head resonance on to falsetto in the same way as a classical singer, so sometimes it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.

Time for me to ask you to think about strange images again, but I suspect you might be getting used to this by now!

The easiest way to pick out which one is which is to think of the two sounds as having a different shape.  A head voice has edges, even when it’s delivered quietly, but a pure falsetto voice is round. This might sound odd, but try listening with those pictures in your mind and it may help to identify them.

In this live performance of A Loaded Smile, Adam uses head voice, falsetto and some mixture of the two, so it’s a good test to see if you can pick out the different types of voice he is using.

(Video from fiercealien’s YouTube uploads)

Adam’s said in a recent interview that he’s been encouraged to use his falsetto voice on The Original High, so I think it’s going to be very interesting to hear what he does with it.

Of course, Adam is blessed with an incredible top end to his voice and clearly loves using it, particularly when he adds the edgy, “belted” sound to it. This is a risky sound to produce that high in his voice, but he’s stated in interviews that he likes the danger of pushing his head voice as high as possible, and of course it produces those intense glory notes that we all love.

Freddie could produce a very confident falsetto in recordings, although like Adam, he didn’t sing live with it for long periods. This remarkable piece of music was recorded as one of his solo pieces, but he wrote it with the intention of Montserrat Caballe singing it (and she did, as Ensueno on the Barcelona album).

(Video from Sandra Tivadar’s YouTube uploads)

Some singers use falsetto  as a permanent voice; Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons was a really good example, along with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees.  Another extremely interesting singer of this type who might not be known to readers outside the UK is Jimmy Somerville. who was a part of a group called The Communards in the mid-late 80s.  This is one of their hits, and showcases this type of voice really well.

(Video from ernest68’s YouTube uploads)

To fill in the gaps for you, falsetto singers have been around for many centuries and have their origins in church music; these days they’re usually referred to as male altos or counter-tenors. I’ve spent decades around this type of voice so I’m very familiar with them. If you train a falsetto voice with a classical technique you can apply vibrato and the different types of resonance that I talked about in More on Singing – Part 2. There were men who sang as falsettists permanently, but there was also a voice that is now (thankfully!) completely extinct – the castrato. they appeared in both church music and opera, but it was the world of opera that gave them their fame.

It’s a good job they are extinct, to be honest; the surgery was horrendous and quite a few people didn’t survive it. And yes – they did remove the bits that you think they removed. But – the rewards were immense; they had voices that were unique in terms of their range and power.  The castrati were the opera superstars of their day, sang all the heroic roles and commanded massive performance fees.  The picture below is of one of the instruments which was used to “do the deed”, and the guy holding it is Nicholas Clapton, a world authority on the castrato voice and my principal singing teacher for 12 years.

nick castrato

The last castrato died in 1922 and there are a few surviving recordings of his rather unearthly voice.  The castrati were at their peak of popularity in the 18th century and as they started to decline, some of their music fell out of use as the operatic tenor become the new hero. But the technique of singing in falsetto has remained and moved over from classical music to pop and rock as well.

How on earth did I get from a clip of Adam singing The Original High to men with no… bits? I promise the next blog won’t have a gruesome ending!

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19 thoughts on “The Mile High Club – Welcome to Falsetto

  1. Thanks for this post. You have reminde me some things…

    1) There is on YouTube old Queen´s concert from Sydney with Freddie – recorded by someone in the audience. I remember watching that because Freddie didn’t sing all the high notes in the songs that I almost thought that the voice I remebered was just illusion. But between the songs he did some singing “trip” and showed his range – and also falsetto. And than he sung all the songs low again.
    2) Jimmy Somerville and Bronski Beat and so on. He was out in times when a lot of others didn’t have courage to say that (George Michale or Freddie or others). My sister liked him so much. I remember buying her his The Best of CD. But now he is making pure dance music and that is nothing for me.

    Not all the falsettos are good – I don’t prefer it. But sometimes it is good – as Mika. It also depends on music. I prefer lower parts od Adam´s… RANGE! 8^)

    I am looking forward to the next… “to be continued” 8^DDD

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! I’m a fan of Freddie’s but I don’t think he sounded good singing that falsetto. Just didn’t sound clean and the tone wasn’t pleasing to my ear. I also happen to think that Adam is flat a number of times in that short TOH clip singing falsetto but most of the time he’s spot on and the sound is really good!

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    • Falsetto is a bit of an acquired taste – considering Freddie’s voice was untrained he did a remarkable job of keeping it together for a whole song. And you’re right, Adam does have some rare tuning problems in Loaded Smile. I think if you’re not used to singing falsetto it can sometimes be more difficult to control as the voice feels disconnected in this state and there is a lot of air going past the vocal cords.

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  3. I always enjoy your blogs. I love listening to music and I could never explain why I like certain singers, I just know their voices appeal to me so it’s interesting to read about voices and singing from someone who can explain why a voice sounds the way it does. Through these blogs I know that you’re enamoured with Adam’s voice (and Freddie’s). Are there other singers that impress you?

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  4. Thank you so much for the base line understanding of what Afam does with his voice that sends me into a state of ecstasy.
    It’s like looking behind the wizards curtain and when you do see the reality you don’t care that the wizard is pulling the musical reality strings because only he the wizard can do what he does… Keep me wanting more of the sound emotional feeling of euphoria.
    Please keep writing using Adam as your foundation of written thought.

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  5. I Always loved hearing Adam popping into falsetto on the word ‘nervous’ in Mad World. He had a fascinating Twitter party once, talking about music structure and voices, where he talks a lot about falsetto. If I find it, I’ll Mssg it to you, Kym. And I’ve read extensively on Castratti, because of one of the best fanfics written. I’ll Mssg you that, too, if I find it!

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    • Yes please – that would be really interesting! If you’re interested in the thing of the castrato voice, I can recommend a film called “Farinelli – Il Castrato”. It’s set in the days of the castrato superstars and is quite an interesting watch.

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  6. Another great entry. I love how you explain the difference between head voice and falsetto.

    (Even though you mentioned castrati almost as an afterthought in this, I guess I should mention the movie “Il Farineli”, for those interested in what the world of castrati was like. It’s a very good movie, very poignant in certain moments, has a lot of “otherworldly” singing, and even though it’s fiction I think they managed to portray that time pretty accurately, historically speaking.
    I remember one scene where the main character, the famous castrato opera singer arrives to “do a gig” in a new city, and swarms of women surround him, screaming, trying to touch him, fainting at the sight of him…. They were the rock stars of their age… 😀 )

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    • I’ve just mentioned that film in the comment above! 😀 Yes, it’s a very interesting film and is a very good commentary of how life was for them – they were the 18th century equivalent of rock stars. They also had rather odd growth patterns because of the lack of oestrogen in their bodies. The long bones didn’t harden off in the same way and they grew uncommonly tall for the time and had large ribcages. This of course added to the size of their voices!

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  8. KYM!! This is such an outstanding post!! I put it in my favorites log. The video/audio performances you put on here are so unbelievable, and a couple I haven’t even heard before! Just great text, too. I love how you end it and then call yourself on your method, which I’m sure was quite spontaneous! Very Clever, my friend, very nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well done, BB. Loved seeing the River Rock clip. I don’t think I’ve ever watched those. And although I love the technical side of things, I can’t quite bring myself to watch the endoscopy. Maybe later!

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