I have a think about female falsetto

August 29, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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This is a semi-serious attempt to talk about falsetto singing in women, which is a new subject for me, so I’m sorry if you are a) only here for the LARFS or b) someone who actually knows about this stuff*.

It all started with Kate Bush. I watched this BBC4 documentary the other night. It’s full of people going ‘Wow! She sounded so WEIRD! And it was so HIGH!’ And then I went and made a cup of tea, and found myself singing Wuthering Heights, and thinking ‘Actually, it’s not that high. I can sing it, so it can’t be. But it SEEMS really high. What’s going on?’

I started to wonder about falsetto. We associate falsetto with men singing in high registers, like the Bee Gees, and of course lovely delightful countertenors. But what about women?

Up until recently, many singing teachers argued that women didn’t have a falsetto (or that falsetto and ‘head voice’ are the same thing in women). This is mostly because falsetto doesn’t add significantly to a woman’s range in the way that it does for men (and therefore lacks the ‘stunt’ factor). But this description of falsetto points out that falsetto isn’t about singing high, per se; it’s a different way of producing a sound. Anyone can produce a falsetto, and you can do it through most of your range**. Some women use it to produce notes that are above their normal range (though this also gets confused with ‘whistle register’, which is yet ANOTHER method of vocal production used to do Mariah Carey-style 5-octave stuff), but others are using it for more interesting, less talked-about effects.

So, in the Challenge Anneka spirit, I thought I’d have a go at producing it. This turned out to be a very good idea, as if you know what (female) falsetto feels like, you start to understand what it sounds like. This WikiHow article says you need to lift your eyebrows. Okay… Iestyn Davies is a bit more helpful. He tries to teach Alan Yentob to sing falsetto here:

Iestyn & Alan Yentob

Iestyn suggests Alan uses a ‘Dame Edna voice’ to get the feel of falsetto. Dame Edna’s not very high-pitched for women, so here’s an example of me trying to sound ‘girlish’ instead:

Then trying to sing in that voice:

Falsetto is described as sounding ‘thin’, ‘ethereal’, ‘airy’. You run out of breath a lot more quickly. It’s a bit easier to hit the high notes, but moving around is more unpredictable (falsetto is also described as being harder to control, which means for many people things like vibrato are out of reach).

So here’s Kate, doing Wuthering Heights:

That sounds to me like falsetto. Thin, breathy, girlish, no vibrato. So then I thought about other singers. Here’s PJ Harvey doing a terrifying song where she spends most of the time speak-singing, but listen out for her falsetto when she sings ‘Jesus, save me’:

So far, so up-the-top-end-of-the-register. But Peej turns out to use falsetto in other songs, too. Listen to this one. Not as high-pitched, but still sounds falsetto to me:

And when I listened to the next one, I got really excited, because this is low. That first note is the E above middle C, so it’s near the bottom of soprano range, and in the middle of alto. And yet that sounds like falsetto to me. Compare with her voice at ca. 2:45, where the song changes and she sings ‘When I’m not with you…’; suddenly her voice is richer, fuller, you can hear the vibrato, and yet it’s the same range:

The boyf couldn’t hear this when I played it to him, so I did my own version. Sorry, Peej fans. ‘Normal’ voice first, then falsetto:

What’s interesting about both Peej and Kate Bush is that they’re using falsetto, not to sound beautiful, or to hit particularly high notes, but to create a particular effect. Kate, in Wuthering Heights, telling the story from the point of view of the ghostly Cathy; Peej, taking on various ‘girl’ characters, all more or less deranged.

Twitter came up with some more examples. Here’s Debbie Harry doing Heart of Glass, where the ethereal falsetto matches the dreamlike sound and sentiment of the track. (thanks @Cheyneyk):

(Am I imagining it, or is ‘Once I had a love, and it was a gas’ in falsetto, and ‘Soon turned out to be a pain in the arse’ in normal head voice? Nice contrast…)

And then there’s Joanna Newsom – I might need answers on a postcard about this one, but it’s jolly lovely (thanks @ATreeWithRoots):


* Please tell me if you know good things I can read on this. I can’t find much, and I’ve been googling around all day.

** and laryngoscopy shows that women sing falsetto, too.


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  1. Good stuff. There’s “You’re History” and other stuff by Shakespeare’s Sister sprinting to mind, too.

    • Yes! Good thought. ‘You’re History’s clearly falsetto, isn’t it. Was listening to ‘Stay’ and wondering whether that is, too. Thanks for commenting 🙂

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