Falsetto, or “false voice,” is a vocal technique that allows male singers to sing notes that are normally outside of their natural range. It basically pulls the male singer’s voice out of his chest and into his head, which is traditionally how female sopranos reach their highest notes. Some male singers use falsetto to reach a few high notes before returning to their natural chest and throat voices, but a select few can use it to sing entire songs.
Falsetto has been used since the Middle Ages, though early music theorists used the terms “head voice” and “falsetto” interchangeably. Falsetto was taught to both men and women who worked in the opera industry, though it was more common to hear trained male countertenors use it when female sopranos were either unavailable or not permitted to perform. When asked to sing notes in the high tenor range, male bass singers used the technique sparingly.
Falsetto became very popular in modern music during the 1950s, when a type of a capella music known as “doo wop” became popular among the younger generation. Doo wop groups, like Southern gospel quartets of the time, were almost entirely made up of a bass, baritone, lead tenor, and first tenor. A typical doo wop group’s first tenor would learn to sing entirely in falsetto as a melodic counterpoint to the lead tenor’s straightforward delivery. The bass would counter with deep runs of his own while the first tenor sang extremely high notes.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a song the Tokens, featured a straight falsetto performance from beginning to end. Frankie Valli’s falsetto was unusually powerful for most of his career, as evidenced the song “Walk Like a Man.” Other singers, such as Roy Orbison, would combine this technique with a powerful natural chest voice to great effect. Although switching into the head voice just before hitting the highest notes of a song is notoriously difficult, trained rock vocalists often learn how to do so just before hitting the highest notes of their songs.
Although they are frequently used interchangeably, head voice and falsetto are two distinct methods of vocal production that require completely different laryngeal articulations. Falsetto is similar to chest voice articulation in that it uses the entire length of the vocal fold (minus the glottis) to produce sound, but the vocal folds do not fully come together when producing sound, allowing more airflow and giving the voice a breathy quality. Head voice entails “zipping up” a portion of the vocal folds’ length to create a tighter, shorter arrangement. Although some operatic schools confuse head voice and falsetto (as seen through a laryngoscope), it is simply an old myth that wasn’t scientifically debunked until laryngoscopes were introduced.