What is Falsetto?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Falsetto, often translated as a "false voice," is a vocal technique that allows male singers to perform notes ordinarily out of their natural range. Essentially, it pulls the male singer's voice out of the chest and into the head, which is traditionally what helps female sopranos hit their highest notes. Some male singers only use falsetto to reach a few high notes before returning to their natural chest and throat voices, but a few can actually sing entire songs using this controlled technique.

Falsetto refers to a vocal technique that allows singers to perform notes out of their range.
Falsetto refers to a vocal technique that allows singers to perform notes out of their range.

The use of falsetto has been traced back to at least the Middle Ages, although early music theorists used the term almost interchangeably with "head voice." Both men and women working in the field of opera were trained to use falsetto, although it was more common to hear trained male countertenors use it whenever female sopranos were either not available or else not permitted to perform. Male bass singers also used the technique sparingly when asked to perform notes in the high tenor range.

Men and women were trained to use falsetto in the field of opera.
Men and women were trained to use falsetto in the field of opera.

In modern music, the use of falsetto became very prominent during the 1950s, as a form of a capella music called "doo wop" became popular among the younger generation. Doo wop groups were almost entirely composed of a bass, baritone, lead tenor and first tenor, much like Southern gospel quartets of the time. The first tenor of a typical doo wop group often learned how to sing entirely in falsetto, which served as a melodic counterpoint to the lead tenor's straightforward delivery. While the first tenor would sing extremely high notes, the bass would counter with deep runs of his own.

Frankie Valli utilized the falsetto technique in his music.
Frankie Valli utilized the falsetto technique in his music.

A song by the Tokens, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," featured a straight falsetto performance from beginning to end. Singer Frankie Valli spent most of his singing career using an unusually powerful falsetto, as witnessed in the song "Walk Like a Man." Other singers such as Roy Orbison would use this technique in combination with an impressive natural chest voice. Generating power and maintaining tone in the head voice is notoriously difficult, but trained rock vocalists often learn how to switch into it just before hitting the highest notes of their songs.

It is important to note that head voice and falsetto, although often used interchangeably, are two different methods of vocal production that involve totally different laryngeal articulations. Falsetto resembles chest voice articulation, using the entire length of the vocal fold (minus the glottis), except in falsetto the vocal folds do not fully come together when producing sound, allowing a greater amount of airflow, which gives the voice a breathy quality. Head voice involves "zipping up" the vocal folds part of the length to give a sort of shorter, tighter arrangement. This looks (from view of a laryngoscope) completely different from falsetto, and although some operatic schools interchange head voice and falsetto, it is a merely an old falsehood that wasn't scientifically debunked until laryngoscopes came into play.

Roy Orbison used the falsetto technique in his music.
Roy Orbison used the falsetto technique in his music.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Darren Hayes, anyone! Now there's a singer with a falsetto. Check out his last album called "Secret Codes and Battleships."

Or what about Adam Lambert? And yes, the late Michael Jackson was excellent at falsetto. I mean, check out the 'hee hee's' for a start!


No man that I have heard has ever hit the notes that Bobby DeBarge has pulled off with ease. Listen to the song "You and I," especially the end. His notes are something that most accomplished soprano female singers couldn't touch. Bobby D is the greatest falsetto ever.


I agree with annon48405. Although there have been many great pop falsetto vocalists over time, like Kendricks (Temptations), Banks (Dramatics), Eugene Record (Chi-Lites), Prince, Smokey, Ted Mills (Blue Magic), Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Thompkins (Stylistics) just to begin to name a few, as far as technique, range with control (check out Devotion from Gratitude - Eb triple prime - amazing) and the ability to go from sultry smooth to raspy with energy, no one else comes close to Philip Bailey, in my opinion.


Bruno Mars is known to use falsetto and he is pretty good at it.


to anon203259: you're right. comparing muse and radiohead is insulting -- to muse that is. I think Bon Iver is an amazing falsetto singer and matt bellamy.


No one says Radiohead is terrible! Muse stinks and I can't even believe people compare the two; it's offensive. Anyway, Andrew VanWyngarden is great. But, of course, no one compares to Freddie Mercury.


I found out yesterday that i can sing falsetto. i didn't even know what it was. but i was wondering if lots of people can do this. i have it naturally, no specific training to do that. so just wondering.


Matt Bellamy, Thom Yorke and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) have amazing falsetto voices. Listen to Skinny Love by Bon Iver to see what i mean.


The late Wayne Cooper of the 80's funk group Cameo has got to be in the top three of falsetto voices. He was simply amazing!


Paul Stanley of Kiss, the falsetto king.


Gospel singer Tonex also does lots of falsetto as well. Check out his songs.


what about Russell Thompkins, Jr of The Stylistics? Now that's what you call a falsetto.


is axl rose a tenor? And did he develop his voice or he was born with it?


Rob Halford of Judas Priest sings amazingly in falsetto.


Radiohead is amazing. Thom Yorke's falsetto makes fantastic melodies.


radiohead is so terrible. Yorke is an example of bad falsetto.


Michael Jackson sang falsetto, too. I love him so, so, so, so, so much.

r.i.p michael jackson, i will always love you forever in my heart.


Also Thom Yorke of Radiohead, which is part of the reason Radiohead and Muse sound similar.


Matthew Bellamy of Muse also sings most of his songs with strong falsetto.


But no one is better than Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire.


So did Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor of Queen.


Barry Gibbs of the Bee Gees also sang in falsetto on many, if not most of their songs.

Post your comments
Forgot password?