Vocal coach Line Hilton discusses chest voice and its role in pop, rock and gospel singing.
Chest voice is an intrinsic feature of many contemporary vocal styles, so who better to explain the basics than BAST founder and vocal coach Line Hilton.
Here’s a taster of what Line had to say on the subject matter when she recently appeared on the Singing Teachers Talk podcast.
What is chest voice?
Let’s start with the simple answer. Chest voice refers to the lower part of a singer’s vocal range. It produces a rich, powerful sound and is used for lower and mid-range notes.
And now for the more complicated bit.
The singing world is divided about how many vocal registers there are and what to call them.
Wearing her diplomat’s hat, Line says: “Registers can be looked at from a physiological point of view, a perceptual point of view and an acoustical point of view – so it depends on which one you’re looking at.
“You might say, if it’s physiological, then there are just two registers – the bottom one and the upper one – and then one transition. But as we go higher, there are some other shifts that seem to happen. But these seem to be more on an acoustical level.”
If you read up about vocal registers, you’ll come across all sorts of different terminology. Here’s an explainer of some common terms.
“In terms of registers, people often talk about the very first register being fry or pulse, it’s a sort of creaky sound. That is sometimes called M0,” says Line. M stands for Mechanism.
“The next register is the one which is more in the range of where we speak. This is often called the chest register, chest voice, M1, modal speech or thick folds. Then the next register is head voice, loft, M2 or thin folds.
“Then you have falsetto or M3. Just to confuse us, sometimes male head voice is called falsetto. But the falsetto I’m referring to is that whistle tone that you hear with artists like Mariah Carey.
“People also talk about mix or belt, although some people consider it a quality, not a register.”
All clear? Don’t worry if it’s not. “The important thing as a singing teacher is you figure out what works for you. Nobody has all the answers.”
So what actually happens when we use chest voice?
When we’re using chest voice, our thyroarytenoid (TA) is engaged. (The TA is a muscle that runs all the way along the vocal folds). This means that we’ve got more vocal fold mass coming together, leading to a bigger tone or a louder, stronger tone.
What vocal range is a cisgender singer covering when they use chest voice?
For females, Line suggests anything from G4 down and for males, anything from D4 down. “Once you get into higher notes, we’re getting into transition; this is where we need to start making some shifts.”
Why is it important for singers to establish a chest voice?
Not all singers need to develop chest voice (in the classical world, it’s discouraged). And if you’re in the pop world, you might choose to sing in a vocal style that doesn’t incorporate much lower resonance (like Billie Eilish, for example).
But many pop singers do use chest voice, as do rock and gospel singers.
“If we want a controlled, balanced voice and to have a variety of different colours and tones available to us, and if you want to belt, then you will need to access this part of your voice,” Line says.
Where can chest voice be taken up to when belting?
It depends on the physiology of the singer and their vocal fitness.
“I’ve heard people belting up to F5. Of course, if they go beyond that, it might all fall apart, but they’ve built that into their voice. There are other people who start belting around A4, and their voice falls apart because their larynx is too high. So it’s I think it really depends on the physiology and a little bit on development – in the beginning, it’s a lot harder than when you’ve been practising for a while.
“When I was doing a lot of singing professionally, and I was vocally fit, my voice could tolerate belting much better.”
Listen to the full podcast interview to discover:
- The type of singers who struggle with chest voice – and those who find it easy to access.
- The best exercises for developing chest voice.
Want to learn more about the voice? Why not check out our guide to head voice.