While watching the recent Billboard Music Awards, I was reminded of the range and complexity of the human voice. Particularly when Mariah Carey, who is known for her vocal range of over 5 octaves, took the stage. While the typical human voice spans about two octaves (or 16 notes), Carey is able to sing somewhere between 40-45 notes. Pretty remarkable, huh?

Most singers can name their range. They know what notes are most comfortable for them. But most speakers haven’t given their vocal range much thought at all. But public speakers, like singers, should intentionally work to improve their vocal quality—volume, pitch, tone, enunciation, and range.

When we talk about vocal registers or range, we are talking about pitch, or the placement of a word or sound on a musical scale. ­­­­­Scientist Swati Johar says in her 2016 book Emotion, Affect and Personality in Speech: The Bias of Language and Paralanguage, “pitch is determined by the length, tension, mass of the vocal cords and the sub-glottal pressure. It carries information regarding the prosody or rhythm, emotion, speaking style and accent among many others.” Today, we are going to learn a little bit more about vocal range by exploring the 4 fundamental registers of the human voice.

Vocal Fry Register

Vocal fry happens when a speaker drops his voice to the lower end of his register, creating a scratchy or creaky sound. You might hear this on the radio since deejays often speak in the lower ranges of their voices. Most people think a lower voice makes you sound more authoritative or commanding. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Particularly if you are a woman. In fact, a 2014 study found that “relative to a normal speaking voice, young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable.” Audience members tend to prefer voices that sound natural and conversational versus ones that sound inauthentic and contrived.

Modal Register

A speaker’s modal register is her natural range. These are the notes she can hit without straining. To find your modal register with a keyboard, start with middle C (or C4 if you want the scientific term). And go up the scale one note at a time, saying a letter of the alphabet for each note. When you reach the point where you need noticeably more air to push the note out, or when you feel like the sound moves from your chest to your head, you’ve found the upper range of your register. Now repeat the process starting at middle C again and moving down the scale one note at a time. When your voice starts to break up and sound scratchy, that’s the lower range of your register. If you don’t have a piano, this quick video can help you determine your vocal range.

Falsetto Register

The falsetto register is the higher range of a speaker’s voice. Think Justin Timberlake, Prince, or Adam Levine. While these talented singers have moved from falsetto to what is technically called “head voice,” few people are able to sing or speak in a falsetto register that feels “full.” Most speakers have a falsetto voice that is airy and “thin.” Because it takes more air to push the sound out in this higher register, speaking in it for too long can cause damage to your vocal folds. In addition, it will be hard for you to comfortably project enough volume for your audience to hear you.

Whistle Register

The highest of the four registers, whistle register, is rarely used in either singing or speaking. It has a bird-like or whistle sound, hence the name. Most people are unable to sing in this register. And there’s really no reason to use it for presenting. But it is one of the recognized registers of the human voice, although it remains the least used and studied.

When you are presenting, you might want to speak outside of your modal register briefly for comedic effect or to catch the audience’s attention. However, you should aim to speak within your modal register for the majority of the time when you present. But that doesn’t have to be boring. Remember all of those different notes on the keyboard that you could hit within your normal range? Use them. If you speak using the same pitch for most of your presentation, your voice is what we call monotone. Monotone voices communicate a lack of passion whereas voices with more pitch variety show that the speaker cares about what he or she is saying.

While you may not have the pipes of Mariah Carey, you do have an incredible instrument at your disposal when you speak. And hopefully now you have a better understanding of just what that voice of yours can do.

Ready for more tips and tricks to become a better speaker? At Ethos3 we’ve got a team ready to help you master the art of presenting. Contact us now to get started.

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