What's with those people who can sing in male or female voices equally well?

I’ve seen it occasionally, on talent shows. I remember there was this Indian…person who could sing equally well in a male voice or a female voice, and their schtick was that they would never tell if they were a man or a woman, leaving it to the audience to guess.

I’m sure there was no trickery involved, and I’ve seen it elsewhere too. How can they do this? They literally switch in mid-song to the other “voice”. It’s fascinating to watch or listen to.

What do you mean by male and female voice? Are you talking about falsetto?

I suspect “equally well” may be like the riddle:

What has four legs and a tail, eats oats, and sees equally well out of either end?

An example. Nick Pitera singing both parts of “A Whole New World”.

Are you thinking of a counter-tenor? The modern replacement for the castrato.

Videos run terribly over Citrix - choppy and slow and grainy - but from what i can tell, that is exactly what I mean. Not a falsetto which is just imitation, right? But truly switching back and forth, so if you listened and didn’t watch, you’d never know.

Countertenors (men who sing in the alto, and occasionally soprano, ranges) sing using a reinforced and specially trained falsetto tone. Most men sound terrible…hooty, shrill, or just comical…when they try it, but people with a genuine talent for it can often sound convingly like women.

Because it is falsetto that they rely on, though, countertenors also have access to natural, more traditionally “male” vocal registers. Bass and baritone most often, but also sometimes tenor.

Take David Daniels, for example. He was a tenor, and from all reports not a great one, all through his grad school days. He then switched to countertenor and won the prestigious Richard Tucker award a few short years later.

ETA: the point of my post, in case it wasn’t clear, is that any man who can sing convincingly in the female register, with a “womanly” sound, will also by default also be able to sing more traditionally male parts.

It’s definitely falsetto. He’s simply better at it than most guys would be, so it doesn’t sound as obvious. To a trained ear, though, it’s clearly not a female voice.

Ok. My ear is not trained, and to be honest, I am not that familiar with the terminology. What training I have had in music has all been in Hindi.

I looked up the Wiki entry on falsetto. I don’t find it easy to understand at all:

Wha…I mean my eyes started to glaze over somewhere around “modal voice register”. Can anyone explain that in simple terms? I see it has something to do with a certain vibration of the vocal cords. So basically, everyone can do falsetto, but some people can do it better? Do they practice, or is it a natural skill?

Mickey Mouse is a falsetto voice, if an example would help.

:eek: That isn’t exactly layman’s language, is it!

The word “modal” in that article basically means “characteristic” or “usual.” What you think of as your normal, energized speaking or singing voice is your modal voice.

That basic gist of the article (and as far as I remember from my vocal anatomy books, none of which I have in front of me at the moment, it’s basically correct) is that the different sound quality and higher range of the falsetto voice are a result in a change in the way a person’s vocal cords vibrate.

Your vocal cords are tiny muscles that are strung between bits of cartilage in your larynx. Think of them as little ligaments wrapped in muscle. When you breathe in, they open and allow air to pass freely between them. When you speak or sing, they come together and form a barrier that vibrates in response to airflow from your lungs. It’s exactly what happens when you take a blade of grass, hold it between your hands, and blow to make a goofy trumpet noise.

In your normal voice, the entire vocal cord…the muscle itself and the small ligament along the edge…vibrates in order to create sound.

In falsetto, the involvement of the muscle subsides and just the ligament running along the very edge of the vocal cord vibrates. Everything else remains passive.

That difference is what creates such a radical change of range and tone color.

It’s true that everyone with normal vocal anatomy can produce a falsetto sound, but not everyone finds it easily. It involves coordination, just like throwing a ball accurately, but on a much smaller muscular scale. Men access it much more easily than women do. Mariah Carey’s super-high-pitch acrobatics on her early albums are a good example of female falsetto. It’s sometimes called “whistle tone.”

As far as the “Practice vs. Natural skill” question goes, it’s both, IMO. But it definitely takes a lot of practice to get good at it.

I am so grateful you said that. I felt so stupid reading it, and I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m not exactly dumb, either!

I thank you for your explanation. So basically, it probably starts with a genetic component - the vocal cords are more flexible, or vibrate more to start with, and then people discover this talent, and train it further.

It also works the other way around (female singers imitating male ones), although less well, and it’s less often done.

For instance, I’m a female with an alto/mezzo-soprano voice range, but when I sing low notes in what’s called “chest voice”, I can sound a lot like a male baritone or tenor.

Alas, the standard female larynx just doesn’t have access to as much range in the lower register as the male larynx does in the upper register. This is because the vocal folds (or “cords”) work (very approximately) like other vibrating strings, with the pitch of the note depending on the length of the part that’s vibrating. And female vocal folds are on average shorter than male ones.

You can sing so as to make the vibrating part of the vocal cord shorter (producing a high note), but there’s just no way to make the cord itself longer. :frowning: At least, if there were, I’m sure I’d have gotten some email spam about it by now. :wink:

If you want to know what falsetto sounds like, picture a man imitating a woman – badly. Watch some Monty Python if you must.

Maybe someone with sound can link to a MP clip as an example. The “Hello Mrs. Smoker”, “Hello Mrs. Nonsmoker” skit is probably a good one.

Klaus Nomi

And by the way, the term “vocal cords” isn’t as accurate as “vocal folds.”

If you want good falsetto you can go to Barry Gibb or Brian Wilson.

Happy Rhodes has a 4 octave range (A2 to G-Sharp6). Here are two examples. The second one, a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, had so many posters asking “is that a man or a woman” that I had to use YouTube’s annotations feature to point out the obvious.

Or The Stylistics. Or any number of Do-Wop groups from the '50s. Weeeooo!

Sounds to me that it’s more like his male voice is the ‘falsetto’.

People have a lot more control over their voice than they realize, and it depends a lot on the alignment of the neck and shoulders. You can see the guy’s clavicles rise (female) and lower (male) as he switches from voice to voice.