How to Mix Registers

Joan Sutherland onstage at the Hollywood Bowl.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Joan Sutherland is a good example of someone who could mix registers well. Her voice was seamless as she skipped between high and low notes with little to no effort. Naturally, her lower register is warmer, and her top whistle register notes have a brighter quality. Yet throughout her vocal range, her voice has a similar tone quality that unifies her overall sound.

Register Theories

There are three common register theories. Identifying which register theory you use will help determine which exercise to start practicing in order to learn how to mix your voice. The most successful singers use the three-register theory.

  1. One-register Theory: Just one register is used. Either you push your chest voice up, and cause strain in the top of your voice, or use head voice exclusively and find your lower range barely audible. Either way, your vocal range is relatively small.
  2. Two-register Theory: Maybe you use the head and chest voice, but do not mix them in the middle. If so, there is a large transition in the middle of your voice possibly causing your voice to crack.
  3. Three-register Theory: You use the chest and head voice and know how to mix them. The voice sounds seamless from top to bottom, especially in the middle of your voice where you use the mixed register.

Exercises to Find and Mix Registers

  1. Vocal Exploration: If there is a register that you have not yet used--as in the one-register theory--start by vocally exploring how the new register feels in your own voice. Listen to those who have mastered the register you are interested in. Try to match their tone quality first in speech and then in song.
  2. Messa di Voce: If you use the two-register or three-register theories, start practicing messa di voce. Pick a pitch. Crescendo (gradually increase volume) and decrescendo (gradually decrease volume), staying on that pitch. Practice messa di voce throughout the range of your voice. If you are more comfortable in the head voice, crescendo on a high note. The crescendo adds chest voice to create volume. Once you are singing as loud as possible, decrescendo (adding head voice) until you are singing as soft as possible. If you are more comfortable in your chest voice, start on a pitch in your lower register.
  3. Vocal Slurs: Sliding through pitches from top to bottom or bottom to top is a powerful tool for singers at any stage of their development. When awkward transitions occur in your voice, focus on that area by slowly slurring from the pitch below the break to the pitch above it. If you sing every microtone between the two notes, you will achieve a mixed voice and the shift disappears.

    Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

    Most of you have one register that is more developed. Asking you to add a lighter or heavier tone to your stronger register can feel like taking a step backward in your vocal development. Your head voice may seem weak and the chest voice harsh. 

    If you have a small vocal range, you are probably familiar with just one register. When introduced to more, you may start to notice uncomfortable register shifts. The practice of discovering a new vocal register is not the problem. It takes time to master new techniques, and you may sound worse for a while. Practice and be patient. The adjustment period is well worth the end result of an improved range and seamless tone.