How to write songs for your own voice: Keys, Registers, Passaggio and all that good stuff.
When song-writers write songs, they generally tailor the music to their voice. They suit the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of their own voice. That’s why it’s almost always easier to sing your own music than to sing cover songs. Understanding how your voice works might improve the way you write and sing songs.
[If you are somewhat familiar with basic music theory, you might want to skip this following paragraph:]
What every singer must know is that the melody you are singing can be too high or too low regardless of the key the song is in or the chords that go along with it. Sometimes less experienced singers think that they can sing every song if it is in a certain key. However, one song in C might have too many high notes for you while another song in C might feel perfect. Or some singers think when the chords go lower on the guitar the melody goes down too. That is also not correct. The melody can go higher even when the chords on the guitar go down. When you are deciding on what key you should sing/write a song, you may want to play just the melody line on an instrument and make logical decisions to avoid the difficult parts of your voice.
The basic range of a trained human voice is two octaves (or a span of 15 notes). Depending on your voice type, your range might be lower or higher than others. From high to low, female voices are categorized as Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano and Alto, and male voices as Tenor, Baritone and Bass. Most voices roughly can be divided into three registers; chest voice, middle voice and head voice. (There’s also whistle register for women and falsetto for men, but those are less commonly used.)
Generally speaking, for sopranos chest register is from G3 to Eb4, middle register is Eb4 to F#5, head register is F#5 to C6 or C#6. Anything above that is the whistle tone register.
For Tenors chest register is from C3 to G3, middle register is G3 to G4 and head register is G4 to C5. Anything above that is the falsetto register.
For Baritones chest register starts from A2 to E3, middle register G3 through G4 and the head register is from D4 to A4. Anything above that is the falsetto register.
Chest voice is the bottom part of your range where majority of the harmonics of your voice is originating from your chest. Roughly it’s the lower 5th of an untrained voice. Most singers feel very comfortable singing in their chest voice because singing in chest voice is really close to the way we speak. Therefore it feels very familiar. Generally speaking, while singing in your chest voice, your voice’s chest/throat/head resonance ratio is 70%/10%/20%
In your middle register, your head resonators are more present allowing us to achieve a more balanced sound without losing the chest connection. In the beginning you may need to sing a little bit louder to achieve a rich middle register, almost as if you are talking over some loud music. The ratio is roughly 40%/20%/40% or 33%/33%/33%.
Head voice register is the sound where the majority of the harmonics of your voice is happening in your head. If you never explored your head voice you may need to engage your shouting reflex to get there, as in “shouting on top of your head”. In head voice the ratio scan be around 40%/10%/50% for male singers and 20%/10%/70% for sopranos.
Passaggio, also known as “the break,” is the transition notes between two registers. It is often difficult to sing through the passaggio for untrained singers because they happen to unnaturally change the way their muscles work as they progress into a new register. To sing through the passaggio seamlessly, one has to master to sing through his/her registers without changing gears. Typically, singing through the passaggio is one of the last things a singer would master. Among these transitions the passaggio between middle register and the head register is the most difficult one. So if you are a Soprano most probably your F5, F#5, if you are a Tenor your F#4,G4, and if you are a Baritone your E-flat4, E4 are the most difficult notes to sing for you. It may be beneficial to avoid singing too many of these notes in a song until you master your passaggio.
Now, how can you apply all of this information to your own songwriting?
Many experienced song writers write the most of the song in their chest voice, parts of the chorus in the mid register and the climax in the head register. They use the chest register to establish a relaxed and open instrument, middle register to build up energy for higher notes, and head register to show of the vibrance of their voice. Adele is a good example to this.
Also if you are not comfortable in your passaggio you may try to avoid it when possible. If you were a baritone, for example, your passaggio being E-flat and E and your top note being G, and if you had a song which had a lot of top G’s and E’s you would want to transpose it a whole step down bringing those notes down to F and D avoiding the repeated exposure both on your top note and your passaggio. If you had a song with a lot of E’s and C’s on top, you could transpose it a whole step higher again to get out of the passaggio. On the other hand, for example, when I have auditions I sing everything in a key where I can have a lot of passaggio exposure, just to demonstrate that I have mastered my full range and to take advantage of the natural beauty of human voice in the higher register.
Knowing your voice type and mastering your weaknesses can help you bring your singing to the next level.