Chest Voice or Head Voice? Vocal Registers Explained!

There's no area in singing which causes more confusion than vocal registers. It seems like no one understands the difference between "head" and "chest." Which is unfortunate... because It's not nearly as complicated as people make it!

First off, let's start with the scientific definition of registers. Science has identified 4 distinct, definable laryngeal registers (registers which originate at the vocal cords) in the human voice.

m0 = vocal fry
m1 = chest register (male speaking voice) 
m2 = head register (falsetto)
m3 = whistle voice

Source: http://hal.upmc.fr/file/index/docid/344177/filename/Henrich_LPV_2006_registers.pdf

This article will focus on the chest register (m1) and the head register (m2)

Generally speaking
Chest register = powerful, ringy, full
Head register = gentle, soft, floaty

That's it. So wheres the confusion?

Many people are still stuck in 18th century ideas about "resonance" and the singing voice. Today we understand that the only resonance cavities are the throat, mouth, and nasal cavities (in contemporary singing.) In the 18th century it was believed there were resonance cavities in the face and forehead.. we know now that this isn't true.

Today we understand that the sensation singers feel in their head ISN'T because the sound is "resonating in the head voice." The sensation is a result of sympathetic resonance! In other words... it FEELS like it's in our heads but the resonance is still primarily in the throat and mouth. The result is a "release" in the chest voice as to prevent a shouty voice timbre.

So when a teacher says "sing in your head voice" but they are clearly singing in their chest register (m1).. they're using an outdated model of the voice. What they really mean to say is: 

"I'm singing in my chest register (m1) but I FEEL like it's coming out of my head. This helps me prevent my voice from sounding shouty and pushed."