Demystifying the Falsetto Obsession in Pop & Rock Music

Though its name sounds deroga­to­ry, falset­to is not some kind of trick­ery but a tech­nique used by humans for as long as they have been singing. It has its his­to­ries in indige­nous, folk, and clas­si­cal music. Yet mod­ern ears prob­a­bly asso­ciate it most with pop music of all kinds—from the har­mo­nious vocal blends of Doo Wop to the oper­at­ic har­monies of Queen (espe­cial­ly Roger Tay­lor, below) to… well, vir­tu­al­ly every song from a male singer today.

Falset­to is dif­fer­ent from what’s called “head voice,” as many a vocal coach will point out. “Usu­al­ly found in the upper reg­is­ters of male and female singers,” writes one such coach, “the breathy qual­i­ty of falset­to” is often “used for effect to sound oth­er­world­ly and beau­ti­ful or young.” Need a fuller explo­ration of why falset­to has such pur­chase in pop­u­lar music? See the above Vox Ear­worm explain­er by Estelle Caswell, tack­ling “pop music’s falset­to obses­sion.”

Falset­to has had phas­es when women adopt­ed it to major­ly promi­nent effect (see the age of Julee Cruise and Mazzy Star). It has of late become a very clear trend among male pop stars, Caswell the­o­rizes: “Justin Bieber, The Week­nd, Bruno Mars, Drake, Char­lie Puth, Shawn Mendes, Adam Levine, Sam Smith… the list goes on and on and on.” What’s all this about?

Caswell decid­ed to “crunch the num­bers and quan­ti­fy” the use of falset­to in pop to see if her per­cep­tion of its cur­rent ubiq­ui­ty could be sub­stan­ti­at­ed. Enlist­ing the help of data sci­ence and detailed ana­lyt­ics from Pan­do­ra, she traced falset­to singing in pop­u­lar music from a yodel­er in 1911 to “the icon­ic voice of Thom Yorke.” The Bill­board Hot 100 is fed into the dataset, “fan­cy pro­grams” do their thing and humans try to cor­rect errors.

Opera singer Antho­ny Roth Costan­zo shows up to explain the dif­fer­ence between falset­to and vocal reg­is­ter, and we learn much more about what falset­to is, and isn’t, and how, and maybe why, it’s so pop­u­lar a style for male pop vocal­ists. Caswell also put togeth­er a Spo­ti­fy playlist of falset­to pop and rock, fea­tur­ing every­thing from the afore­men­tioned Queen and Radio­head to Cur­tis May­field, Frankie Val­li, the Bee Gees, and Child­ish Gam­bi­no.

What does the data say? Caswell is hon­est to a fault about the prob­lems with a sta­tis­ti­cal approach—there are too many hit songs miss­ing from the Pan­do­ra dataset, and the AI’s falset­to scor­ing sys­tem (yes, such a thing exists) has seri­ous flaws. Turns out it may take a human ear to rec­og­nize the tech­nique, and even then, there’s room for dis­agree­ment.

But to sum up: mil­len­ni­als might feel like they live in a gold­en age of falset­to male pop singers because it’s all they’ve ever known. But ask any­one who grew up hear­ing Queen, the Bee Gees, or Mar­vin Gaye, or The Four Tops, even the Stones’ “Emo­tion­al Res­cue,” or the yodel­er who had that hit in 1911….

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Mar­vin Gaye Sing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” A Capel­la: The Haunt­ing Iso­lat­ed Vocal Track

How to Sing Two Notes At Once (aka Poly­phon­ic Over­tone Singing): Lessons from Singer Anna-Maria Hefele

Hear Fred­die Mer­cury & Queen’s Iso­lat­ed Vocals on Their Endur­ing Clas­sic Song, “We Are The Cham­pi­ons”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • pericles21 says:

    THis arti­cle under­lines how dis­placed west­ern (Amer­i­can?) cul­ture is from just plain beau­ty. Hav­ing lived in sev­er­al cul­tures inter­na­tion­al­ly, and being an ‘afi­ciona­do’ of inter­na­tion­al mod­ern and cul­tur­al-roots singing (trib­al), it is my obser­va­tion that falset­to vocal­iza­tion goes back to the Roots of human­i­ty, and male falset­to plays an espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant part of roots rit­u­al singing for enjoy­ment and spe­cial mes­sag­ing, eg in ‘woo­ing’ rit­u­al. West­ern cul­ture seems to be unac­cept­ing of male falset­to and seems to attempt to explain away falset­to’s spe­cial appeal, i.e., to emas­cualate it.

  • Chaz Martin says:

    The Styl­is­tics, the Chilites, Earth Wind and Fire,Smoky & the Mir­a­cles, The Temp­ta­tions, The Dells, Cur­tis May­field, Cameo, all singing parts of Prince’s first four albums.

    …Geesh this singing tech­nique lived in 70s R&B.
    Obvi­ous­ly, i’m not men­tion­ing more R&B singers than I’ve men­tioned.

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