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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