A chromatic contradiction between two notes sounded together (ex.1a) or in different parts of adjacent chords (ex.1b). For music before 1600 the term is normally also applied to the occurrence of a tritone between two notes in adjacent chords (ex.1c), on the grounds that such a progression contradicts the rule of mi contra fa (seeMusica ficta) observed in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
False relations like those in exx.1a and b must be both semitonic and chromatic; the semitones of the given scale or mode are not capable of producing a false relation of this kind. It is also essential that the chromatic alteration should take place in another part, and this usually means in another octave. Thus the falseness of the relation derives from the rule, common to most systems of classical harmonic theory, that chromatic changes must be melodic, that is, that they must arise and be resolved in the same voice or part. The acuteness of this conflict of sensations undoubtedly attracted the attention of composers, especially the late 16th- and early 17th-century madrigalists, who used it for expressive text-setting. Among these composers was Carlo Gesualdo, who made the false relation perhaps the most distinctive feature of his style (ex.2).
One consistent qualification makes such false relations acceptable: the falsely related voices or parts are nevertheless melodically coherent in themselves. Clashes arise normally through the simultaneous pursuit of two distinct and conflicting melodic paths. False relations may thus be regarded as outstanding examples of the evolution of harmonic values from melodic sources, an evolution that produced some exquisite examples in the maturity of the Classical and Romantic eras (e.g. Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet k465 and Brahms’s Third Symphony, beginning of first movement of each).
(It.; Fr. fausset; Ger. Falsett, Fistelstimme).
The treble range produced by most adult male singers through a technique whereby the vocal cords vibrate in a length shorter than usual, known as the second mode of phonation. Usually associated exclusively with the male voice, though available and employed in the female, the phonatory mode known as ‘falsetto’ has been equated with ‘unnatural’ as opposed to ‘natural’, partly through misleading philological usage. The correct term, second-mode phonation, is preferred here both to ‘falsetto’ and to ‘pure head-register’.
1. Physiological considerations.
Fibre-optic stroboscopic observations seem to show that, during the process of phonation, the vocal folds are in contact at one instant during each vibration or undulation caused by air from the lungs passing between them. At this brief instant, the current of escaping air is interrupted. Air pressure in the trachea rises, the folds part, and intra-tracheal pressure lowers automatically. These fold-adductions – or, more precisely, rhythmic and repetitive wavings or undulations, somewhat resembling those of the sea anemone – appear to form the basis of a primitive note of a particular pitch, facilitated by some adjustment and stretching in the folds. The undulations occur a specific number of times per second, that of the frequency of the note produced, in the path of what would otherwise be a free flow of air, turning it into pitched, though primitive, audio vibrations. Genuine vocal tone is produced as the vibrations are transformed by cavities or resonators (on which subject there is much disagreement).
The stroboscope reveals that, during fundamental phonation (i.e. first-mode, ordinary, basic or chest-register), the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages stay open. When second-mode phonation is employed, they take on a firm adduction, in that the mass of the folds corresponding to the inner part of the thyro-arytenoid muscle remains motionless. The vibrating length of available folds is reduced, because the arytenoid cartilages are now together and prevent the posterior third of the folds from undulating. Moreover, as with light-toned, higher-pitched first-mode, in second-mode the vocal folds of the skilled singer are seen to have assumed a thinner and more stretched character, particularly for higher notes. In the unskilled user, this is less so: the whole of the membranous vocal folds are usually separated for longer, and the glottis is more open.
So, other than in the adduction of the arytenoid cartilages, the fold action in the skilled user of second-mode resembles that of first-mode, except that the proportion and size of the glottis seems to vary slightly more, according to the pitch and character of the sung note. In the skilled second-mode singer, the glottis is smaller for higher notes than for those of medium pitch. Similarly, the vocal folds undulate more slowly for second-mode notes of medium pitch than for notes nearer the upper extreme of second-mode range. In first-mode, the vibratory masses of the folds, apparently made up of a layer of elastic and fatty tissue, covered superficially by the laryngeal mucous membrane, are supported on the deep surface by the innermost fibres of the thyro-arytenoid muscle. In second-mode, however, the very edges of the vocal folds, known as the vocal bands or ligamenta vocalia, appear to be the only parts in vibration, while the wave motion is more rapid; the mass corresponding to the inner part of the thyro-arytenoid muscle remains motionless.
The difference in the activity of the vocal folds between first-mode and second-mode phonation therefore appears to depend largely on the relation between the contraction of the thyro-arytenoid and posterior crico-arytenoid muscles. During second-mode phonation, particularly by the expert exponent, the vocal folds appear to increase in length slightly, possibly because of partial relaxation of the thyro-arytenoid muscle and consequent changes in the elasticity of the vocal bands. Most singers feel a sense of relief when they change from first- to second-mode for higher-pitched notes.
2. Historical outline.
The use of what has become known as falsetto is ancient and practised in many cultures. There are major elements of this second mode of phonation in the instinctive natural sounds of various animals, for example the gibbon. Similarly, its use by early man seems to have been instinctive, commonplace, and adopted for a variety of reasons not necessarily connected with what is now called singing. Second-mode phonation is much used in Asian drama and music. Its natural use is seen among Indian communities in Great Britain, where the condition known as ‘pubephonia’ persists at an age at which white youths are all using adult first-mode phonation; some Indian youths have to be coached in first-mode phonation to free them from what, to Western ears, may sound oddly juvenile.
The earliest uses of second-mode phonation in Western music are difficult to trace or define because of ambiguities of terminology. Possibly, when such 13th-century writers as Johannes de Garlandia and Jerome of Moravia distinguished between chest-, throat-, and head-registers (pectoris, guttoris, capitis), the last of these indicated second-mode phonation, later known as ‘falsetto’, a term common in Italy by the mid-16th century. By the time of G.B. Mancini's Pensieri e riflessioni (1774), ‘falsetto’ had come to be equated with ‘voce di testa’ (‘head-voice’).
Renaissance and early Baroque theorists, such as Maffei, Zacconi, Caccini and Vicentino, seem to contradict each other on voice-related topics, including second-mode phonation. Maffei (Discorso della voce e del modo d'apparare di cantar di garganta, 1562) explains that, when a natural bass sings in the soprano range, this is ‘the voice called falsetto’. ‘Soprano range’ seems significant, coinciding with that of the sub-mode called ‘upper-falsetto’. Maffei's ‘guttoris’, ‘voice of the throat’, or, better, ‘pharyngeal’ (Herbert-Caesari, 1951) seems to refer to a heavier tonal quality appropriate to the alto or countertenor range.
While alto parts in Italian 17th-century choral music continued to be assigned to second-mode singers, soprano parts, formerly sung by higher second-mode singers (who had begun by supplementing, then mostly supplanting, the original boys), were taken over by castratos. To avoid confusion with eunuchs, falsettists were often described as ‘voci naturali’. In northern Europe, where castratos were generally a phenomenon of imported Italian opera, choirs (ecclesiastical, secular, professional or amateur) continued to make wide use of falsettists (though not always so called), sometimes alongside boy trebles, or taking the alto part, until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The practice then grew less common in some countries as it gradually became more acceptable to admit women to choirs. Even in mixed choirs, second-mode singers survived (Toscanini once used ten in a performance of Verdi's Requiem). Eventually, however, musical fashion (and erroneous association with castration) ensured the near-disappearance, from mainland Europe, of second-mode singing for several decades. Domenico Mancini (b 1891), a falsettist pupil of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (d 1921), was refused entry to Lorenzo Perosi's music school, because Perosi, director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, regarded him as a castrato. It is only in England that second-mode singing enjoyed an uninterrupted, widespread tradition, particularly in all-male cathedral and collegiate choirs, academia and the glee club tradition. In the late 20th century falsetto singing came to be used in some types of popular music (notably by Michael Jackson).
E.G.White: Science and Singing (London, 1909, 5/1938/R)
F.Haböck: Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst (Berlin, 1927), 79ff
E.G.White: Sinus Tone Production (London, 1938)
E.Herbert-Caesari: The Voice of the Mind (London, 1951/R), 333–53
C.Cleall: Voice Production in Choral Technique (London, 1955, 2/1969)
H.Hucke: ‘Die Besetzung von Sopran und Alt in der Sixtinischen Kapelle’, Miscelánea en homenaje a Monseñor Higinio Angles, i (Barcelona, 1958), 379–96
M.Uberti: ‘Vocal Techniques in Italy in the Second Half of the 16th Century’, EMc, ix (1981), 486–95
G.Welch, D.Sergeant and F.MacCurtain: ‘Some Physical Characteristics of the Male Falsetto Voice’, Journal of Voice, ii (1988), 151–63
G.Welch, D.Sergeant and F.MacCurtain: ‘Xeroradiographic- electrolaryngographic Analysis of Male Vocal Registers’, Journal of Voice, iii (1989), 244–56
P.Giles: The History and Technique of the Countertenor (Aldershot, 1994)