Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, a trio of brothers famous for their high-pitched singing on hits such as “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” died Sunday at age 62. As falsetto singers, they’re part of a male musical tradition that includes Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. Why don’t women ever sing in a falsetto?
Because they don’t have to. The term falsetto has multiple definitions, but it most commonly refers to a vocal technique that allows men to reach the high registers that women can hit naturally. In anatomical terms, a falsetto voice results from the stretching of the vocal cords so thin that the mucous membranes remain mostly parted, instead of opening and closing fully as they do in one’s natural singing voice. This results in a higher-pitched sound than would otherwise be attainable, though it comes with a loss of power and control.
According to this description, both men and women can use “falsetto” voices for speaking or singing. A falsetto can be difficult to distinguish audibly from a woman’s natural vocal range, however. That’s because their thinner, more flexible vocal cords give them greater, natural control over their voices as they rise into the highest registers. So while untrained male voices “break” into falsetto as they rise, women’s voices slide into it.
Whether the term can apply to women at all has long been debated. Some 19th-century musical theorists described the natural upper register of the female singing voice as a falsetto, while others used the same term to mean a breathy middle register. These days it is usually used in a derogatory sense, as when a female mezzo-soprano tries to hit notes in the soprano register and ends up sounding weak and breathy. Scientists have confirmed that a woman’s vocal cords remain mostly open when she sings in this way, as happens with male falsettists.
Some female vocalists can reach a register above their natural range, but with a pure, piercing quality unlike that of the traditional falsetto. This technique, famously employed at times by Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, is more commonly described as a “whistle tone.” Scientists have not been able to determine just what’s going on in the larynx.
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Explainer thanks Freda Herseth of the University of Michigan, Anne Peckham of the Berklee College of Music, and Patti Peterson of the University of Colorado.