The Passaggio

This Italian word translates as: passage, transition, crossing; three words which precisely describe its position and function in the human voice. Although a prominent feature in modern vocal terminology, it was not in the past often directly referred to, but by extrapolation of other advice in nineteenth century texts, it is clearly and strongly inferred.

All eighteenth and nineteenth century sources, from Tosi onwards, concentrate much attention on the paramount need to blend the registers together on the notes where they join and overlap. This is the area which has become known as the passaggio. It consists of between five to seven semitones in most voices, encompassing the upper part of the chest register and the lower notes of the head voice. In the human voice, and in all voice types, the passaggio lies from B flat below Middle C to the F# above – an interval of a minor sixth. Somewhere in this area lie the five to seven semitones that should concern every singer. Noticeably, this means the upper middle of male and the lower middle of female voices. (NB: The passaggio in counter tenor voices seldom extends to more than three semitones.) Because of the difference between male and female voices, the treatment of both, although based on the same principles, can seem very different.

Every register – tones produced by the same vocal mechanism – is weakest at the bottom and strongest at the top. This means that in the passaggio, the chest voice is by far the stronger of the two registers, as it is operating in its most powerful area; and the head voice, the weaker partner, becomes progressively feebler as it descends. The principle for uniting the two and ending with an even scale is to weaken the power of the chest voice and strengthen the bottom notes of the head voice; and by so doing to be able eventually to pass from one to the other on the same note while executing a messa di voce. Most singers are aware of this principle, however vaguely, but find that putting it into practice is something else entirely!

There are three factors which directly affect the registration:

  • whether the vowel is open or closed (open promotes the chest, closed – the head voice)
  • whether the tone is loud or soft (loud stimulates chest, and soft – the head voice)
  • whether the mouth opening (jaw drop) is open or closed (again, open – chest, closed – head).

It is most important to notice that the first and third items in this list, although linked, are not the same. It is quite possible to sing an open vowel with a relatively closed mouth, and a closed one with a relatively open mouth. These factors should be understood by every singer who wishes to master the full range of dynamics on every vowel in this area of the voice. One other phenomenon, which applies to male voices particularly, is vowel modification.

In young male voices, particularly baritones, basses and heavy tenors, the first problem is that there is often little head voice in this area, and very few notes in head voice higher up, so passing from one register to the other is apparently impossible. In these cases it is necessary to exercise quietly on the vowel ‘oo’ to establish head voice on the lower notes of the passaggio, and then after having learnt the sensation of head voice, to take it gradually higher. The round vowel sequence ‘oo’, ‘oh’, ‘aw’, and ‘ah should be used exclusively at first, until the head register is established with ‘ee’ and ‘eh’ being added later. The different vowels move naturally into head at different pitches, low pitches for the closed vowels and higher pitches for the open ones. The two principles of upward diminuendo and larynx stability are of vital importance during this study.

In female voices the same principles apply, only here often the chest voice is undeveloped. It should be exercised on open vowels up to E flat/E natural above Middle C, except for low voices which normally will have a lower extension for the chest register. The head voice should be brought from above down to Middle C/B natural /B flat. The procedure for uniting the two registers is the same as for male voices; but because the breath compression is less (the female passaggio lies in the low middle, and the male in the upper middle of the voice) the union between chest and head is generally easier.

In both male and female voices, a secure, resonant and ringing top depend on what happens in this part of the voice. This is easy to believe in male voices as the top is only just beyond it. Many females however, because there is over an octave of voice between this troublesome area and the top, choose to ignore it; and by allowing inequalities of tone, impure vowels, and laryngeal movements in this area, they restrict their voices in size, range and scope, and store up problems for themselves at the top of the soprano stave, and above. For those voices whose owners are willing to put in the hard and lengthy work necessary to achieve full mastery of the passaggio, the rewards are great: a free and ringing top, freedom of the throat throughout the voice, and improved diction because the vowels are clearer and better differentiated from each other.

Finally, a gentle word of warning!  The final union of the registers should not be attempted until the individual register mechanisms are fully developed. Uniting too soon locks in faults and inequalities permanently. A singer’s work on the passaggio should never stop.

© 2003, Neil Howlett