Singing is divided into two tonal classifications. The most common, modal, is ‘full-bodied’ tone, often referred to as “chest voice,” because it uses the entire chest cavity as a resonant chamber. This is how we usually speak. The other type, known as falsetto, leaves a major portion of the vocal chords relaxed, allowing more air to pass over them without increasing the volume or resonating in the rest of the torso: it’s "breathier." Falsetto is known as “head voice” and is the singing equivalent of whispering. Think Prince at the beginning of “Kiss."
Singers use falsetto to sound gentler, more vulnerable, or to simply sing a little higher than they can in modal voice, which by contrast sounds more assertive and confident. The point in a person’s range where they naturally transition from chest to head voice is called “the break." Depending on a song’s melody and key, a vocalist might be required to ‘jump’ back and forth around the break, alternating between modal and falsetto tones. An extreme example is yodelling.
Singers typically hate this. It's very difficult to maintain pitch control and can also be exhausting. But, when done subtly by a skilled singer, it has a compelling effect. It’s a tonal dynamic that keeps the ear interested. I think listeners are subconsciously impressed by the difficulty.
While working on the Psalms EP, it occurred to me that all three songs spend a lot of time ‘jumping the break.’ And, the professionals they are, neither of our insanely talented female vocalists, Haven Sink and Joy Hanna, complained once. While I was recording their vocals, I was blown away by how effortless they made it seem, even though I know it isn’t.
Looking at the Psalm texts used in these songs, I saw a parallel. David writes in two distinct literary voices. Primarily, he triumphantly extols the glory, greatness and love of God, as in Psalm 8 or 50. Other times, his verses are awash in fear, vulnerability and doubt. You almost hear him whisper, voice quivering, in passages like Psalm 38 or 13. But often, he transitions between the two in a single passage, sometimes repeatedly.
One of the artist’s most essential tools is contrast. As we continue in our Songs in the Key of Life series, I’m struck by the emotional back-and-forth of the Poet King’s verses. I feel this is an essential characteristic of a worship-filled daily life. Just as a singer is required to jump the break over and over by a well-written song, we too, as the vessels of profound emotional experience he has created us to be, should seek proficiency in worship fo both contexts. The mountain highs and the valley lows. The confident and the vulnerable.
Moreover, in our seeking to become skilled and prolific craftsmen of artistic worship, we need to not only tolerate, but also cherish, the frequent transition between the two — because, as David’s example indicates, it creates a compelling song, pleasing to the ear of our creator.