The History of the Falsetto

March 15, 2023

Sometimes you may be listening to a song and wonder whether the artist is a man or woman. Chances are you are probably hearing a man singing in falsetto range. This refers to an artificially high pitched singing voice, used mainly by male singers to veer outside their normal range. The word falsetto has Italian origins. It means “a little false”, and has more of a breathy quality that is produced from the top region of the throat. Produced by the edges of the vocal cords, it is much higher in nature, and can be seen as “fake” due to the sudden change in register.

Getty images/Moment/ Daniel Lozano Gonzalez

If we trace the history, it has been a very popular technique by many artists. One of the first doo-wop groups, Ink Sports, which combined rhythm and blues music originated in African-American communities in the 1940s, constantly used falsettos. So did Bill Kenny’s extremely smooth single “If I Didn’t Care”, where he would sing higher and higher. Jónsi Birgisson, an Icelandic musician, was famous for his angelic falsetto that sounded almost ethereal. Interestingly, the falsetto may be associated as feminine due to its high pitch but is prevalent in the most masucline of genres: metal and reggae. Horace Andy and Jamaican reggae legend Cedric Myton were iconic falsettists.

One of the peak songs was Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) which was the final track to his album “What’s Going On” released in 1971. The powerful lesson on the bleak economic situation of inner-city America was made even more poignant with Gaye’s hauntingly high, breathy voice. Nowadays the falsetto often crops up and cements an artist’s popularity. Namely Justin Timberlake, who has a strong voice, especially in “Cry Me A River”, where his falsetto is extremely light and flowey. Another similarly versatile artist is Prince, who would sing deep at times and then transition to a high, feminine pitch.