A few weeks ago, we spoke about falsetto and mentioned, in an offhand fashion, the existence of a register above falsetto. The whistle register, or flute register as it is sometimes known, is unique from falsetto in that the sound produced has a unique timbre, akin to that of a whistle.
Compared to other registers, we know very little about the whistle register as it’s very tricky to film. When the whistle is used, the epiglottis (the small flap that stops food ending up in your windpipe) covers the vocal cords, and the resonance chamber created is at it’s smallest dimensions, making it highly difficult to observe. What we do know is that whistle register is physiologically distinct from your normal voice.
When singing using your normal modal register, your vocal cords are allowed to vibrate from the back all the way to the front. In whistle register, only the front of the vocal cords are allowed to vibrate together, with a small space left at the back. This allows a small amount of air to pass through, giving a thinner, breathier quality to the notes made.
This is Adam Lopez, he holds the world record for the highest note produced by a man. While it’s more common to hear female singers use whistle notes, it’s actually a skill many people could learn. Most babies and small children are able to reach whistle notes without much conscious effort. In fact, the biggest mistake people make when trying to sing whistle notes is they are too aware of their throat, and in turn, they clamp their vocal cords together, stopping them vibrating and choking their voice. A relaxed throat can make the precise movements needed to find and control whistle tones.
Many singers are able to find their whistle notes but then they become focused on them and they react by trying to push their voice more. This can cause long term damage to a singer’s voice. Instead, whistle register is best developed by going slowly. Being patient allows you to properly understand the way your body makes the sound, instead of pushing yourself too hard. This is just like sports; if someone was to try and copy what athletes do, they’d probably injure themselves.
While there are plenty of songs in the classical world that utilise whistle register, it is perhaps more associated with pop music. Singers like Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande have become famous for use of the technique, though unlike every other register the limits of the whistle register are only just being explored truly. As time goes on, and vocal pedagogy becomes more sophisticated, the limits of the human voice are being pushed further.