Every singer wants to know what his/her voice type is, but it’s not always so easy to figure out the specifics. Continue reading on to learn how to find out what your particular voice type is. Soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, countertenor, tenor, baritone, or bass; all you need to know is in this post.
Characteristics – Variables in Determining Voice Type
Figuring out your voice type is not only a matter of looking at your vocal range, but at a number of different characteristics. For example, vocal tessitura and timbre can be more important as range can be between types. This is usually the case with sopranos and mezzo-sopranos; they might have the same range but mezzo-sopranos have a lower tessitura and darker timbre.
All together your voice type is a result of the following vocal variables:
- range – the notes your body can produce
- weight – light voices, bright and agile; heavy voices, powerful, rich, and darker
- tessitura – part of the range which is most comfortable to sing
- timbre – unique voice quality and texture
- transition points – points where you change from chest, to middle, to head register
- vocal registers – how extended each register is
- speech level – speaking range
- physical characteristics
I know that you’re probably surprised at the fact that physical characteristics play a role in deciding somebody’s voice type. This is because many times physique determines what roles opera singers are going to audition for.
I have seen productions where the audience bursts out laughing when the primo uomo (leading man) sings to the prima donna something along the lines of “oh, how small and fragile you are” when she is nothing close to small and fragile.
Major Category – Voice Types by Range and Tessitura
If you sing in a choir or take voice lessons, you have probably already been classified as a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto (alto) if you are a woman, and a countertenor, tenor, baritone, or bass if you are a man. But are you really sure you’ve been classified correctly? Test your voice according to the following specifications.
Soprano is the highest female voice type. There are many types of sopranos like the coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, the soubrette etc. which differ in vocal agility, vocal weight, timbre, and voice quality; I will talk about them in an upcoming article. All of the sopranos have in common the ability to sing higher notes with ease.
A typical soprano can vocalize B3 to C6, though a soprano coloratura can sing a lot higher than that reaching F6, G6 etc. At this point I would like to debunk a myth. It is widely thought that the higher a singer can sing, the better the singer is. This couldn’t be further from the truth as range is defined by our physique and size of the vocal cords, not not how professional we are.
Mezzo-Soprano is the second highest female voice type. In a choir, a mezzo-soprano will usually sing along the sopranos and not the altos and will be given the title of Soprano II. When the sopranos split in half, she will sing the lower melody as her timbre is darker and tessitura lower than the sopranos.
Though in the opera mezzo-sopranos most often hold supporting roles and trouser roles, i.e. male roles, there are notable exceptions like those of Carmen and Rosina in The Barber of Seville, where the prima donna is a mezzo-soprano. A typical mezzo-soprano can vocalize from G3 to A5, thought, some can’t sing as high and some can sing as high as a typical soprano.
Contralto is the lowest female voice type. In a choir, contralto’s are commonly know as altos and sing the supporting melody to the sopranos. This doesn’t mean that contraltos are not as important. On the contrary, because true altos are hard to find, a true alto has greater chances of a solo carrier than a soprano.
A contralto is expected to be able to vocalize from E3 to F5, however, the lower her tessitura, the more valuable she is. I have the pleasure to know a young Greek contralto whose range has experts puzzled. She can sing from C3 to F6! But unfortunately she has not yet been discovered. I’m trying to get her to start blogging, but for the time being, you can follow her on Pinterest.
At this point, I would like to note something about altos and choirs. I have come across many women who have been classified as altos in their choir, though their voice type is really that of a mezzo-soprano or soprano.
From what I have come to realize, many choir directors instead of spending time to work with women who sing off tune, they decide to have them sing along the altos thinking that their false singing will blend in.
This practice can be very detrimental, especially for young girls who strain their voices in order to sing lower than they can, and can produce irreversible damage. If you sing alto in your choir and you feel that you are pushing yourself to reach the low notes of your melodic line, talk to your choir director and ask him/her to consider re-classifying you as a soprano. The director might not be happy to do so, as choirs usually have more sopranos than altos, but insist that they at least test you out.
Countertenor is the rarest of all voice types. A countertenor is a male singer who can sing as high as a soprano or mezzo-soprano utilizing natural head resonance. As I said before, countertenors are extremely hard to come along and their ability to sing as high as C6 is admired by religious music connoisseurs.
Though extremely unique, countertenor is not an operatic voice type, as historically, it was the castrati (male singers castrated before puberty) who would be chosen for the female operatic roles – it was not proper for women to sing in the opera. Instead, countertenors were popular in religious choirs, where women were also not allowed to participate.
The castratti are out of the scope of this post, but for those who are interested to learn more about them, I would like to recommend the movie Farinelli, a literary twist on the life of Farinelli, the most famous castrato of all times.
Tenor is the highest male voice type you will find in a typical choir. Though it is the voice type with the smallest range, it barely covers 2 octaves from C3 to B4, tenors are the most sought after choir singers for two major reasons. The first reason is that there aren’t as many men singing in choirs to begin with. The second reason is that most men, singers or not, fall under the baritone voice type.
In the opera, the primo uomo is most often a tenor, and you will know he is a tenor because of the ringing quality in his voice. A true tenor has a high tessitura, above the middle C4, and uses a blend of head resonance and falsetto, as opposed to falsetto alone.
Many a baritone will try to use this technique to classify as tenor and some will be successful; you’ll know who they are because of their red faces when trying to sing the high notes in the tenor melodic line.
Baritone is the most common male voice type. Though common, baritone is not at all ordinary. On the contrary, the weight and power of his voice, give the baritone a very masculine feel, something that in the opera has been used in roles of generals and, most notably, noblemen. Don Giovanni, Figaro, Rigoletto, and Nabucco are all baritones.
In a choir, a baritone will never learn about the particulars of his voice, since he will have to sing either with the tenors or the basses. Most baritones with a high tessitura choose to sing with the tenors, and respectively, the ones with a lower tessitura sing with the basses. Their range is anywhere between a G2 and a G4 but can extend in either way.
If you sing tenor and can’t reach the higher notes with ease, or sing bass and can’t reach the lower notes naturally, you’re most probably a baritone and you shouldn’t worry about it. Let your fellow singers help out.
Bass is the lowest male voice type, and thus a bass sings the lowest notes humanly possible. I tend to think of the deep bass notes as comparable to those of a violoncello, though some charismatic basses can hit notes lower than those of a cello. A bass will be asked to sing anywhere between a D2 and an E4. A cello’s lowest note is a C2.
Just with every extreme, it’s really hard to find true basses and it’s almost impossible in the younger ages where the male bodies are still developing.
Though in a choir basses might have rather monotone melodic lines, in the opera they have a great range of roles to choose from. Basses are used as the villains and other dark characters, the funny buffos and in comic-relief roles, the dramatic princes, the noble fathers of heroines, elderly priests and more.
Now that you have learnt all about the major categories in voice types, I’m sure you’ll want to know how to distinguish between the secondary categories. Do you know the difference between a lyric soprano and a dramatic soprano or a leggero tenor and a spinto tenor? How can you tell which one you are?
Learn all this and more in the second part of this post about the German Fach system. If you haven’t yet done so, subscribe to my monthly newsletter or feed, and get my post about the different subcategories of voice types delivered to you effortlessly as soon as it becomes available.