There are five basic types of voices, and they are separated by gender.
- Women – soprano or alto
- Men – tenor, baritone or bass
The voice classifications are defined according to the range of notes the voice can sing well. There are many different physical features that determine the type of voice you are working with as you sing. For example, the pitch is partially determined by the physical attributes of the vocal cords including the length and width. Pitch refers to the high note and the low note you can sing.
This is important to understand because you have a voice that nature gave you. If you are a tenor then you will not want to choose songs that need a bass singer. If you are a soprano then you want to pick songs that fit within the range of notes you are most qualified to sing.
Probably one of the biggest mistakes beginning singers make is choosing songs that require notes outside their range. Think of it like this – could you hit the high notes in an operatic song? Most people cannot, so you wouldn’t want to pick a song suited for an opera.
Now think in terms of all songs including modern day rock or pop. You might not be able to handle the songs Mariah Carey (a soprano) sings if you are an alto.
On American Idol, one of the frequent comments made by the judges is that the song the contestant chose did not fit their voice well. It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The fit will never be good unless you choose songs with a range suitable for your voice classification.
Another term you might like to keep in mind is tessitura. Tessitura refers to the note range you are the most comfortable singing. We have all listened to singers that go too far out of their singing comfort zone, and the result is almost painful to hear. Singers do regularly exceed their range but trained singers also know their limits.
Vocal cord activity creates the type of singing voice, while the other parts of your sound production system add nuances. Short vocal cords that are kept relaxed will produce a deep voice. Vocal cords that are lengthened and kept tighter will lead to sounds that have a higher pitch.
Following is a general summary of the vocal types that have been defined in the music world.
The soprano describes a female singing voice that is at the highest level. The note range is generally between middle C and High C on the music scale. It is in this note range that the soprano will sing with rich powerful tones. Mariah Carey, Jessica Simpson, Julie Andrews and Maria Callas are all sopranos.
The typical soprano has a tessitura closer to the high C as opposed to the middle C. Some can sing many more octaves above high C. But the voice classifications are defined by the most comfortable note range for the singer’s voice.
A mezzo soprano is a singer who can sing more comfortably or powerfully at the lower end of the scale range or a couple of octaves below middle C. A classic mezzo-soprano is Aretha Franklin. Think of her rich warm singing tones at the lower end and yet she can slide to the top and hit the high C.
Other mezzo sopranos include Celine Dion, Tina Turner, Patti LuPone and Cecilia Bartoli. Some people classify Lady Gaga as a mezzo soprano.
An alto is the lowest female singing voice. Also called contralto, the note range is E, F or G below middle C, to G above the treble clef staff.
An alto voice is dark and rich. Jazz singers are often altos that have voices that seem warm and almost poured.
There are not many true altos, and it is a very distinctive voice. Familiar altos include Alicia Keys, Cher, Tracy Chapman and Amy Winehouse.
A male tenor has a range that starts with the C below middle C. The range extends to the A on the treble clef staff. This is the highest male singing voice. Like the soprano, the voice’s power is in the upper section of the range, and a tenor can often go higher than the A above middle C.
Tenors frequently get lead singing roles in movies and plays. But tenors can vary in voice resonance. Classical tenors like Luciano Pavarotti and Enrico Caruso had heavier resonance than modern day tenors like Elton John, Justin Timberlake or Paul McCartney.
A baritone sings in a range that extends from A below middle C to the A above middle C. Generally, most male singers are baritones because the note range falls within middle range of a man’s voice.
Names of familiar baritones include Robert Goulet, Elvis Presley and Barry Manilow.
The bass voice is the lowest of the voices of male singers. The bass is dark and heavy and low. Generally the note range is from the low E to the E above middle C. Bass singers have a tessitura that hovers around the octaves below middle C.
True bass singers are not common. One of the most well known is Richard Sterban who is a bass singer with the Oak Ridge Boys. Other bass singers include JD Sumner who was with the Elvis Presley back-up singers, and Barry White.
You don’t have to know your vocal type, but knowing it can help you have a more enjoyable singing experience. As mentioned, you will be able to choose songs that fit your voice best. You will also know the notes that will probably be most comfortable for your voice. You can practice within your range and develop a high quality and pleasing singing voice.