Saturday, June 10, 2017

Know your voice type so you can choose the right songs

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 than range. 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. (Definitions follow.)

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
  • Voice Types by Range and Tessitura

    If you sing in a choir or take voice lessons, you have probably already been classified as 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. 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.

    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.

    Soprano Voice Types
    • Soubrette - Young, light, bright
    • Lyric Coloratura Soprano - High, bright, flexible
    • Dramatic Coloratura Soprano - High, dark, flexible
    • Lyric Soprano - Warm, legatto, full
    • Character Soprano - Bright, metallic, theatrical
    • Spinto /Young Dramatic Soprano - Powerful, young, full
    • Dramatic Soprano - Powerful, dark, rich
    Some famous sopranos: Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Sarah Brightman, Maria Callas, Nathalie Dessay, Montserrat Caballé, Barbara Hendricks.

    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. A typical mezzo-soprano can vocalize from G3 to A5, though some can’t sing that high, and some can sing as high as a typical soprano. 

    Mezzo-Soprano Voice Types 

    • Coloratura Mezzo-Soprano - Agile, rich, bright
    • Lyric Mezzo-Soprano - Strong, flexible, lachrymose
    • Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano - Rich, powerful, imposing

    Some famous mezzo-sopranos: Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Madonna, Leona Lewis, Cecilia Bartoli, Cathy Berberian, Nadine Denize. 

    Contralto (Alto)

    Contralto is the lowest female voice type. In a choir, contraltos are commonly known 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 career 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 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. Some choir directors, instead of spending time to work with women who sing off tune, decide to have them sing along with the altos, thinking they 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.

    Contralto Voice Types 

    • Dramatic Alto - Powerful, full, metallic
    • Low Contralto - Low, full, warm

    Some famous altos:  Adele, Amy Winehouse, Annie Lennox, Marian Anderson, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Maureen Forrester


    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. Their ability to sing as high as C6 is admired by religious music connoisseurs. 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.

    Some famous countertenors (see definition later in this article): Philippe Jaroussky, Farinelli, Klaus Nomi, Carlos


    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: (1) there aren’t as many men singing in choirs to begin with, and (2) 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.

    Tenor Voice Types 

    • Countertenor - High, agile, powerful
    • Lyric Tenor - Soft, warm, flexible
    • Acting Tenor - Flexible, theatrical, light
    • Dramatic Tenor - Full, low, stamina
    • Character Tenor - Bright, powerful, theatrical

    Some famous tenors: Freddy Mercury, Luciano Pavarotti, Michael Jackson, Roberto Alagna, Enrico Caruso


    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 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.

    Baritone Voice Types 

    • Lyric Baritone -  Smooth, flexible, sweet
    • Cavalier Baritone - Brilliant, warm, agile
    • Character Baritone - Flexible, powerful, theatrical
    • Dramatic Baritone - Powerful, full, imposing

    Some famous baritones: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jeff Buckley, Gabriel Bacquier, Tito Gobbi

    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 D2 and E4. A cello’s lowest note is a C2. As 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.

    Bass Voice Types 

    • Character Bass - Full, rich, stamina
    • Acting Bass - Flexible, agile, rich
    • Heavy Acting Bass - Full, rich, imposing
    • Serious Bass - Mature, rich, powerful

    Some famous bass singers: Ivan Rebroff, Jules Bastin, Tom Krause, René Pape

    (excerpted from "What’s My Voice Type? The Different Voice Types and How to Distinguish Them" and "25 Voice Types and the Fach System. What’s Your Vocal Category?" by Olga Banis,, published on Sept. 2, 2012, and Sept. 17, 2012, respectively, with illustration and examples of famous singers taken from the Karaoke Version newsletter of Nov. 2015)

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