Major Voice Classification

If you are singing in a choir or take voice lessons, you have probably already been classified as a soprano, or contralto (alto) if you are a woman, and a tenor, or bass if you are a man. These classification are basic singing voice types that are common and popularly known as “S.A.T.B”, but we do have more than these. In this write up, I will mention the various kinds of singing voices and how they are classified and you will then be able to discover exactly what your UNIQUE voice is. With this knowledge of your voice you will know the vocal range you have to focus on when training.

There are basically 3 voice types for females and 4 voice types for males in the realm of classical singing, and they are as follows:

  •       Soprano
  •         Mezzo Soprano
  •         Contralto
  •         Countertenor
  •         Tenor
  •         Baritone and
  •         Bass
Soprano

This is the highest voice range of female voice types, although it can also be applied to boy sopranos (also called trebles). All of the sopranos have the ability to sing higher notes with ease in common. The typical soprano voices range lies between B3, below middle C, and G6.

Soprano voices are sometimes classified in accordance with their colour or agility. A dramatic soprano has a rich and powerful quality. A lyric soprano on the other hand has a lighter and singing tone; and a coloratura soprano possesses a high range (to the second-C above middle-C and higher) and has extreme agility.

Mezzo Soprano

This in range is the second highest female voice type. This voice type, the mezzo-soprano, sits between the soprano voice and contralto voice and also over-lapping both of them. In a choir, a mezzo-soprano will usually sing along the sopranos and not with the altos and can also be given the title of Soprano II. Whenever 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 easily vocalize from G3 to A5, though, some cannot sing as high and some can sing as high as a typical soprano.

Although this voice overlaps both the contralto and soprano voices, the tessitura properties of the mezzo-soprano is lower than that of the main soprano and higher than that of the contralto. Mezzo-sopranos are often broken down into three subcategories as listed: the Lyric mezzo-soprano, the Coloratura mezzo-soprano and the Dramatic mezzo-soprano.

Contralto

This is the lowest female voice type. In a choir setup, contraltos are commonly known as altos and they sing the supporting melody to the sopranos. This doesn’t mean that contraltos are not as important. On the contrary, a true alto has greater chances of a solo carrier than a soprano. However, a true altos are hard to find.

Contralto

The contralto voice is known to have the lowest tessitura of the female voices. A contralto is expected to be able to vocalize from E3 to F5, though, the lower her tessitura, the more valuable she is. In current operatic practice, female singers with very low vocal tessituras are often included among mezzo-sopranos. Contraltos are often broken down into three subcategories listed: coloratura contralto, lyric contralto and dramatic contralto. A soprano sfogato is a contralto who has an extended high voice range that can reach the soprano high C.

NOTE: What I noticed about altos in many choirs I have come across is that many women have been classified as altos in their choir, whereas their voice type is really that of a mezzo-soprano or soprano. Many choir directors decide to have women who sing off tune to sing along the altos; thinking that their false singing will blend in instead of spending more time to work with them. This a bad practice.

Countertenor

This is the rarest of all voice classification and the highest male voice. A countertenor, also spelled Contra Tenor, is a male singer who can sing as high as a soprano or mezzo-soprano utilizing natural head resonance. Singers called countertenors are generally known to be singing in the falsetto register. They sometimes use their modal voice for the lowest notes. Countertenor voices span a broad range, covering G3 to C6 (some as high as F6) to a range just above tenor covering D3 to about D5.

Countertenors are often broken down into three subcategories listed: sopranist or “male soprano”, the haute-contre, and the castrato.

Tenor

This is known to be the highest male voice type you will find in a typical choir setup. Though, it’s the voice type with the smallest voice range, it barely covers up to 2 octaves from C3 to B4. Tenors are the most sought after voice type. At the highest extreme, some tenor’s voice can sing up to F5 (the second F above middle C).

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
Baritone

This is the male voice classification that is most common and popular. The vocal range of the baritone sits between the bass and tenor ranges and also overlapping both of them. The range is anywhere between a G2 and a G4 but can extend in either way. Though baritone is common, it is not at all ordinary. On the contrary, the power and the weight of this voice, give the baritone a very masculine feel. This is something that in the opera has been used in roles of generals and, most notably, noblemen.

Baritone

Baritones are often divided into different subcategories based on the following variables: range, vocal color or timbre, the weight of the voice, and dexterity of the voice. Baritones are often broken down into nine subcategories. These are listed: baryton-Martin, lyric baritone, bel canto or coloratura baritone, kavalierbariton, heldenbaritone, Verdi baritone, dramatic baritone, baryton-noble, and bass-baritone. Although this voice overlaps both the tenor and bass voices as said. The tessitura of the baritone is lower than that of the tenor and higher than that of the bass.

In a choir, a baritone will never learn about the uniqueness 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 while the ones with a lower tessitura sing with the basses. 

NOTE: 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.

Bass

This is known as the lowest male voice type that sings the lowest notes humanly possible. It’s indeed hard to find true basses and almost impossible in the younger ages where the male bodies are still developing. I use to think of the deep bass notes as a tone I can compare to those of a violoncello, though some charismatic basses can reach notes lower than those of a cello. A bass will be asked to sing anywhere between a range of D2 and an E4.

Bass

Basses are often divided into different subcategories based on range, vocal colour or timbre, the weight of the voice, and dexterity of the voice. Basses are often broken down into six subcategories. These are listed: basso profondo, basso buffo, bel canto bass, basso cantante, dramatic bass, and bass-baritone.

Choral Voice Classification

Contrary to other voice classification systems, choral music uses vocal range as solely basis for the voice classification and division. Thus commonly divides vocal parts into high and low voices within each sex. These are soprano and alto vocal ranges for females, tenor and bass vocal ranges for males (SATB), and occasionally treble for children.  As a result, the typical chorus or chorale group affords many opportunities for mis-classification to occur.

Since most people have medium voices, they are often given a part that’s either too high or low for them. The mezzo-soprano thus assigns to sing soprano or alto and the baritone selects to sing tenor or bass. Either option can result into a problems for the singer. Though most singers have little problem in singing too low, than in singing too high.

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